Ed Cheney, one of our former English language assistants in China, used the opportunity to build a bamboo clothing and accessories brand. Photo by Héctor García, Creative Commons licence.

Blog originally posted on the Bristish Council website http://blog.britishcouncil.org/2014/01/29/a-way-into-business-in-china-teach-english/ detailing how Mabboo founder Ed Cheney used the opportunity of teaching abroad to build a bamboo clothing and accessories brand. Photo by Héctor García, Creative Commons licence.

The idea to create Mabboo, a sustainable bamboo clothing and accessories brand, came to Ed Cheney in February 2008, during his time as a British Council English language assistant in China. He explains what made his business flourish.

In a break between my classes as a teaching assistant in China, I read an article about bamboo and how it was beginning to be used to create clothing. The fabric was, the article said, exceptionally soft and, because bamboo grows 100% organically, it was much more sustainable than using cotton or poly fibres. I was intrigued, did some research and discovered that bamboo was grown and manufactured in China. I decided I’d need to create a bamboo brand if I was going to consider this as a realistic business proposition.

Humble beginnings - room under library of Qingdao No.9 High School where the idea for Mabboo was first hatched.
I started writing anagrams of ‘bamboo’. ‘Oobmab’ was my first attempt – not really a goer. However, my next attempt, ‘mabboo’, was the simplest anagram of ‘bamboo’ I could make, and it instantly excited me. I then looked up the character in my Chinese dictionary for bamboo: 竹. I loved how simple also the character was and figured I could make a silhouette of an M inside the character. There I had it – my bamboo brand was born in my room underneath the library of No. 9 middle school, Qingdao! That was the easy part.

A brand is born. Original scribblings for creating oobmab and mabboo!
Making connections through sport
Sport for me personally was one of the best ways to meet and interact with local people. Early on in my time in China, my language skills were pretty rusty, but sport helped me. I played on my school football team every weekend, which consisted of a handful of teachers and local policemen. The policemen had the best guanxi with the pitch owners to book a pitch to play on (loosely, guanxi means ‘connection’ or ‘trusted relationship’, but has several cultural connotations attached to it).

HaiShiLong (The Sea Dragons and Lions) Team comprised of Teachers and Policeman of Qingdao, China. As well as the '3 Lions' of the British Council Teaching program (only 2 pictured).
In my first week in China, I attempted to find a bar to watch a Liverpool game, I met a fellow English expat also attempting to watch the game. He happened to be living with a Chinese family but was leaving Qingdao the following week. He insisted on introducing me and two other English language assistants to the family before he left. From that point on, we had a Chinese family in Qingdao who regularly invited us to dinner at their flat to share some incredible food and bags of beer, ‘a Qingdao speciality’. They went out of their way to be friendly, and the cultural insights I learnt from them were and are still invaluable to me.

First dinner with Baba, Mama and Chinese sister Carrol. With their 'English Sons' Bof, Sam, Nick and myself.
I also made my best business friend while watching Liverpool. He was a huge fan himself. I then discovered he was a textiles agent for several leading UK brands. Mike always encouraged me to approach business sensibly and not get too ahead of myself. His mantra in approaching business is 一步一步 – ‘step by step’. Mike still conducts all my quality control in China and we’re in regular contact.

Good friend Mike Lee - Mabboo's quality controller
What you learn as a teacher
Having the opportunity to live in China to improve my Chinese and make contacts in the local business community helped the business in the long term.
You learn a lot of diplomacy in the classroom. Students make you aware of the limits of what they’ll talk to you about. Sensitive topics include Taiwan and Tibet, for example, and learning these sensitivities in the classroom has helped me avoid slipping up and offending my business partners.
Finally, teaching in front of up to 60 kids and singing a Chinese song in front of 2,000 students is more daunting than any business situation I’ve ever been in, but it prepared me for the business world by teaching me confidence.

Becoming a Chinese singing sensation or not!!!
How to build a successful business with Chinese partners
I employ two people full-time and five part-time, two of which are based in China. The rest of my team is UK-based. All my manufacturing is done in collaboration with several factories in China. Mabboo’s first order of T-shirts arrived in the UK in October 2010.

