Making wine in Shenzhen: four months into a three week tour


Where we’ve been

Dangerous Prototypes has been around four years this summer. This internet gig started at the DIY Life and Hack a Day blogs when I was a poor student roughing it in Amsterdam. A couple hundred bucks for a feature piece bought a lot of ramen stampot, and paid for an otherwise unsustainable electronics hobby.

bus pirate v2go

When Seeed Studio approached me about building the Bus Pirate I was highly skeptical. “We’ll build 20 and see if they sell”, Eric said. “You’ll be stuck with 19” was my reply. Instead, the initial fundraiser for Hack a Day sold more than 1000 Bus Pirates in a week.

Buoyed by this initial success I started Dangerous Prototypes at the end of summer 2009 with the goal to release a new project every month. The name was chosen specifically to scare off anyone who might not understand the spirit of our projects. They’re not complete, they’re zygotes of a full idea. Seeed Studio can sell you a copy to tinker with, usually cheaper than you can build it on your own.


For the first few years I hid behind the blog – even the Seeed Studio guys thought I was a retired engineer, not a 20-something college kid. Finally I sucked it up and showed my face at Maker Faire Bay Area with Seeed Studio. Hooked instantly, I starting hitting every Maker Faire in sight. Meeting community members and exchanging ideas has been amazing. From New York to San Francisco, India to China, Singapore, South Korea, the UK, there’s never been a bad experience or dull moment.


The trip that stands out as a game changer was our first big trip to Tokyo for Make Meeting. I received Tayken’s invitation while at the office in Iowa. It was both amazing and surreal that we were invited, and even more crazy that we could attend. At the same time I had already lived through a graduate program in Hawaii, a place highly influenced by the relentless pursuit of ever more Japanese tourists upon which the economy is largely dependent. It left me with zero interest in seeing Japan up close. That was wrong.


I would never claim to know Japan but I’m in love with the pace of the Tokyo, the largest city in the world. Everyone moves fast – too fast – and everyone works hard – too hard. The first time we filmed the Akihabara tour video our team was so agape that we didn’t get anything usable, we went back a few months later to shoot it again. Every detail is done and over done, and then done again. Surreal attentive service and amazing food, trains that run every 2 minutes precisely on time.

Dangerous Prototypes has never truly been my full time pursuit. I’ve been in academics, contract with software companies, and always have on a primary job of some sort. Open hardware seems too temperamental to depend on full time, have adequate insurance, and a way to retire. When I started there were a handful of people offering kits and boards, now there’s a whole ecosystem of crowd-sourced funding to support anyone’s idea. If our contact form is any indication, tons of people are conceiving and promoting crowd funded open hardware projects every day. It’s amazing to see so many people expanding the market for Open Hardware.

What to do next?

Over the first three years we consistently doubled in size: traffic, projects sold, and profit. Year four we hit a bit of a plateau – blog traffic continues to grow, as does our resale network, but profit has not kept pace. Too much travel? Not enough projects? Too much competition? Who knows. But if we try too hard the fun drains out and the creativity stops, so I try to ignore it.

Reflecting on where we’ve been and were we’re going makes a few things increasingly clear. If we want to be a big player with an actual office staffed with a few employees we’ll need to make some changes.


We’re increasingly focused on our most profitable areas. Most good businesses do this, but we’ve been having so much fun we never cared. Our first effort is the Bus Pirate educational kit. Inspired by Oomlout’s Arduino Experimenters’ Kit, and copious goading by Aaron across three continents. We’re trying to wring a couple extra bucks out the Bus Pirate by adding an educational component and making it more accessible. Value added. Sorted.

Second, we need some of that sweet, sweet bundle of wires markup. SparkFun, Adafruit, Seeed Studio, Oomlout – they don’t just make money on hardware. Rumor has it the bread and butter is often in the simple bundle of jumper wires or bag of LEDs with a huge markup. Easy to source, easy to sell, no development cost, no support.


