The Shenzhen-FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) business model

Someone asked me how all those electronics vendors in the Huaqiangbei make money. There are so many vendors, and many of them seem to sit there all day with relatively few customers coming by. Many vendors are too busy looking at their laptops or phones to even care if you look at their products (friendly customer service is not a strong concept here).  In fact, the truth is that the one or two piece orders from hobbyists like myself are a distraction to their main purpose which is to sell to other businesses.

Most of the kiosks in the market represent a factory somewhere in China, and their primary goal is to sell large orders to other business.  Throughout the market, you’ll see visitors from India, America, or Europe working with vendors and negotiating large orders so that they can import and resell them. Many of these kiosks also sell through Aliexpress, Taobao, or, and there is always the sound of packaging tape being used to tape up boxes for shipment for orders placed through these channels.

As you may have noticed from my previous post, a great many of the products in Huaqiangbei are also available on Amazon.  So how do they get there? Let’s take an example:

Bluetooth bamboo keyboard
Bluetooth bamboo keyboard, mouse, and calculator.  They quoted me 240 RMB ($38) for the keyboard.

The photo above is from a booth that sells electronics products that are made out of bamboo.  There are mice, keyboards, Bluetooth speakers, calculators, and many other products.  The finish and quality are actually quite impressive, and there is quite a variety of products.  More products are shown on their website.

Bamboo Electronics Products

Bamboo Electronics Products from Shenzhen Hoyatech website

Suppose you find some products here and decide you want to make some money re-selling.  Here’s what to do:

Step 1: Setup Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA)

The process is a bit complicated, but it’ll save you time and headaches in the long run.  If you’re successful at this, the last thing you want to be doing is packing and shipping boxes every day.

Step 2: Make a bulk order

Contact the factory and negotiate a bulk order (which will probably have a minimum order value of several thousand dollars). Most all of the kiosks here will give you a business card with some sales director to talk to.  Many of the vendors work with FBA companies all the time, so they’ll know exactly what to do with regards to packaging and shipping. Reading and writing Chinese is a big help in this phase.

Step 3: Profit.

There are lots of companies doing this already (two examples in the table below),  you’ll want to differentiate by developing a brand and maybe even your own storefront to maximize your profits.

Sourcingbay 100% Bamboo Wireless Handcrafted Keyboard Eco-friendlyBluetooth keyboard and mouse
Impecca Full Bamboo Wireless Keyboard and Mouse (KBB600CW)Bluetooth keyboard and mouse

It is obviously quite a competitive business area, but at least some folks are making money out of it.



The Amazing Shenzhen Electronics Market

Shenzhen China has been getting some notice lately as a great place for makers who are building electronics.  I recently had a chance to visit there, and it is truly an amazing place if you love electronics.  You can buy lots of finished electronics (including name-brands as well as knock-offs), but what makes this place special is all the component vendors.

My favorite spot was the two entire floors of LED lighting vendors in the mall located approximately here. There was LED bulbs of all types, as well as ribbons of LEDs, christmas lights of all kinds, and all sorts LED controllers. Here is some of the goodies I came home with.

RGB LED rope (5 meters) with controller, remote control, and 60W power supply

This is a 16.4ft long string of SMD LEDs that comes with a controller and remote that can change it to many different colors.

LEDs when color is set to green
LED rope when set to Green color
LED rope blue
LED rope when set to Blue color
LED Rope (5m) with a LED controller, remote control, and power supply
LED Rope (5m) with a LED controller, remote control, and power supply: 65 RMB ($10.50)
Close-up on the LEDs when not lit

This was the favorite item I picked up during this trip.  It is sold at multiple kiosks, so it’s not a rare item, but it’s good quality and very fun to play with. It cost 65 RMB, which works out to about $10.50 US.  (35 RMB for the 5 meters of rope, 30 RMB for the power supply and controller). I’m still trying to come up with a good project to use this in.  It seems to be used quite commonly in various maker projects on the web, like for lighting up this quadcopter.


