Simon Carr: The Kitchen Capitalist

I have a project. And it will make or break me
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The Independent Online

That's it, the house is sold. Contracts have been exchanged; completion in three weeks. It's been a very nice home for my little family. For seven years we've been surrounded by the deep, garden-greens of north Oxford. Lawns and paths lead down to a little jetty out over the canal where the family boat is moored. The property sold well, in these difficult times. And now, the largest part of (what seems to me) a very large sum of money will shortly be sent across the world to a Chinese factory owner in Dong Guan City.

I have a project. A manufacturing project. I have invented, designed and commissioned a range of products which is going to look after me in my old age. Alternatively, it is going to absorb every last penny of my worldly wealth and leave me destitute. I am, as capitalists say, "in play".

I wouldn't want you to think I'm not enjoying the game, but capitalism is extraordinarily irritating. At every step of the way people let you down. Everything takes four times as long as you think it should. No one will do what they say they will. You are in the hands of a new model army of chimps who run idiot-proof systems and who have been made idiotic by them ("I'm sorry, have you got any other ID?").

The efficiency of the private sector may look pretty good from the boardroom down, with all its rationalised, accountable, streamlined, tick-box procedures - but from the struggling client up it's a very different picture. "He's away from his desk. He's on a course this week. It's his day off. He's with a client. He's on another call. We haven't received the fax, can you send it again?"

And you often come across an almost undetectable resentment below the helpful exterior. It's the clever way of enraging your client. Agree to anything they want done - but make them do something for you first.

"How big is your smallest digital display?" you may ask, and they will say: "Send us your casing and we'll tell you whether we can fit a mechanism in it."

If you want to know, roughly, what it costs to make a plastic box as big as a coffee cup in a run of 5,000 units you will not be able to find out. You will always be told: "Send us your drawings for an accurate quote." But you don't want an accurate quote, you want a rough quote. Your product idea has a dozen components in a plastic case and you want to know if you can make it for a fiver before you start on drawings (have you seen the price of drawings?).

But you will be asked in return: "How long is a piece of string?". A piece of string is three frigging feet long! Now answer the goddamn question! (Flashes of violence are an essential part of the product design process.)

So let us go then, you and I. Into this comedy of errors - and occasionally a comedy of terrors. Maybe it'll end as a tragedy. Let's find out, as we go.