We’re just a design shop, we don’t sell anything ourselves. Seeed Studio does the tedious stuff like running a webshop, packing boxes, and shipping things. That’s dandy, but we can’t compete with Seeed in their own shop  – so we don’t get to sell our own bundle of wires. Instead we’ll use the brand we’ve built over the past few years to release Dangerous Prototype tools like reflow ovens, as well as sets of components with open source Eagle and KiCAD footprints, datasheets, renderings, and more. All have lower development and support cost than a new hardware project.


In conjunction with Oomlout, our goal is also to make your workshop tidy and better organized. We want to eliminate the stress of digging through Mouser, Digikey, Farnel, etc trying to find the right part, or making that last minute order because you have a 2×5 connector but not a 2×6. These “part boxes” were on display at Maker Faire Bay Area a few weeks ago, and we’ll have a lot more about them soon.


Finally, we need to be where the action is. I’ve been in Shenzhen to visit Seeed Studio and the Huaqianbei electronics market almost every month over the past year. Its a great place to work and the resources are unmatched anywhere in the world, but the 15 hour flight from Amsterdam to Hong Kong is killer. Jetlag ruins the first 10 days of every trip, I cant eat and spend a lot of time in a hotel curled up in a ball.

Going east


Shenzhen and the surrounding cities are are probably the biggest concentration of electronics assembly and manufacturing resources in the world. The Huaqiangbei electronics market sells components, small scale manufacturing tools, and digital products. In the northwestern Bao’an district manufacturers make test rigs and assemble boards. Dongguan and Guangzhou, both less than an hour north by high speed rail, handle heavier manufacturing like PCBs, tools, and some components. Any assembled product you buy is probably touched in some way by the industry here.


It’s tempting to “move” to China and tap into this torrent of resources. We’ll call this the Zach Hoeken and Hackvana approach. Cost of living is very reasonable. Shenzhen is a new, efficient, and – dare I say – fashionable city that is beginning to rival Tokyo in the race for skinny jeans stuffed into complicated boots.


For all the good points, China offers very little in terms of legal permanent residency or citizenship for foreigners running a business. Many foreigners live in a strange situation – they have tourist or business visas good for a year, but each stay limited to 60 or 90 days. After 60 or 90 days they have to leave China and return. A minute, a week, it doesn’t seem to matter. Shenzhen is literally connected to Hong Kong, so most expats jump the Hong Kong boarder on a quick visa run then turn around and cross back to China.


Another approach, we’ll call it the Bunnie Huang approach, is to live near China and commute in as needed. Bunnie lives in Singapore, a cheap four hour flight from Hong Kong serviced by multiple discount carriers. He can hop over at a moments notice and be back home for dinner. This is closer to my ideal situation, but moving from the cold laid-back Netherlands to a flaming-hot draconian island city-state like Singapore is out of the question. Hong Kong is also too expensive, crowded, and another droll city-state.


Earlier this year star community member Tayken took me to a Tokyo hackerspace presentation about opening a business in Tokyo and securing residency with an investor visa. It takes a ~$50,000 investment to receive the visa and live in Japan, though it’s also possible to get a visa via a branche office of an existing US company without an initial investment. Bingo.


Japan – Tokyo – the biggest city in the world, amazing transit, food, and a path to residency. That was the place for me, so I thought. Tokyo is more than stumbling on oddities like Department H with FreakLabs, or crawling home through Shinjuku after eating meats on sticks. It’s 4 hours from Shenzhen, and Akihabara is available to fill in the cracks. There’s also amazing open hardware people and great friends all over the place.

On March 19, 3 months ago, I set out to start our Tokyo branche office. A few weeks in Shenzhen, adjust to the time difference, then onwards to Tokyo to meet with the lawyer. The meeting with the went perfectly and we started hunting for an office space.