Mabboo's Chinese manufacturing partners
Initially, we sold through Christmas markets and local retailers as well as online through mabboo.com. We traded at some of the UK’s largest music festivals, won the UWE BizIdea award in June 2011 and were runner-up on the Sky 1 business show ‘The Angel’ in July 2012, competing for £100,000 investment funds. Our first shop opened in November 2012 and three further stores have opened since then.
My advice is to learn about local business customs, as well as cultural customs. This can be very helpful at business functions and at building ‘guanxi’. Talk to as many professionals as you can about their pitfalls of doing business in, or with China.

Each market is very different. You cannot presume a product that does well in the UK will automatically do well in China and vice versa. Much care and attention has to be taken dealing with factories. You have to be meticulous and must never presume that the obvious is also obvious to your supplier.

Eco-consumerism and awareness of sustainable products is not high in Chinese consumers’ consciousness. However, our suppliers are very aware of the ethical practices that must be in place at their factories and how all elements of the supply chain must be as sustainable as possible due to our criteria. Hopefully, as the Chinese economy grows further we’ll see the growth in demand for eco-friendly products.
Choosing local manufacturing partners involved a lot of research initially on the internet. The Chinese website alibaba.com is a fabulous resource for this. I then made a shortlist of suppliers, asked them to prepare samples and met all of them individually. You have to trust your judgement and build a relationship over time with your chosen supplier.

What next for Mabboo?
My ambition is to make Mabboo a global brand. Ultimately, I’d love to sell ‘coals to Newcastle’ or ‘tea to China’ as it were, and have a retail presence in China. I still feel very attached to the Chinese heritage of the brand. I feel I have a responsibility to alter people’s perception of what they wear. The pollution problems and rapid development there have brought the environment to the forefront of policy. China is now investing in some of the most progressive green energies, technology, and products, so hopefully Mabboo can be a part of this.

/////////////// MABBOO IS TWO /////

The 16th October marks the 2 Year Trading Anniversary of Mabboo Bamboo clothing!

It’s been an incredible business journey for 2 years. We’ve had many highs and a few lows across the 2 years so we’d thought we’d write a little blog showcasing these and letting you know a little more about plans for the future of Mabboo.

So I think we’ll have to start with that 1st order arrival. After much hard work stretching back to the start of 2008 (when the idea of Mabboo was first hatched), our 1st order of sustainable bamboo T-shirts arrived. By pure coincidence these honestly had been couriered by Panda Logistics from China!

Receiving that 1st order was an amazing feeling but also a daunting one as we suddenly had a load of our Bamboo T-shirts to sell. We had our website up and running and had received a number of pre-orders but beyond that were unsure how people and retailers would react to our revolutionary clothing!

With Christmas 2010 fast approaching we decided to move the business from Langport in rural Somerset, to the bright lights of the big city of Bristol, to start marketing and selling our wares in as many markets and events as possible. This was all good, but to help raise finance for the 1st order I’d sold my wheels! We now had the problem of getting stock across the city centre without a vehicle. So along came the handy 30kg suitcase I’d used to bring all my worldy belongings back from China in! Now if anyone can remember the Autumn/Winter of 2010 you’ll remember it was particularly cold. So spending whole days out in this weather and then dragging this suitcase full of T-shirts Del Boy style across the city taking 45 mins at a time certainly tested my young entrepreneurial resolve - especially on the day the wheel decided to fall off and I had to drag the suitcase back to Mabboo HQ!

Fortunately we landed a chalet on Bristol’s first ever Christmas market showcasing Bristol based businesses so we had a fixed presence for the rest of the Christmas period so it was great to be out there selling and finding out more about our customers regardless of the snow!

In the New Year we became involved with UWE Ventures a shared business start-up space and this led us to being involved in their business competition the Biz idea. We came 2nd in the overall competition netting £2500 as well as securing use of the UWE Business space for a year.
Unfortunately at the end of September due to funding cuts the space closed. Below is a (slightly blurry blame the beer) photo from the last night and some of the many start-up businesses and business support advisors that operated in the space. Special thanks to Paul, Jill and Maz.

For the last two summers we’ve tried hard to get the Mabboo brand out there to the masses across the length and breadth of the country at various festivals and events. 

These have been hard work, some have been great for sales, others not so. This past summer we think we had our worst experience yet at the Wakestock festival at the very Northern tip of Wales in Aberoch, let's just say the weather didn't behave! Photos below shows 2 photos one of the tents Mabboo staff were in and the other the state of the main camping site on the 1st day of the festival!!!

