“I used to think that that good execution of a weak plan is better than weak implementation of a good plan. I still believe this is true. But executing a good plan is better, and revising your plan often is critical to overcoming new challenges.In our company, we have often found that the harder path is the most rewarding but taking simple steps in achieving your goal is manageable at all levels.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Leitman. Jeff is the co-founder, President & CEO of Killer Concepts. With over 20 years of big box retail experience, he brings a unique understanding of the retail channel. Now as a manufacturer of Mobile Accessories and Wireless Devices, Killer Concepts’ products are abundantly found throughout North American retail.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. My first job after college was working in retail, selling computers at the country’s largest chain. A year later, I was a buyer at corporate, until I met my future wife.
I moved to California at 25 with a job offer and $3,000 in the bank. My first purchase was a $3,000 car. After working in software sales (consumer products, calling on retail buyers), I returned to buying at CompUSA in Dallas, TX from 1999–2003.
In 2003, I left CompUSA to move to a growing logistics provider in the video game category, then after an earnout, and a couple years of consulting, it was time for something new.
Killer Concepts started with a flight to China. My basketball friend Rick was also seeking a change, so I booked two tickets with the goal of starting a company. We launched the company a few months later with Rocksteady, a line of Bluetooth speakers and accessories. Later, we began to market cellphone accessories under the Killer Concepts brand. In 2014, we launched the Piggy, the original phone stand.
Piggy has given us the capital and helped us open new channels, that we are looking to exploit going forward. We have products in development and recently launched that we look to propel us into the future.
We know that it is not always easy for a foreigner to do business in China. Can you share an interesting story about a challenge that you faced, and how you overcame it?
I’ve gone to China many times over the last 10 years, with each trip lasting 6–10 days. Add it up, and it is about a year of my life.
China changes quickly. It has changed a lot and it continues to change. It is an interesting country with good people, but the differences are many. Communicating without a shared background, experiences, or even the same pop culture, makes effective dialogue difficult (made harder when you don’t speak Mandarin — I don’t).
But the biggest challenge was navigating international banking business rules in China and Hong Kong. Chinese and Hong Kong banks with branches in America require significant assets before they would help, and we were a young and growing company. Many other companies had found their solutions, but getting advice is not easy, so we set out to build our own. In the end, it came down to key relationships and partnerships. It has allowed us to minimize risk and works well within our supply chain.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Early in our company’s life, we didn’t have the funds to support long term R&D. But eventually, we built the cash reserves and goodwill to innovate.
Our most exciting project right now is our Piggy Pro family of smartphone accessories. More than just a phone stand, it represents a platform for Killer Concepts to broaden and deepen our foothold in the mobile space.
With the Piggy Pro recently launched, our excitement focus moves to completing a new Rocksteady speaker, which we hope to launch in late 2018.
What advice would you give to other business owners who do business in China, to help their employees to thrive?
If you want to be a long-term company, focus on the long-term solutions. When negotiating with Chinese factories, don’t be greedy, but instead negotiate on quality. Business is personal, get to know the factory owners and managers, but don’t socialize too much with them or with agents and brokers.
Finding someone you can trust in China, and who speaks a common language with you, is key. The Chinese, like people all over, are mostly honest people, but mis-interpretations and lack of focus on key directives can be difficult in most cases. So take the time to communicate clearly, and in many ways, in order to reinforce key points.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Our company wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for several key individuals. Our office manager in China is one of those people.
We struggled to work together, as most of the times we spoke, I was exhausted and broke. It required a lot of patience on both our parts, and many fights that we were willing to forgive.
She is proactive, disciplined, self-managed, and highly effective. She protects our company’s interests and contributes in countless ways. She has been a blessing and keeping her happy continues to be our focus.
What do you think are the new untapped markets in China that may become the next “big thing”?
Often, the same technologies we have in America are used in different ways overseas. For instance, seeing how people incorporate smartphones and media consumption in China can spotlight new untapped uses within our home markets.
Specific to China, where censorship blocks Facebook, Google, Youtube, and more, the lack of influence by those platforms allows for creative new UI innovations to consider.
We keep hearing about the “Trade War”. What are your thoughts about it? Given the unknowns, how do you plan to pivot?
The ‘Trade War’ represents a big unknown to our company and is a real threat to our core advantage. Over the last 7 years, we have invested our capital and time into building a supply chain that fits our business model, and now are pawns in a battle that appears to be without a clear directive and goal.
Given the unpredictability of the current administration, it is risky to implement a major pivot now. Our primary focus is to outlast this disruption and hope that we can absorb the margin impact as long as possible.
Moving production to America of many of our products is an impossibility due to the partnerships with surrounding factories, existing molds, and economies of scale being leveraged.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Do Business In China.” (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Don’t under-estimate people (anywhere). Just because America does many things differently, don’t assume America always does it better, or worse, but rather try to understand how and why it is how it is.
2. Be careful what you say and where you say it. You don’t know who is listening and what they can use with that information.
I was in rural Dongguan China at lunch discussing a product we were sourcing for a Midwest USA customer. Little did we know that the factory owner’s daughter was now living in the US, working for a rep firm that called on that same retailer. We lost that order when the daughter stepped in with a lower price for the same product. It was a good lesson.
3. Expect shipping delays.
Our company was excited to fill our first million-unit order. All we had left to do was deliver the goods. The port was backed up, but worse, our container got randomly selected for secondary screening. All in all, the delays added up to two weeks.
Just 2 days before we finally received the goods, and 13 days after we expected to receive them, our customer cancelled the order, as Christmas was fast approaching, and they couldn’t wait. This was a major set-back.
4. Not everyone is who they say they are…
In 2017 I was searching for a new factory capable of building a complex component of our Piggy Pro phone stand. I had toured hundreds of factories over the years and finding the right one can take a lot of time and energy, but the effort is always rewarded.
For this project, we had identified 7 factories near us, and one that was 4.5 hours away. The last factory we met with seemed like a good option, and the idea of skipping the 4-hour drive seemed very tempting.
A few months later I was back in China inspecting our first production at that factory 4.5 hours away, only to be surprised to see the factory owner we had passed up on at the meeting. He was surprised to see me too, as his eyes lit up.
He had misrepresented his capabilities and his role, as much in deceit to me as with the true factory owner he was looking to cheat.
5. Don’t mix business with pleasure.
I have seen a lot in my travels over the years. It is ok to have fun but save it for later. Having dinner and drinks with your partners in China is a great way to form a bond, but drinking too much or relying on your factory to entertain you will compromise your position.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I used to think that that good execution of a weak plan is better than weak implementation of a good plan. I still believe this is true.
But executing a good plan is better, and revising your plan often is critical to overcoming new challenges.
In our company, we have often found that the harder path is the most rewarding but taking simple steps in achieving your goal is manageable at all levels.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
They say that you only know what you are really made of when your back is against the wall. In building Killer Concepts, I’ve been there so many times, that I can say with certainty, if you believe in and have a good plan, you can overcome almost anything.
This is true for life as well. In today’s environment, we seek to blame others for our challenges. Staying positive, aiming high, and having the conviction to chase your goals will reward you more often than luck.