By Bruce Einhorn The September 11 attacks on the U.S. have produced a new wave of patriotism among Americans -- and that has been good news for some businessmen in Asia. After all, many of those flags, pins, and other pro-American, anti-Osama bin Laden items that people have been buying come from factories in Asia, especially China.
Aaron Landis, a 30-year-old American living in Hong Kong, is trying to do his part in the war on terrorism -- and make a buck at the same time. For almost six years, Landis has worked in the local toy industry, teaming up with Hong Kong toymakers through his consulting company, Spiltmilk! Ltd., to design and market novelty items such as his Halloween-themed Dracula mousepad that howls and says, "Welcome to my pad."
Shortly after September 11, Landis created a new company, Patriotic Playthings. Like many other entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on American disgust with bin Laden, Landis is using the Internet to create and promote his new business. For Landis, that means selling bin Laden voodoo dolls, complete with pins, from a Web site named predictably enough, www.osamapinladen.com.
CLOSE CALL. Landis is quick to reassure me that he isn't looking to exploit the tragedies in the U.S. That's why, he says, he's donating 15% of his earnings from the "pin-Laden" doll to the Twin Towers Fund, a charity helping victims and their families in New York. Besides, Landis thinks that it's not such a bad thing to try to cheer people up by helping them make fun of bin Laden. "I felt negative pressure not to do the item, because [the September 11 tragedy] was such a serious, serious thing," he says. "I don't want to offend anybody and don't want to profit off other people's misery. But at the end of the day, people need to laugh."
The entrepreneur says he himself came close to being a victim of bin Laden. Landis was in Boston on September 11 for a business trip and was originally scheduled to fly out on American Airlines flight AA11 on Sept. 12. But he had to change his flight and had a choice: the day before his scheduled departure or the day after. He chose the latter, and for him, 13 proved to be lucky. AA11 on September 11 was one of the planes hijacked by the terrorists. "I could have easily been on that plane," says Landis. "It kind of hit a little close to home."
He came up with the idea of a bin Laden voodoo doll shortly thereafter, but he put it aside. "It wasn't something that I had the stomach to work on [right away]," he says. After a little bit, he had a change of heart. "I decided that people needed to blow off a little steam, unload stress, and think that life will get back to normal."
"OIL ON A FIRE." Back in Hong Kong, he decided to produce some of the dolls and sell them over the Net. To set up his Web site, he got in touch with a classmate from New York University who had been working for a dot-com but was now waiting tables. And given Landis' contacts in the toy industry, finding a factory to produce the dolls wasn't tough.
He soon realized he faced a problem, though. The company he wanted to work with had its factory for mass production in China -- but its factory for preliminary samples is in Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population. Indonesia was caught up in considerable anti-American fervor after September 11, which got even worse after the start of the war in Afghanistan. Landis knew he'd have to get his dolls elsewhere. "You don't throw oil on a fire," he says.
So he ended up getting the dolls made in China after all. While the Chinese government has had its own disputes with Washington and anti-American sentiment among some Chinese isn't insignificant, Landis says producing the bin Laden voodoo doll in China has been easy. "There was zero problem," he says. "They saw it strictly as business." Within a week, he had a sample ready. Within three weeks, he had mass production. He was shipping dolls by the end of October.
DROP IN DEMAND. Sales have been steady but not spectacular. The problem, Landis says, is that the real money isn't from sales over the Internet but to big wholesale distributors. And they have been skittish about ordering from him, since they know that demand will drop off if and when bin Laden is killed or captured. "If Osama gets blown up, then that's it," concede Landis. "The item ceases to fill a demand -- its function is to help people vent a little anger."
While pundits and policymakers in Washington talk the pros and cons of moving on to the next stage in the war on terrorism -- Somalia? Iraq? -- Landis says we shouldn't look for him to start selling more bin Laden items, let alone Saddam Hussein voodoo dolls. "I've got another business to run," he says. So it's back to Dracula mousepads for him.
Landis is content that something good will have come from his foray into the world of satire, having raised "at least a few thousand dollars" for charity -- and helping some Americans express their feelings about their country's enemy. Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BusinessWeek Online