The summer also brought Mabboo’s first ever TV appearance. From thousands of applicants we were selected to appear on a new Sky 1 business show called ‘The Angel’ a cross between Dragon’s Den and the Apprentice in which we competed for 100k of investment. The show was fronted by billionaire businessman John Caudwell and presented by the lovely Amanda Byram of Total Wipeout fame. We won’t spoil what happened but you can now watch highlights now, and extended highlights will be available soon on our youtube channel.

So what does the future now hold for Mabboo. Well we’re excited to announce that we’re working on being the first ever company to bring a new version of bamboo clothing to the UK. This new bamboo fabric is softer and even more sustainable-through the new manufacturing process 99% of the organic compound used to break the bamboo down we are now able to recycle, recover and reuse, making what we believe to be the world’s most sustainable fabric. Here’s a sneaky look of one of incredibly soft samples of the new bamboo fabric.

Although we started with Bamboo clothing the vision for Mabboo has always been to create the very best sustainable products made of Bamboo, so we have now decided now's the time to start expanding our range. On the 15th of October samples arrived of our very first Bamboo iPhone and iPad cover samples.

We will be retailing these on our site and also at our Pop-Up store which will be opening in Bristol city centre over Christmas. Look out on our blog to hear more about these exciting developments.

Of course there are countless people who’ve been involved in the Mabboo story so far. However some special mentions have to go out to Matt C Stokes our Creative Director and our supplier Liu Bin and his family for all their hard work for the past 2 years and beyond.
Of course the Mabboo story could also not continue without you, our customers, and your continued support so THANK YOU!

/////////////// A POTTED HISTORY OF BAMBOO /////

As founder of Mabboo I feel I have a responsibility to anyone reading this now to admit that when I founded Mabboo back in 2008 I did not have a degree in fashion and textiles! What I did have was a degree in History with Contemporary Chinese studies – random I know! So I thought I’d put degree to good use to tell the story of bamboo, a plant which has influenced my life and has had a profound effect on human history for societies, economies, cultures and even sports. I will also highlight briefly many of uses for bamboo that have been utilised over the centuries. History is all about telling stories and the story of bamboo and its influences is fascinating so I hope you enjoy reading more…

Let’s start with the basics of the plant and clear up a major misconception about bamboo, it is not wood! Bamboo is a grass species and there are over 1,450 species of bamboo in the world. Bamboo also holds the world record as the fastest growing plant. The fastest growing species can grow to the height of a double 
decker bus in a week.
 Bamboo is unsurprisingly most prevalent in Asian history particularly in China. Bamboo’s long life makes it a symbol of longevity in China.
Without doubt the most important plant in Chinese culture is the 500 or so species that are found on the Chinese mainland. Bamboo forests have inspired artists through the ages.

Bamboo is also a fundamental part of daily life, playing a significant economic role. Bamboo is so supple that it can be woven into a cloth, so fleshy that it makes delicious dishes, so strong that it can be used in scaffolds to support that mad rush of high rise skyscrapers going up across China and Asia at large – bamboo has a stronger tensile strength than steel. 

 It is the ultimate utilitarian plant. Baskets and mats have been made from it for at least 5000 years, bamboo paper was invented about 1100 years ago, and long before that, characters were scratched on slips of green bamboo – possibly the first ever writing. Numerous musical instruments are made using bamboo. Bamboo is used in traditional medicines and for countless pieces of furniture. 
Wars were fought with bamboo bows and arrows, the use of bamboo is prevalent in martial arts. 
With the Chinese invention of gunpowder, bamboo firearms and missiles were used. Today, bamboo fireworks cheer in the Dai New Year.

One of personal favourite stories of bamboo and sport is that bamboo goalposts were used in the earliest form of a game in which a ball was kicked called cuju the Han writer Li You mentions a form of the game in 55-135 AD!!! 
 Of course now technology has now allowed us to develop bamboo into a super-soft, anti-bacterial and thermo-regulating fabric. I bet cuju players of times past would've enjoyed playing in a bamboo kit!


Back in May Mabboo embarked on its biggest retail adventure to date by taking on a summer of promoting our new sustainable bamboo clothing at 12 very different Festivals across England for 4 months! As a new company we believed it would be a great opportunity to give the brand some increased exposure and a chance to take our clothing to the masses of festival goers! We'll try to give you the highlights and lowlights of the summer that was 2011 for Mabboo!

