THAOSEN — Launching a Chinese Import & Export Company during COVID-19

My name is Julian Ivaldy, I’m 20 years old and this year I decided to go into import & export by launching a Chinese company Thaosen, with my friend Zhenghao Fang. As a student of Emlyon Business School, it was at school that I met Zhenghao, he knew SideFounders, my digital side business studio, and had many projects himself.

We started to discuss together about international trade and we had a common idea which pushed us to develop our import & export business. From the import & export of industrial machines, to the company pivot in mask sales during covid, we lived a crazy adventure between 3 continents that I would like to share with you.

1 — The meeting 🔥

Zhenghao, Frederic by his French name, passionate about import & export and logistics, came to talk to me about this sector (that I didn’t even know at the time 🤫). We quickly understood that we had the same vision of the world and that we seemed very complimentary. His passion for this sector spread to me and I became more and more interested in international trade and its opportunities. After one month, we decided to start working seriously together to set up a project focused on import & export, and we decided to launch Thaosen.

The beginning of Thaosen, listening to opportunity

2 - The creation 🏁

Be prepared, our initial pitch was:

“Hey, we want to do some import & export between China and Africa, Julian has the network, and the skills to sell our products while Frederic has the contacts and the expertise to ensure the sourcing and the logistics”.

Zhenghao Fang and me (Julian Ivaldy) presenting our project to students

As soon as we talked about logistics and international trade with Zhenghao, I worked on a market analysis in order to find a niche where we could have value. We had chosen a positioning in line with our expertise and our network. With a background in engineering and some contacts in the world of jewelry, we decided to focus on the import & export of machines used to analyze the quality of precious metals and precious stones 📟.

Example of a machine for sale

If there is one thing I have learned from my entrepreneurial adventures (*Most common entrepreneurial mistakes of students by Blondy), it’s that 100 business plans, 50 financial analyses, and 10 KPIs are not worth the opinion, or even better, the pre-order, of your future customer. This is why the first thing we did after finding our niche was to go into the market, talk to our potential customers to find the added value on our products and on the service we could provide.

From the very beginning, we knew that international trade was a very competitive sector, which is what actually gave the name to our company 😏 There are thousands of possibilities and offers on international trade, choose the one that turns Thaosen into the only one.

A playful reference to the reply we made to a professor who questioned the saturated market.

We decided to focus on an emerging market, the African continent (Target: Maghreb countries , Guinea and Cameroon), and we focused on a very specific niche but we needed to develop additional value. It was necessary to find another pillar and we found it: The follow-up & After-sale service 🛠.

After defining our positioning, creating our catalog, prospecting to find customers, we decided to present the project to our school in order to obtain a layout of the courses and access to the incubator.

“Hey, we are 20 years old and we want to sell Chinese machines in Africa”. *We didn’t say it like that, but they understood it like this 😂

As you can imagine, we created a lot of financial analysis and business plans but it is the pre-orders that finally gave us the green light to develop our project for 6 months in the Emlyon Paris incubator & Emlyon Casablanca incubator. Thanks to this, we were able to officially launch the company and to leave Paris for Africa (📍Casablanca, Morocco) to do a market analysis on the spot in January.

Our state of mind when launching our company and leaving for Africa

3 - Let’s go to Africa 🚀

Here we go to Casablanca. We were able to launch our website (Thaosen.com), develop our catalogs and brochures, and create our social networks in the meantime in order to have a maximum of visibility. We arrived in a city we didn’t know, on a continent that Zhenghao had never been able to visit. We directly took part in the Moroccan culture and especially, to the entrepreneurial culture of this country. On spot, we were able to conclude our first contracts pre-ordered. We got orders of machinery to Guinea for more than $22K USD 🙃 .

First products we exported

Hosted in the Emlyon incubator of Casablanca, we were able to meet many actors of entrepreneurship and innovation in Morocco and Africa. We were immersed in this corporate culture so different from France, more family-oriented and warmer, but which also seemed more closed and led by a well-defined elite 🕴🏽.

At the same time, we have expanded our team by having two great people join the adventure, Lise and Willy. These two amazing people were concerned by our project and especially by the non-profit side we had launched with our foundation, and decided to help us develop our project 💝.

The Thaosen team in January 2020

Our integration in Morocco was quite easy using our network (thanks to our Moroccan friends 🖤) but also thanks to our willingness to get closer to the local population. I think it is imperative to get close to the local community of a country if you want to do business there.

4 - Hello Covid-19 🦠

Connected to China with our project, we followed the evolution of Covid-19 from the beginning of our adventure. Like many, we didn’t really realize the upheaval that it was going to bring in Africa, Europe, and all over the world. We were focused on prospecting our offer when our sourcing country was being hit by its most deadly wave.

We took the corona crisis head-on when we had to export the machines we had sold. It was very stressful because of the logistic problems (product blocked in customs, loss of merchandise, delivery problems, etc.).

The spread of the pandemic Covid-19

In addition, the African continent, although emerging, faces many economic constraints and difficulties and this event did not help matters and forced us to review our development objectives and strategies.

Confronted by this event, we had to focus our efforts on logistics by ensuring that the products ordered would be delivered without any problems to our customers. This prevented us from working on prospecting and development in general.

Products blocked in Shanghai customs (during 3 weeks)

5 - Let’s take advantage of the situation 🎉

Faced with the dimensions that the crisis was taking on, we had two choices: to let ourselves die or to take part in it. You’ve probably heard about the crazy situation around masks... Guess what, we started selling masks 😂

30 000 masks exported

We made a direct pivot on our business plan in order to take advantage of the situation by taking profit from the sale of sanitary products. We decided to export masks and other sanitary equipment. Our real value is that we had teams in place in China (post-crisis) to source the best products at the best cost. While thousands of people were exporting poor quality masks at exorbitant prices, we had very attractive offers and we were able to present and sell this to our distributor network.

The day we were stolen 1000 products

It was at the end of April 2020, I received a call on Thursday morning from my business partner Zhenghao : “Julian, we got robbed 😭”.

We had an order for 10,000 masks. The next day, we learned that 1,000 masks had been stolen in China. So we ended up with a stock of 9,000 masks, losing money because it was a test order and our profit margins were very low.

Instead of giving up and refunding the customer, we found more attractive products, negotiating a much larger stock and the customer agreed to increase his initial order. We finally recovered our costs without the customer knowing that part of the initial 10,000 masks was stolen and then resold… 😎

At the end, we managed to deliver to all our customers, became a trusted actor during the global health crisis and learned how to react when faced with unexpected situations. We consider ourselves lucky to have been able to represent our customers during this period.

Masks we have exported to Switzerland

💥 This adventure was more than exciting 💥

I created a business with a partner from a completely different background and origin, whom I met a few months ago. This story started as a success story with first sales of over $20,000 USD the first month and a turnover of over $40 000USD after 3 months but that quickly turned into a nightmare. We were stopped in our development by the arrival of the covid-19 crisis that touched us personally but also in the development of our project. Instead of taking the first plane from Africa to France, we hung on and continued our activity to be face to face with the context of the global health crisis. We exported thousands of masks and contributed to the fight against this virus.

Today, given the current context, we have questioned our development plan. Thaosen continues to exist through the realization of import & export missions in Africa and Europe for our loyal customers. Capitalizing on the traditional missions to keep developing Thaosen, and to create a more innovative model in the years to come, we continue to serve our clients with passion and quality.

Hi! This is Julian (Pirate Marketing)