02 October, 2013

No Smooth-On for You, Romania! NEXT!

It's clear that this blog has largely devolved into one man's journal of his quixotic campaigns against stupidity. It's pretty much the only outlet I have.  I'm not rich enough to sue idiots into submission, nor criminal enough to beat them into it. But at least I can write about them! I make sure it never descends into outright (read: actionable) libel, and in fact I normally just let the idiote(s) du blogpost hang themselves on their own rope by exposing their own imbecility in their own words.

But so far it's been feeble-minded individuals whom I've taken on in these pages. One-on-one dealings with a person who has somehow evaded cerebral karma with impunity, leaving my only recourse to shame him/her with the spotlight of public scrutiny. Doubtless it never knocks any sense into the offender, but it vents my spleen and strangely entertains my small circle of readers and that will have to be enough.

But today we don't have an individual in the hot seat, we have a whole company (it's a very stretchy seat)! Specifically, a company as represented by two people, its Vice President and his (assumed) flunkie.

Now, bear with the backstory because it's important. You know of my involvement in making props and costumes, what the kids call "cosplay" nowadays. Much of it involves carving or sculpting shapes from wood, foam, clay, etc. and making copies of them in plastic to get a more durable and/or repeatable version. Simply put, you pour liquid rubber which solidifies into a mold around the shape, which you then peel off and fill with liquid plastic which solidifies into the final cast(ed) item.  In my younger USA days, I found the best combination of quality and convenience in a brand of these products called "Smooth-On". I'd order and pick up my purchases from their actual manufacturing HQ, rather than from resellers, which put me on a pleasant first-name basis with much of their top personnel.

Fast forward to Romania, where, as you may know, exists a cosplay culture, not to mention a few movie/TV studios, who could really benefit from a local source of these molding and casting products.  There is one online shop which carries a limited array of German product, but nothing approaching the range and quality offered by Smooth-On. S-O has distributors around the world but nothing very useful to Romania. But I've dealt with a few of these distributors and was certain I could join their ranks. So I fired off an email query to Smooth-On asking how to become a distributor.

Oh, did I mention that was in 2006?

My first clue back then was the fact that you couldn't even access Smooth-On's website in Romania, as their ISP blocked this country's IP addresses. Yes, apparently they were so afraid of this World Capital of Corruption that they feared even a casual surfer to their site would somehow undoubtedly infest it with trojans and hack all their bank accounts. Needless to say, I never got a response and the failed endeavor faded into memory.

Fast forward a little more to the current Romanian cosplay culture wherein many artisans are graduating from building their wares from duct tape and cardboard, into real expression of their talents through more appropriate materials. Like liquid rubber and plastic... hmm, where have I heard that before? Oh yeah! Time to take another look at Smooth-On. Now not only is their website reachable, but they're on Facebook too, in both cases with tons of free, helpful tips, videos, tutorials, and examples of artists around the world who use their products.  Surely they are now more open-minded, globally, and just waiting to hear from an entrepreneur eager to introduce their wonders to Romania! Surely!


Another email to their only proffered address for inquiries yielded nothing, same as before. Ditto a phone voicemail and a direct plea to an S-O exec via LinkedIn. But now, there were other options! Specifically, I could also attempt to reach them on Facebook, where someone would surely respond from such an active site of several posts per day. Admittedly, by this point I was a bit snippy, but who could blame me?
Facebook Message: From Ken Huegel To Smooth-On on May 21