Like many items in this market, you can buy the LED Rope and Controller on Amazon also.

Extremely Bright LED flashlight with aluminum housing, Li-Ion batteries, and charger

Skyfire LED flashlight
This is an extremely bright three LED flashlight.

If you’re a security guard looking for a flashlight that can be used to blind someone, then this is the place to come. There are many vendors selling an assortment of flashlights.  I liked this one because it is extremely bright and has a very sturdy aluminum housing. The brightness is impressive – this one has 3x LED chips but they actually sell a version with 7x or 10x  LEDs.  My retinas feel pained just imagining how bright it is.  It runs off of 18650 Li-Ion batteries which I purchased with it as a set and came with a charger.  Total cost was 160 RMB ($26).

They sold me a set of 4 batteries, but it turns out the flashlight runs very happily with just 2, or 3 cells (they are all in connected parallel inside.

Charger for Li-Ion flashlight batteries
Charger for 18650 Li-Ion flashlight batteries. Yes, the batteries are really branded with the name Ultrafire.

Is Ultrafire really the best name for a Li-Ion battery where the primary safety concern is that it could overheat and start a fire?  It’s like naming an airplane BigCrash.

The flashlight itself is made by a manufacturer called Skyray, and it is also sold on Amazon by various resellers. See my next post where I describe how all this stuff ends up for sale on Amazon.

Here are some good blogs that give an overview of this market:

There is also a nice article in the June Make Magazine.

Windows 10 is not for me

Windows 10 is going to be released on July 29th, but one feature that many cordcutters will be missing is Windows Media Center.

Windows 10 discontinued Windows Media Center
I guess none of those devices is an HTPC.

I am still happily running Windows 7 on all my PCs at home (I can’t stand the Windows 8 interface), so I was not planning on updating anytime soon.  Microsoft supported Windows XP from 2001 release up until 2014, so I don’t see Windows 7 (released 2009) going away anytime soon. At this point, my only action will be to keep my OS from auto-updating to Windows 10.

However, if and when the time comes, it should be easy enough to move to a new DVR software. There are several pretty good alternatives out there.  My favorite is MediaPortal which is free, and can run on the same exact same hardware that I already built.

Broken television guide in Windows Media Center after July 20, 2015

Perhaps it was just coincidence, but the day before I wrote up my post documenting my build-your-own OTA DVR setup, Microsoft broke the free television guide service for many users.  Apparently they switched providers from Zap2it to Rovi.  I only noticed because my kids started complaining that none of their cartoons were being recorded anymore!

I found a workaround for this issue documented in a blog.  However, my fix was a bit easier than what was described in that post – all I had to do was re-run the initial TV setup.  This can be found by going to Tasks -> Settings -> TV -> Setup TV Signal

Menu for TV Setup settings in Windows Media Center
Go here to find the TV Setup process in Windows media center

Re-running the setup takes a while (it performs a new channel scan), but after about 10 minutes everything was back to normal.

Hope this fixes things for everybody!

Build your own OTA Antenna DVR

If there is anything that inspires this maker to action, it’s a monthly cable bill.  TV is great, but it’s not $100-a-month-great. Luckily, there’s lots of streaming options these days (Netflix, Hulu, etc…), but getting local broadcast networks streamed over the internet is not as straightforward anymore (especially since Aereo got sued out of existence).

Luckily, in most areas of the US, it is still possible to get broadcast networks with a simple Over-the-air (OTA) Antenna.  If you have the right equipment, you can hook it into a  DVR and still enjoy the convenience of time-shifting and commercial skipping.

So there’s two basic ways to do this:

The easy option: Get a Tivo and an antenna.

This is all you’ll need:

Terk HDTVa Indoor Amplified High-Definition Antenna for Off-Air HDTV Reception
TiVo Roamio OTA HD DVR and Streaming Media PlayerThis DVR works for both OTA (over-the-air) broadcast signals and streaming (Netflix, Hulu, etc…).