Learning to love Shenzhen


In the mean time, however, I fell in love with Shenzhen. Japan was great, I could have a business and live there, but Shenzhen was better. The resources, the cheap taxis, the friendly people, the street BBQ, the possibilities. Returning from Tokyo to Shenzhen it was immediately apparent that Shenzhen was the place to be. It’s cheaper and very livable, despite what Bunnie may say (I kid Bunnie!).


Between social media, street food, shaizi (liar’s dice), and Tsing Dao beer I made a huge network of contacts who work in Huaqiangbei almost overnight. In Shenzhen everybody is from somewhere else. Its very easy to make friends because everyone is a stranger, and any attempt at speaking Chinese is highly appreciated and entertaining for everyone.

Where is Ian?


Two months ago I threw away my return ticket home and stayed in Shenzhen an extra month. After a brief trip to the office and Bay Area Maker Faire I’m back in Shenzhen. The initial three week trip is now going on three months.

What happens next? I’m not sure. For the time being we’ll focus on releasing the parts boxes and various educational kits. The residency problem remains, but we’ll definitely setup an office in Hong Kong and try to secure an investor visa while spending as much time in Shenzhen on business as possible.

Things have finally settled enough to write a series of posts about my experience in Shenzhen. Every Tuesday and Thursday I’ll write about a different Shenzhen related topic. Electronics will be a big focus, but as Zach and I will tell anyone who listens: life here is about so much more than that!

  • Shopping, negotiating, and shipping in Huaqiangbei
  • Rediscovering SEG Market for low volume parts
  • Shaizi (liars’ dice), street BBQ, and beer – guanxi the easy way
  • Oomlout and Dangerous Prototypes open source part boxes
  • Meet Jery, tailor extraordinaire, and other Shenzhen fashion
  • Hong Kong runs, the good, the bad, the ugly
  • What to eat in Shenzhen (hint: everything!)
  • Weixin: socialist social media network
  • Chinese haircuts are amazing
  • Beyond Coco Park, partying in Shenzhen
  • Getting around: E-bikes, E-Trics, and cheap taxis

If you have suggestions, questions, or ideas please post them in the comments and look for them in a future post.

Since I’m away from the office for an unknown amount of time our weekly free PCB giveaways will change shortly. Instead of PCBs we’ll probably start giving away cool parts, tools, and other stuff from the markets here.

If you made it to the end of this winding, rambling post, thank you. It’s been three months in the making, written and rewritten every bit as much as my plans have changed since March.

Join the Conversation


  1. If you’re going to talk about beautiful Asian cities, take a look at Thailand’s Chiang Mai / Chiang Rai area. Cooler than Bangkok, fairly mild winters, lovely people.
    If you want to focus on the benefits of small companies & quick turnarounds- how about an FPGA-based project? To offset the CPLD Dev boards, something with [say] a Xilinx Spartan-6 to compete with the Papilio Pro would be interesting.
    The “behind the scenes” of talking to manufacturers would be interesting, too. Especially the concerns of making small “hobbyist” runs vs gian commercial orders.

  2. Im so happy for you (its my super secret dream to move to Shenzhen :P).

    What I would love to see would be more insight into emerging small Chinese manufacturers.
    Something like
    but done right by someone with a clue. Charbax is a bit of an idiot and its almost painful watching his videos where he constantly interrupts his interlocutors, physically pushes people around or even destroys equipment.

    There is so much potential in China right now, market is so dynamic and vibrant. In one of the videos owner of a 7 month old company says it takes them 1,5 months from prototype to shipping Tablets :o its crazy.

  3. Go Ian !!!

    Keep on living how the rest of us want to!

    And for us – keep feeding us on nice titbits about the inside of sourcing, manufacturing and the oft overlooked shipping/fullfillment aspects, as well as some new projects!

  4. Cool post man. Keep up the great work all of you guys have done so far.

    If you can offer a service for custom-size frameless pcb stencil like in this video It would be great.

    Also some qfp/qfn stencil templates would be awesome. I’ve been looking all over ebay, and all I could find was bga templates.