Things kicked off in Mabboo's home of Bristol with Vegfest, this was quickly followed by the London Green Fair (LGF) where we had a spot in the Ethical Fashion Tent, thanks to our friends at the Centre of Sustainable Fashion helping get us involved in this event in Regent's Park.
We had a great day of trading and Panda face painting for the kids on the Saturday in the sunshine but then in a typically British summer way Sunday was a wash out! However this did give Mabboo its first ever opportunity at going on the catwalk! Admittedly there were a lot of attractive models donning some designer ethical fashion labels who had a bit of a shock when two lads in shorts and a bamboo t-shirts rocked up on the wings of the catwalk! One turned to inquire 'WHAT are you doing here?' to which the Mabboo model replied 'Im a model too!' This was met with 'NO YOU ARE NOT!!' Um cringe! This didn't faze the Mabboo models who were well in the zone at this point to strut their stuff to the amusement and support of the crowd. After the catwalk was over one male onlooker commented 'I have never been so bored looking at so many attractive women, you guys were hilaroius and definately the highlight of the show!' The only downer on this little episode was that as Mabboo was on the catwalk we missed Ewan McGreor wandering into the Ethical fashion tent, would been nice to have him check out our bamboo tees!Gold Coast Oceanfest quickly followed the LGF so we were mixing it with the Surfers in Croyde, North Devon. This was the first of the bigger festivals for Mabboo with some pretty big names headlining, and what a baptism of fire! Being in very close proximity to the beach we had to deal with gale force winds getting our pitch set up Thursday, our gazebo was basically saved from collapsing but extra bits of bamboo which were the offcuts from having created some bamboo clothes rails. Our gazebo was battered but still standing on Friday only for it to be a complete wash out and I mean complete wash out it just didn't stop raining all day! Fortunately the Saturday and Sunday brightened up. Our Mabboo Panda suit became a big hit at the event, and Panda hugs were being handed out left right and centre. Musically Seasick Steve was a massive highlight what a character, every song was a mini chunk of his life story and we just love this quote from him: 'Hobos are people who move around looking for work, tramps are people who move around but don't look for work, and bums are people who don't move and don't work. I've been all three.'
Two smaller fesitivals followed the Festival of Nature in Bristol and Summer Breeze in Swindon. Both were great well run events and then came Relentless NASS! NASS is the UK's largest action sports festival. Some of the world's best Skaters, BMXers and Scooter Kids were on show as were seemingly the world's best tent burners!!! On the Sunday of the event we almost had a security guard collapse on the stall having dealt with riots outside the D&B tent the night before he'd had a morning of putting out 120 tent fires. It's fair to say there were a lot of mentalists at the event. We had a good time but it was definately out there as the most extreme festival we'd attend in the summer.

Between all of this Mabboo had entered into the BizIdea Competition run by the University of the West of England (UWE) this involved a written business plan being assessed and then pitching infront of a panel of 6 judges Dragon's Den style, and we ended up doing rather well finishing Runner Up. For this we recevived a nice little cash sum, business incubation at UWE ventures and possibly the coolest award in business competitions nationwide. Check out our glass chilli!
Latitude our biggest and best trading weekend but also wettest weekend of the summer followed in July, we then did Good Weekend in Basingstoke and Splendour in Nottingham. We had another homecoming in Bristol for the Bristol Harbour Festival and Bristol Balloon Fiesta. To round things off we finished with a bit of sunshine for V fest in Chelmsford. We made a lot of friends and met a lot of people over the months so if you bought one of tees and are reading this thanks for the support.

Throughout the summer Mabboo has also been involved in some small scale sporting sponsorship. Namely with the Ice Cold Pitchers Div 3 Softball team in Bristol. This crazy team is the world's first Softball team to be kitted out in bamboo clothing-what an honour, and they finished their maiden softball season solidly mid table you'll be glad to hear.