If you do this, you should probably get the lifetime subscription deal. Plug the antenna into the Tivo, and you’re done!

The Maker option: Build your own DVR from a PC and an antenna.

For those of you who want a little more flexibility from your system, or just like to build things on your own, a HTPC (home theater PC) is the way to go. A HTPC will do a few things that a Tivo can’t – but to be honest the list is pretty small.  For my family, the only important one is that I also use it as a media and file server for storing videos, music, and photos as well which I can access from my other PCs in the house.  We’ve been using our system for about 3 years now, and we’re very happy with it.  It’s easy enough to use that even my 5 year kid knows how to use it to watch her recorded cartoons.

To build it, I basically followed the directions on this blog post, with some small updates.

1. Buy an antenna and tuner

Terk HDTVa Indoor Amplified High-Definition Antenna for Off-Air HDTV Reception
SiliconDust HDHomeRun CONNECT. FREE broadcast HDTV (2-Tuner)

The tuner  converts the antenna signal to something with which your PC will know what to do. I liked the HD Homerun because it connects to the antenna and then to a router Ethernet port. Connect your PC to the same router (either wirelessly or wired), and your PC will find the tuners so that Windows Media Center can record shows from the OTA broadcasts. Having the signal sent through the wireless router makes it so you don’t need the antenna and the PC in the same room (unlike some tuners which require USB connections to the PC).

2. Buy the computer

You could buy pretty much any PC that runs Windows 7, but these Zotac PC’s are quieter, lower power, and are built in a more living room friendly form factor.  Since the system is sold as a barebones system (no memory, no hard drive), these need to be purchased separately.

Zotac Mini PC Barebones System ZBOX-BI320-U

This is a small, low-power barebones PC that fits well into a living room.

Crucial 16GB Kit (8GBx2) DDR3-1600 MT/s (PC3-12800)

16 GB of memory

Samsung 850 EVO 250GB 2.5-Inch SATA III Internal SSD (MZ-75E250B/AM)

250GB SSD. Get the SSD (not a spinning HD).  The time you’ll save in boot-up time and waking up from hibernation will be well worth it. If you need additional storage, you can always buy an extra USB external HD.

Seagate 2TB External HD

Seagate Expansion 2TB Portable External Hard Drive USB 3.0 (STEA2000400)

A spinning drive for extra storage.  Recording stuff in HD can take a shocking amount of space (6GB / hr).

Also, you’ll want an HDMI cable and a wireless keyboard.

BlueRigger High Speed HDMI Cable with Ethernet (15 ft) – CL3 Rated – supports 3D and Audio Return [Latest HDMI version]
Logitech Wireless Touch Keyboard K400 with Built-In Multi-Touch Touchpad (920-003070)

3. Install Windows 7

Windows 7 Professional SP1 64bit (OEM) System Builder DVD 1 Pack (New Packaging)

I opted for Windows 7 because apparently Windows Media Center with Windows 8 doesn’t offer any improvements, and Windows 7 in my mind will have less hardware and software compatibility issues with other items you may be using. [Read more: Is it worth upgrading a media centre to Windows 8? ].

The Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate editions all include Windows Media Center, so any version except for the Starter is ok. [Update: Microsoft only sells the Professional version now, so you have to buy that one unless you get something aftermarket]. After the installation completes, you will have to do some setup the first time you run Windows Media Center. This will involve configuring it to find the HDHomerun tuner, scanning the airwaves for the local channels, and configuring the TV schedule to show the channels you’re interested in.  All of these steps are described in the HDHomerun documentation.

[Update – added cost summary table] This table below summarizes the cost of this system.

Tuner 75
Antenna 40
PC 170
MEM 82
SSD 90
Ext. HD 85
HDMI Cable 11
Keyboard 25
OS 135
Total 773
[Update] Check out this price comparison of the best OTA DVR options.