  5. Ian,

    The best thing you can do is what you’re doing: “Be what you’re like, be like yourself”.

    Websites and communities often refect the attitudes and spirit of their founders. DP continues to be a success in that area. Entusiasm, helpfulness and general good manners mean a lot.

    Good luck, and hope to continue to see you at the Maker Faires!

  6. What a great post! It seems like just a little while ago you were painting and lighting your upstairs space for video production, and now you are settling in for the next phase. Please continue to explore, enjoy and write.

  7. Your post make my month. It is such a pleasure to share your adventure. This 71 year old sees real hope for the future. Best wishes.

  8. Live your dream! Your technical writing is great, but please also write more about your travels and the expat life in general.

    33 years ago I got off a flight from Chicago to Hong Kong with no idea where I would sleep that night. Everything worked out fine and lead to friends and business connections I am still in contact with to this day.

    Your comments about Singapore and Tokyo, and jet lag, remind me that some things remain largely the same, just more LEDs and less neon. Whereas Hong Kong and China change so fast and in so many unforeseeable ways that after a month away it is hard to believe they are the same places.

  9. It’s stories like this that made me fall in love with the maker movement. I have a wife, kids, and colleagues who depend on me, but if things were different, I’d be following pioneers like you to Shenzen.

    1. Lucky me that have a wife that without complaints followed me from Sweden to Dubai and then to Kuala Lumpur. Been away from Sweden for seven years now. She’s indicated that a move to Shenzhen is not out of the question…. :-)

      1. Join us Mats! Please! There’s a stream of people moving here, you’d be a great addition to our hacker posse.

  10. Cheers Ian and all crews,
    I also like seeed and love visiting Shenzhen, especially Huaqiangbei.
    (And I am dreaming about a Maker Faires, I will stand there one day and like to meet all of you)

  11. Ian,

    Welcome to China. If Shenzen gets a bit too much, you can always hop over to Hong Kong, although the Maker/Hacker scene might not be so mature and accessible as China.

  12. Dangerous Prototypes Bundle of wires == flux!

    Source the kind of flux that you like in the kind of package you like. I don’t trust buying flux unless it is Ian tested and Ian approved!

    1. There is indeed a soldering stuff box coming! Not just one flux, but one of many types so you can try them all!

  13. Hi Ian!!!

    We were missing you during this weeks. I was asking myself: what’s going on with Ian? It was strange not to have news from you, no videos, something was cooking behind the scenes ;).

    I wish you the best in you new asiatic adventure, keep us informed!!! ;)

    All the best, beth.

  14. Interesting post. I’d always wondered where you were located. When did you move from the US to the Netherlands? I guess I missed that.

    Are you actively studying the Chinese language? What’s it like getting around with limited language skills?

    1. I’ve been in the netherlands off and on for 8 years or so.

      When I first came to China I had a tutor 7 days a week, 2 hours a day. Learned a lot of words but my pronunciation was terrible. Then I traveled a lot and let it drop for a while. Now I have a new tutor who drills me on pronunciation and people actually understand me which is pretty rewarding. I’ve also backed off to 1 hour 5 times a week which is less burnout-y.

      Chinese is the 5th or so language I’ve studied and by far the most difficult for me. I’m no stranger to getting around with limited language skills so it doesn’t bother me much to be honest. The main issue is Chinese people are so friendly and curious what I’m doing they talk to me all the time and it’s frustrating not to be able to understand or respond well.

      One of my goals when I came here was to avoid hanging out with all the foreigners at Rapscallions, an Irish pub type bar in COCO Park. It’s been surprisingly easy to make Chinese friends, and other than the cool open hardware people here, I hang exclusively with Chinese people.

      1. One more question, if I may: I’d guess your design work entails a fair amount of “stuff”: test & assembly equipment, computers, parts inventory, photo & video setup, etc. Is moving your workshop a major undertaking, or have you made it pretty portable?

