Wenzhou has a history of innovative paper production that dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), but the Chinese city’s 10th-century paper pioneers could have never imagined their presses would one be used to churn out wireless bluetooth speakers.
Since last year, they have, with thousands of mostly paper-and-cardboard speakers rolling off Wenzhou factory assembly lines and into the hands of eager Chinese consumers.
The product is the brainchild of David Yu, an engineering major who graduated several years ago from the University of British Columbia and returned to China to help his family manage a factory they own. It was a part-time project — building a white paper-and-cardboard wireless speaker for his parents, and the reaction to its classic, retro radio look — that got him thinking about broader appeal. Thus was his company, Musicanvas, born.
The original idea to make a speaker out of paper came from a trip he took to Paris, where he saw a street artist using paper in ways he hadn’t previously thought about. That led the young civil engineer to mull different ways to use it as a building material.
“He was using paper in some very creative ways, and it gave me an idea,” Yu said.
The Musicanvas booth is buzzing at the 2017 Taobao Maker Fair, and the lanky 28-year-old Yu is a bit of a rock star, sought out by browsers, fascinated with the product, a bit disbelieving about its durability and with lots of questions. He answers them bilingually, in English and Chinese, and patiently, a smile on his face.
Customers doodling on paper tablecloths in the booth (encouraged by Yu and his team) and hefting the speakers complimented the designs and marveled at how thin and light the units were, saying they hadn’t ever seen a product like the Musicanvas speaker.
In just a year, Musicanvas has developed a small, but growing audience on Taobao, Yu said, as he proudly showed off the original white-colored version, along with the latest one, which he refers to as the “fourth version.” Also in the booth was a special, red-colored model created just for the Taobao Maker Fair.
Yu downplays the difficulty in creating the innovative product, saying he’s neither a designer nor an electrical engineer. He is, however, a good juggler, a strong organizer and supply-chain manager, with the speaker’s electronic innards produced in Shenzhen and the paper-and-cardboard interior frame and external shell made in Wenzhou. And he has crowd-sourced the exterior designs of the brightly colored speakers to friends, art students and others who have a creative eye or design ideas, regardless of where they are located.
“It’s wide open. Anyone can design for me,” Yu said.
At the top sits Yu, who has to ensure the assembly lines and presses keep rolling and that quality is up to snuff. He said the products he sells on Taobao are high-quality, but notes there’s work to be done in the quality-assurance area. He rejects about 20 out of every 100 speakers produced and expects that number to come down sharply in the near future, as factories gain experience and cleave to the high standards Musicanvas demands.
“I have to guard and watch over the whole process,” Yu said. It’s a process that he expects to tighten up and rationalize as the company grows. “In the future, we can make a better structure.”
Growth is coming easier to him because of the customer data he gets from Taobao. It has armed Musicanvas with some interesting and highly scientific and actionable information.
“So, 75 percent of our customers are women. They’re mostly from Chengdu, Hangzhou and Nanjing,” he said. “When we know that, we can send advertisements to certain places.”
Musicanvas sells a smaller bluetooth speaker model for RMB 299 and a larger one for RMB 500. And innovations continue, with Yu showing a soon-to-come — and sturdier — internal particle-board housing for the speaker’s electronics that can be covered with a custom exterior designed or even assembled by consumers, themselves.
Musicanvas is still a sidelight for Yu, but he has a vision of the company growing to a size where it becomes his fulltime job. That may not be long coming. Yu said initial success on Taobao has led to companies placing orders for several thousand white-labeled units as promotional items or gifts for employees.
His goal, he said, is to create an ecosystem in which designers use their imagination to make exterior designs for Musicanvas speakers and share in the company’s success.
“We want more and more people coming and bringing their own creativity and thoughts,” Yu said. “We are collaborating with designers. We want for them to join with us to design and manufacture. We want to share profit with designers.”