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Home Living in China Foreigners in China Foreigners in China Boukje Koch: Don't Worry, Just Ask Me
Boukje Koch: Don't Worry, Just Ask Me
Foreigners in China

Boukje Koch

Boukje Koch, founder and CEO of Ask4Me, a Dutch design company based in Guangzhou, shares with us how she and her company settle down and survive in the city.

When western companies come to Guangdong Province to do business - typically to have products manufactured by China's cheap and abundant labor force - they often run headlong into a wall. 
 
If that wall had a headstone, it would read, "A Failure to Communicate." Sometimes it's simply a language or cultural barrier. At other times it's a clash of ideas or intentions. It may be a misunderstanding over a product's price or design or quality. 
 
Whatever the cause of poor communications, it can doom a foreign venture or at the very least create painful headaches and lead to staggering costs. 
 
That's why Boukje Koch can be a godsend to investors and businesses interested in setting up shop in South China. She is the co-founder and CEO of Ask4Me Group, a Dutch design and engineering firm that can do virtually all the heavy lifting for clients enticed to South China by the region's manufacturing reputation. 
 
"We translate our customers' ideas to the factories," she explains from her office, 24 stories above Guangzhou's Yuexiu Distirct. "We understand both sides. And because we are designers, we take extra care." 
 
She and a partner launched Ask4Me in 2007, opened an office in Guangzhou in 2008, and began by helping clients from the West who had products they wanted manufactured in China but had trouble communicating with factories from abroad.  
 
Sometimes the product ideas from western companies couldn't be turned into reality by the Chinese factories. "It's not always possible to manufacture products the way the firms envision them," Boukje explains. "But we can come up with solutions that satisfy both sides - and explain why we must do what we need to do." Boukje, 37, is a design engineer by both training and inclination. "When I see something, I want to know how it's made" - and how it's designed, she says. She earned a master's degree in industrial design engineering in Delft, a lovely Dutch city that has a history of producing fine art. It is the home of Johannes Vemeer, the 17th century Dutch master. The city also is famous for its production of the blue ceramic ware that bears its name and, which, coincidentally, was initially modeled after 17th century Chinese porcelain that was imported to Holland. 
 
Sometimes Ask4Me will design a product for a client and then shepherd it through the entire production process - from start to finish. At other times it might tweak a product somewhere along the way. And then there are those clients who merely want Boukje and her colleagues to be their eyes and ears in the factory to assure that a product is manufactured precisely to specifications. 
 
Among the products that Ask4Me shepherds along the manufacturing belt are scales, toys, cosmetic devices, small electronics, barbeque grills, Chinaware, design books, home decorations, and chain saws. The firm's biggest item is a solar bicycle light.  
 
Boukje came to China in 2005. She then was working for a Dutch firm that deployed her as chief product manager for a team that set up operations in Wuxi, not far from Shanghai, to produce gifts. 
 
For the culturally inclined Boujke - she also has performed as a dancer - Wuxi was a little on the slow side at that time. She already had made contacts in Guangzhou, and she thought the cultural possibilities were more promising here.  
 
So she and her partner set up shop in the city and began by helping western companies deal with local factories. The firm has grown to 10 people - half of them Chinese, half designers and engineers - and has a client base that spans the globe. Ask4Me also now has quite a few Chinese clients - about 25 percent of its customers are Chinese firms needing production and/or design help. 
 
As the company has grown, Boukje finds herself withdrawing from doing as much design work as she once did, since she needs to devote more time to the business side. 
 
She believes the decision to locate in Guangzhou was a prescient one. While Beijing and Shanghai might be more stylish places to live and work, Guangzhou has the entrepreneurial zeal that meshes with the mission of a company like Ask4Me, Boukje points out. 
 
"Here they know how to get things done," she says. 
 
She sees a greater appreciation for design in Guangzhou than when she founded Ask4Me, both with factory management and among attendees at the Canton Fair, where Ask4Me has become a regular participant since 2010. 
 
Factories also have become better at communicating and at understanding the needs of clients, she says. "I'm happy that I'm in this city," she asserts. "The factories that we can find in this area are good." 
 
The "made in China" branding will continue to prosper, Boukje believes, because local manufacturers have come to realize that quality design can give them a competitive edge. Some Chinese brands are gaining increasing recognition in overseas markets for their "good quality and competitive prices," Boukje says. For example, she points to a tablet made by Huawei that is popular in Holland, "even though we could never pronounce its name right." There now is a growing appreciation for aesthetics as well as functionality during the product development phase. 
 
Boukje lives in Guangzhou with her four-year-old son, who, she acknowledges, speaks better Chinese than she does. She also bikes to work, something the Dutch do even more than the Chinese, and laments that Guangzhou is not more of a bike friendly city. If it were, Boukje suggests, Guangzhou would be a cleaner, healthier city. 
 
