Shanzhai ("Bandit") Mobile Phone Companies: The Guerrilla Warfare of Product Development and Supply Chain Management
In 2008, more than 750 million cell phones were produced in China. A significant portion (20 percent, or about 150 million units) of these phones were produced by Shanzhai companies. These companies had rapidly taken a significant share (about 10 percent) of the worldwide market. This phenomenal growth was primarily due to nonconventional approaches to the global market in market positioning, rapid product development, and tightly coupled, responsive and efficient supply chain management. Though Shanzhai often has been perceived as a term for counterfeiting, in reality it is more than just copying. Modern cell phones contain sophisticated hardware, software and systems technology, yet Shanzhai companies of only 10 people could leverage a sophisticated (though informal) network of product designers, manufacturers, and distributors to make a successful business. This case describes the Shanzhai phenomenon, and how these companies operate. It also provides an example of one company that successfully transitioned from a Shanzhai culture to become a major mainstream force in the Chinese mobile phone industry. The case also discusses forces that challenge the future of the Shanzhai model.