        I ask because it’s pretty easy to imagine the life of a roving software developer – have laptop, will travel. Creating hardware involves a bit more baggage though.

      2. Until recently everything was developed and debugged with a programmer, Bus Pirate, and Logic Sniffer – I brought these and haven’t needed more. I solder with a cheap workstation available here for a couple bucks though I just take stuff to the cell phone repair kids up the street instead. I brought a handful of common components to save me hunting them down in the first weeks, but everything is available in the market and I have my “little brother” to hunt things down I can’t find on my own.

        I bought a laptop (hardware amazing, windows 8 can go to hell…) for $300 in Hong Kong. I brought the video cameras and “big” Cannon camera.

        The only things I’m really missing like crazy are my desktop computer and three giant monitors. Its all my software installs and video editing rig, and the laptop doesn’t substitute (did I mention windows 8 is a disaster?).

        The pick and place and other tools are fun, but ultimately don’t contribute much to what I do regularly.

        It looks like December I’ll pack everything important up in a container and ship it over. The rest will be sold or go into storage in Iowa or the netherlands.

  15. Yo, that lady a row behind you is giving you the eye, man. I think she might just be D-positive!

    But sincerely, you are an inspiration, Ian. I never thought I would be writing this in a comment on a website, but you have changed the way I approach many things in life. Both technically and philosophically. Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and experiences with us.

  16. Funny. That lady behind you on the plane must have been like, “What the hell is that guy doing?” She’s looking right at your phone.

    1. Yes the art of the selfie is something I picked up from my Chinese friends. I don’t think white people quite get it :) I know I thought it was quite weird the first dozen times I saw people do it.

  17. Two things i could think of where a small amount of money could be derived. 1. find a reliable taobao agent for us to use and take a cut on referrals. 2. build a list of resources for hackers that want to visit shenzen and take a cut on stuff like accom bookings, market guides etc (or at least get some services yourself for free with the referrals).

    1. I believe from other postings that Taobao now will deal direct, so I don’t know that the agent thing is valid any more.

      1. thats interesting. i’m still using an agent as i buy lots of things from various vendors and save lots on the shipping through aggregation.

      2. Checkout this page for the details, but this is what Ray said…

        Ray says:
        June 17, 2013 at 10:38 pm

        Just received my TM240A today. It’s quite heavy. The DHL guy and I together moved it to my workshop. I ordered from Taobao directly. The seller now takes care of international shipping for you (before you had to find a shipping company yourself). I paid 29800RMB (~$4865) for the machine, 3000RMB (~$490) DHL shipping, and 1000RMB (~$164) for the repair kit. I didn’t know if the repair kit is necessary, but got it anyways under the suggestion of the seller. The shipping is very fast — it took a total of 4 days from China to Massachusetts! FYI, Taobao now accepts international credit card, so if you want to buy directly from the seller, all you need is someone who understands Chinese, a credit card, and a Taobao account. There is a 3% service charge to use a credit card to pay. Hope this information is useful.
        Maybe that’s of some use to you also.

  18. But Taobao is not “a” seller. They are a collection of thousends of sellers from all over China. I have a hard time imagining that some farmers wife out in the boondocks of northwestern china that sells homemade dresses would have any idea of how to ship internationally with Fedex.

    Taobao is just collecting the payments pretty much like ebay.

    1. It depends who you are dealing with, you have to choose who you want to deal with. Some are companies but mostly are individual. I deal directly too with Taobao sellers and use wire transfer. Some have PayPal. I’m based in KL too and usually they cheaper shipping options like DPEX and Shenfung which is as fast as the usual ones and throughout the years, all my order are custom tax free!

  19. Oh, I thought all Chinese farmers had FedEx accounts! – lol. OK Mats, I’ve never dealt with TaoBao and don’t know anything about them, I was simply posting what I’d read from the post. Do you think they could ship some fresh Chinese Vegies via their Fedex? ;)

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