Simon Carr: The Kitchen Capitalist

When yes means no, it's better to be in the know

"They never say 'no'," my project manager advised me sagely. He's dealt with China. He's an old China hand. He knows his way around the Middle Kingdom. Had he ever been to China? Not, as such, been there physically in that literal way of speaking. Except the stopover in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. At any rate, they never say "no", so you have to be careful.

In my experience, carefulness doesn't get you anywhere in these start-ups. It is entirely secondary to a reckless, urgent quality that allows you to pick up the phone and form relationships with complete strangers. But the Orient never says "no", so if you're not careful you proceed with them step by step until you've spent three months finding out they can't do what they've promised. It's their cunning way with us.

These generalisations are what we call experience. Stupid as they sound, they can be valuable, so I don't discount them.

I wasn't going to tell you, but my product speaks. It talks to you, quite a lot if you let it. So it has electronics; it has a voice storage chip and a micro-processor to drive the chip and . . . you've already heard enough. My technical designers in the high-tech cluster round Cambridge are real can-do people. Their ingenuity recalls an earlier period of British history.

They evaluated three technologies and a dozen chips to arrive at their choice. It took all day. The pace was fantastic. It was this time last year, in fact, when I asked the designer whether we could have the software written and the prototype ready by October. He hesitated, knowing things took longer than they should, but finally agreed it was possible. "Oh look!" he said, "a pig just flew past the window!" We laughed, cosily.

Three months later, as we were still struggling, I asked: "How do we get the recorded voice files actually into the chip itself?" I'd recorded the voice that the product was going to issue, and I could see how the voice files could get into the prototype model (with a chisel, possibly) - but what about into 50,000 units on a production line?

Oh, they're masked. It's a mask process. That's how the product works, by masking. How interesting, you think? I thought so too and enquired casually what a mask process entailed.

"IT ENTAILS AN EXTRA FIFTY THOUSAND FRIGGING QUID, THAT'S WHAT!" (Capitalist falls to kitchen floor scrabbling at chest.)

Why does it cost so much? I'm launching with a dozen variants. Each needs a mask. Each mask costs. The project manager never told me about masks! He said it would be all right! He never said "no"! I proceeded step by step until I spent three months finding out he couldn't do what he promised! He was absolutely right! Be careful! Beware their occidental cunning!