She finds doing business in China easier than when she first arrived, even though there are more legal constraints today. Perhaps flexibility has dissipated, but communication from factory management has improved, so the overall environment in south China is more conducive for a company like Ask4Me. 
 
And even though factories may be more communicative and receptive in the way they deal with clients, the need still exists for an entity like Ask4Me that can make "the road from idea to finished product as smooth as possible," as the firm claims in its literature.  
 
That concept should be music to the ears of local authorities and boosters of the South China economy, because Ask4Me is a company that helps keep the wheels moving to assure that "Chinese made" actually gets manufactured the way investors want their products made. 
 
Boukje Koch,中文名玛莎,荷兰出生留在中国的工业设计师,2007年,创立Ask4Me Group。
 
“我热爱设计,热爱工厂,我喜欢将两者的力量结合起来,创造出色的产品。”——Boukje Koch
 
05年在无锡成立了生产工厂之后,玛莎便决定留在中国开展自己的设计事业并创立Ask4Me Group,一眨眼就在中国走过了8个年头。到底是什么原因让这位荷兰女生毅然留在中国的呢?在2013深圳国际家居饰品展上,玛莎给观众带去了立体空间装饰秀,看似简单的饰物经过玛莎的精心安排,在空间绽放出独有的魅力。在展会上,中奢网有幸能跟玛莎进行了一次简单的采访,从而了解了这位荷兰女生对设计,对自己事业的一些看法。
 
当玛莎还是小女孩的时候,就很享受欣赏漂亮的东西,从巴黎地铁站的新艺术风格灯笼到阿斯顿马丁的跑车设计,各种各样的设计都深深地吸引着她。满脑子充斥着设计图片的玛莎开始试着以此勾画出自己所理解的样子。但是她并没有因此满足,除非她能清楚地揣摩这些东西的构造以及它们是如何被生产出来。这样的感受使玛莎专业于工业设计工程,并在2002年获得其硕士学位。
 
关于Ask4Me Group
Ask4Me Group创立于2007年,为帮助海外客户将他们的产品主义在中国实现出来,并且为中国供应商设计符合市场需要的创新产品。玛莎说道:“我们的产品的研发是从设计理念开始直到大货生产而结束。我将这个流程分为几步。每一步都有明确的开始和相应的完成步骤。这使得我们的客户可以从这些步骤中选择他们最为需要的。这使得我们可以为任何一个客户进行完全个性化的服务, 不论他们是否只是需要理念创新、产品设计、生产, 或者整个完整的步骤。”
 
而谈起为什么会选择在中国实现海外客户的产品主意,玛莎说,她们服务的客户都有一个共同点——那就是他们想在中国进行生产。因为最开始的形式是,通常客户在自己国家进行产品研发,然后再将设计交给中国的制造商去制造,然而这恰恰是一个糟糕的开始。因为工厂很难按照设计的要求进行生产同时又很难与国外设计师沟通。但是因为Ask4Me Group在中国进行设计,所以一开始能更容易的与工厂沟通,同时,也可以让他们更早的融入西方设计中避免后续发生的问题。
 
国内的工业设计跟国外的工业设计是有区别的,而玛莎觉得这种区别主要是:国外的产品大多数是依托品牌来发展的。他们有非常清晰的定位并与公司的价值相匹配。在中国,产品大多数都是以代加工为基础,这意味着他们没有清晰地发展方向。在这种情况下会导致产品可以完整的实现其功能但是没有灵魂。国际消费者们意识到这种情况正在逐渐增长同时代工更加难以实现这一要求。这就是玛莎为什么会去帮助他们的原因。
 
“我的设计研发是从产品加工到最终的成品。我发现如果我在中国完成这些设计的话,那意味着我将更加接近这些产品的生产地从而能更好的了解到这些产品的生产流程,对于设计师而言这是非常完美的地方。”谈及为什么会选择留在中国,玛莎给予了这个回答,也许这也是作为一个工业设计师最理想的状态吧。
 
关于设计
在设计师的眼中,设计应该是一种语言,或者是一种手法。对于玛莎来说,工业设计跟建筑设计,室内设计等其他设计虽然是不一样的,但是在创造性的过程中又是相似的,例如:理念、视角、最终设计以及生产和执行设计。这些步骤的细节和局部表现是不同的,这些其实都是设计师通过双手来表现出来同时作为生产者工作的基石。
 
跟其他设计一样,工业设计的设计师同样要面对产品设计与用户体验之间的矛盾,有些产品设计很新颖,但是却未必能获得良好的用户体验,为了平衡这些矛盾,玛莎通常会寻找一个折中的解决方案。如果这样还不行,她会重新审视要求的每一个细节,权衡每一方面的重要性,寻找每一个步骤的正反面最后做出一个均衡的决定。
 

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