The other sporting event Team Mabboo was involved with was running in the Bristol Half Marathon on the 11th of September in support of various charities. This is where the pain comes from in the blog title! Team Mabboo conisisted of 6 runners 2 who've run Half marathons before and 4 complete novices. 13.1 miles is a long way trust me, but Team Mabboo did admirably with our fastest time being 1 hr 49 mins and the slowest 2hr 16 mins, 3 of our runners were sub 2 hours and 3 weren't but everyone was just happy completing it. Cue a week of pain and not being able to descend stairs due to thigh muscle ache!
I'll have to end this blog with saying a MASSIVE thank you to all those who helped out Mabboo at Festivals over the summer you know who you are. Also keep your eyes peeled for a soon to be published blog about exciting details of our new order...

For more pics check out our facebook group www.facebook.com/mabboobamboo


Three weeks ago Mabboo embarked on a little Christmas retail adventure by setting up shop at the new Bristol Christmas Market. We'd done a few markets around Bristol but having a fixed chalet to promote our wares from, and having a certain amount of shelter from the elements was appealing!

The first week 29th Nov-5th of December was tough going, for one it was absolutely baltic! It snowed from the Mon-Thursday which didn't help convince people that buying a bamboo t-shirt even with its thermo-regulating properties was a good idea. Dramas in that week were provided by maurauding students who decided that Vodafone just on the corner from us and its billions in unpaid Corporation tax was a suitable target for door ramming and a covering with mustard from the nearby Bratwurst stand at the German market!!! Its a bit nuts seeing how a crowd quickly can turn into something resembling a riot but fortunately students tend to like Pandas and eco things so we didn't get any hassle. After the main load of students had gone by the police relaxed a bit and some decided to sample the Bath Pig Chorizo that was on offer from the stall next to our own, this led to a lady passing by to suddenly stop in her tracks, drop her bag and get her camera out and snap away between laughing hysterically she was saying 'pigs eating pigs, pigs eating pigs'!!!

The other main point of entertainment came from the Ann Summers store located directly across from our chalet. Ann Summers has opted for a festive themed window display with 'Ding Dong' santa hats and the like on scantily clad mannequins, now without sounding like a disturbed individual who is transfixed by plastic models, one of these models was kitted out in nipple tassles on one of the coldest days! Now it may not have had to do with the cold at all but these nipple tassles just wouldn't stay on and provided a mornings entertainment betting with our neighbours on how long it'd take to their next fall, and then how long it'd take for the Ann Summers staff to realise-like I said it was a bit slow at times that week!!!

We feel there's a fair bit we've learnt about our customers and how people react to bamboo clothing. We'd displayed signs saying 'T-SHIRTS MADE OF BAMBOO' to hopefully leave people in little doubt why are T-shirts are just a little bit different. Even with these signs the number of people who came up and asked 'Are they really made of bamboo' was staggering but at least it aroused their curiosity. We then had the touch and run customers who'd seen the sign saying the bamboo was super-soft and the encouraging 'Touch Me' arrow so just couldn't resist running up having a quick stroke before leaving going 'awww it is soft' and then run off. For people looking inquisitively at our stall I'd always try to encourage a touch sometimes this felt a little weird saying 'Hello Madam/Sir our clothing is incredibly soft please have a touch.' 95% of the time after the touch potential customers usually wanted to find out more.

Waiting for that first sale of the day is always a tricky time, sometimes you have the curse of the early sale and then a long wait for the next. It's definately true that people attract people and usually one sale turns into a couple as other people waiting to see what the fuss is about get involved. It's always great when you get customers who instantly fall in love with your product and we had a fair few which was great. Having done our first weekend I received an email from a delighted guy who'd bought some tees on the Saturday, it was an email to print out and frame so I'm happily going to plug it here! 'You're tees looked really stylish and I couldn't resist buying two. The man selling them was very friendly and helpful, and I am definately interested in buying more in the near future, especially as they are eco-friendly and so comfortable. Thanks very much for your brilliant products.' I had another guy start quizzing me on the tees and take a genuine interest in how the business had started and he took a distinct liking to our new Mabboo Panda print and bought 4 to kit many a family member in on Christmas morning, he said he'd email the pic over so look out for it after Christmas. It's a really satisfying feeling to be thinking of all the people who'll be receiving a Mabboo tee as a Christmas present, we're just hoping it'll be their fav present of the year :)

On one of the early days when it had been a quiet day I had a lady come up have a feel of the t-shirt and declare 'I love it. I never do this and just buy a t-shirt but I really love the design and the feel.' I'd have to declare she wasn't exactly from my target customer base but a sale is a sale! She then returned a week and a half later and told me she still loved her tee so much and would like another. She had also brought a present with her for me, all wrapped up with a note included. This was my first ever customer gift, I suppose it usually works the other way around with loyal customers but hey! I opened it and found out it was the Last Testament of the Mormons!!! So the Mormons now wear Mabboo, don't think I'm going to be pushing sales in this client base!

Apart from the freezing weather and teething problems as a new market it was a great experience to get our tees out there to the Bristol masses. Have a great Christmas everybody!

/////////////// MABBOOST YOUR SEX APPEAL /////

We’ve had very positive feedback about the tees since starting trading two and a bit weeks ago, and the hard work put into making our tees as high quality as possible seems to be paying off with the response being along the lines we’d hoped for; ‘I love it’, ‘t-shirts arrived today, very, very impressed’ etc!

That was until the early hours of this morning when a very excited Mabboo customer (who shall remain unnamed for confidentiality reasons) got in touch to describe in quite graphic detail the new pulling powers his new t-shirt had given him! Here’s how events unfolded for our lucking man:

‘Tee's arrived this morning, went out on the town in the green pixel. Genuinely got hit on by a lingerie model, she came up to ME at the bar…(more salacious details followed which are not suitable for this blog) …what pheromones do you put in these tee's???????'

Now we at Mabboo know how many great qualities our bamboo clothing possesses and we’ve now evaluated these as to how they could’ve helped attract a member of the opposite sex.

The odour resistant properties of our bamboo tees could well be releasing just the right amount of pheromones to reel in that beautiful lady. The super-soft feel of the tees could have meant the first touch was the sweetest, and led to the breaking down of other physical barriers. Maybe it could’ve been the heightened intellectuality that may have been displayed when our customer talked up the eco-credentials and science behind the making of a bamboo tee? It could have been a simple case of the ‘feel-good’ factor of being in a brand spanking new tee sporting a great design, that gave our customer that added air of confidence he needed to get approached by a beauty!

Model featured in Green Pixel is in no way related to this story!

Maybe he just got lucky, but we don’t think it was that simple and believe our Pixel print is now proven to give you heightened sexual powers! At the end of the day Pandas have been seemingly obsessed with the bamboo for thousands of years and if a man and woman can benefit from this new bond with bamboo, fair play to them!

Obviously we’d love to hear from any female customers as to whether the same is true of their experiences of wearing around their Mabboo tee?! Please send any other related stories, photos you may have of how a Mabboost helped you to customerservices@mabboo.com.

/////////////// TEE ORDER PLACED /////

It's taken a little longer than expected due to a supplier let-down, and a hunt round China to find a trusted new one but Mabboo is proud to announce that the first order has now been placed with our new supplier who has over 10 years experience producing eco fabrics. Here's a sneaky preview of some of the work that's gone into the order, and what your future wardrobe could look like. Tees are projected to be back in the UK in 6-7 weeks! Massive thanks to Matt - Mabboo's Creative Director for all the hard work he's put in pulling design elements together. Hit the jump to see some more...

/////////////// FUNQ /////

Mabboo hopes to liberate our bamboo clothing back to the outdoors as much as possible. Just as our mountaineering Panda pals love to get out there in nature, we have a sneaky feeling a lot of the people who believe in our brand philosophy quite like getting out the office and playing a bit of sport too.
The first team Mabboo has supported is based in Mabboo's birthplace Qingdao, China. Here's some pics of Qingdao Ultimate Frisbee Team-FUNQ, enjoying the beach and their bamboo sports shirts. Hit the jump for a couple more shots...

/////////////// VOTE RESULT /////

A MASSIVE thank you to everyone who voted on our first set of designs, its been a great to get your feedback on what designs could be going to print.

Drum roll please...and the winner is 'Panda' with 23% of the vote. Panda took an early lead and never relinquished it. A special mention to the designs that ran Panda close. 'Bamboo' took 16% of the vote and a late surge from 'Comic' saw it almost bag a last minute podium place from 'Authentic' which had 15%. Now for the loser!!! 'Evolution' takes the wooden spoon accruing exactly 0% of the vote. In an historic week of political horsetrading we don't think even a coalition can save this design!

Look out for a second set of designs coming to the blog soon...