Greetings.  I am an American currently living in Romania and former Smooth-On client. In recent years, I have made several inquiries to Smooth-On about becoming a distributor in Romania. Most recently I left voicemail and a message on Linked-In to Mr. Joe D. To date I have not received any reply.  My experience with Smooth-On in the '90s and 2000s was of a professional company and I would like to think that is still true.  Therefore I believe I'm not out of line in requesting the courtesy of a reply, yes or no, to my inquiry.  I am very serious in my desire and see no reason to expect equally serious reception. I await your response, as I have been.  Respectfully, Ken Huegel
And lo and behold, a reply! Of sorts. Two weeks later.
Facebook Message: Smooth-On to Ken Huegel on June 03 
Hi Ken,
Though Joe D. is currently travelling, I will submit your inquiry to my supervisor and forward an email to Joe looking for more information.  My direct email address is j.@smooth-on.com  If you could send me your information directly, that would help quite a bit.  Thank you.
This was the foot in the door! I continued in regular email.
From: Ken Huegel
Sent: Monday, June 03, 2013 5:15 PM
To: 'j.@smooth-on.com'
Subject: Distributorship inquiries 
Dear J.; 
THANK YOU for responding to my Facebook message. I was really beginning to take it personally. [...]I believe there is sufficient interest and demand in your products to sustain a local reseller here in Romania. I have had for years a small business registered in this country, with the proper activity authorization to import, use, and resell the chemicals that include your products. The time has now arrived for action, which means Smooth-On must meet me halfway. 
Therefore I kindly request any and all needed information on what is involved in being a Smooth-On distributor. I imagine you have a manual of sorts which includes specifications such as pricing structures, requirements on quotas, credit terms (if any), minimum best practices and behaviors of distributors as Smooth-On representatives, and possibly even downstream programs such as cooperative advertising and sponsorships.  I'm not sure what else may be part of the process, but I assume you are.
Thank you for the opportunity to finally get my full story and inquiry out. This is a "dream" I have entertained for several years now, during which it has only garnered more interest in the industry around me. I look forward to your reply!
Now, if you care to invest the brain power, note the questions I asked, and when I asked them (early June). Next email came from yet another new name, the third so far I'd dealt with.
From: Heather
Sent: Thursday, June 06, 2013 2:03 AM
Subject: re: Your Smooth-On Distributor Inquiry
Hello Ken,
Thank you for contacting Smooth-On with your interest in distributing our products. Will you also be using Smooth-On products yourself or do you intend only to resell them? What products and sizes are you looking to stock? What quantities are you looking to purchase? How do you intend to sell our products - retail location(s), online store, mail order catalog? Any additional information that you would like to provide is welcomed.
Please contact me by phone or email - whichever is more convenient. I look forward to hearing back from you. Enjoy your day!
Kindest regards,
An innocuous-enough-sounding request for information which I was only too happy to fulfill:
From: Ken Huegel
Sent: Thursday, June 06, 2013 3:58 PM
To: 'Heather'
Greetings, Heather!
Thank you for your reply. [...]I intend to standardize on Smooth-On Products for my own prop and costume business, and also [...] in demonstrations or workshops, [...] However, I envision the bulk of my Smooth-On trade going to reselling, from a sizeable group of amateur and semi-professional individual costume makers in the country, to the major film and TV studios in Romania[...].   In regards to quantities, I can only guess due to the "chicken-and-egg" syndrome - I won't have firm customers until I can offer product, and I can't estimate product need until I have customers.  Additionally, virtually everyone I know who works with these materials tends to do so on a project basis, which means demand will certainly flow and ebb. However, I will ask them to try and estimate what they would use.  In the meantime, do you have recommended "starter kits" for new distributors, consisting of a suggested range and quantity of "best-seller" SKUs?
Online ordering and shipment by in-country (non-international) courier service is well established in Romania, and this will probably be my primary means of transaction. I have a 10-year-old Paypal business account waiting to be resuscitated, and company bank accounts in multiple currencies for non-Paypal ([...]bank transactions are almost always done by wire transfer).  I certainly desire a storefront in the future if the business supports it.  I live in a newly-constructed apartment complex which devotes its ground floor to very attractive shop space.
[...]For the time being I prefer to communicate in e-mail so I have a record to refer back to.  That, and our time zone is 7 hours ahead of yours, leaving a vanishingly small window when our business hours overlap! In any case, don't take it personally.  I'm certain we will speak in person during this process.  Hope to hear from you soon!
A note about the edits "[...]": In my early correspondence with S-O, I tended to be overly personal and "folksy" in an effort to put them at maximum ease with dealing with oh-so-spooky Romania.  So all I'm trimming are excess anecdotes and effusive rustic asides that would make an already-painfully-lengthy read even moreso. I promise I'm cutting out nothing relevant to the tone or the facts of the conversation.

With that, the reply:
From: Heather
Sent: Friday, June 07, 2013 5:50 PM
Hi Ken,
Thank you for the information. I am traveling for the next week but will follow-up with you when I return. Until then, have a great day!
Fair enough, but the "next week" would have, conservatively, started on June 17. By July 1 I'd heard nothing so I took the initiative (again), folksy and disarming as ever (which means edits ahead):
From: Ken Huegel
Sent: Monday, July 01, 2013 9:48 AM
To: 'Heather'
Hello, Heather - 
I hope you had a pleasant holiday as I did last week [...] At some point I would like to know a summary of what you expect of a distributor.  My impression was that since your reseller network seems well-established and fairly consistent in individual look and feel, I assumed you had a standard "handbook" of basic guidelines and requirements.  If instead each distributor is created on a case-by-case basis, then our flow of information, which has been largely one-way, will need to even out for me to get a better idea of what's ahead and how to respond accordingly. If, at this point it's more convenient for you to start communicating by phone, let me know and I will try to call you today - your 9:00 am is my 4:00 pm, such a generous overlap!
I hope to hear from you soon!
As you might notice... folksy but a bit of the snippiness sneaking in.  I'd dutifully answered all questions put to me, and received no answer to any of mine. A week and a half later, the reply arrived. My questions answered?  Heck, no... more questions TO answer!
From: Heather
Sent: Thursday, July 11, 2013 7:05 PM
Hello Ken,
I hope you are doing well. In order to proceed, I need to know the specific products and sizes that you plan to stock. [...] I am also unclear about where/how you plan to sell our products. Forgive me if I misunderstood, but it sounded like you wanted to sell from your apartment - please confirm. What size is your retail location and do you plan to resell solely from a storefront or online (or both)? What countries are you planning to sell our products to other than Romania? Your payments would need to be made via credit card or wire transfer (we do not accept PayPal) and you will not be able to place orders online via our website for international exports. You will require a customs broker to clear customs if you use a freight forwarder, but will not if you use FedEx or similar.
I look forward to your responses.
This is when I really started to smell a rat. I'd already clearly explained my selling model - online only at first, which doesn't concern my apartment at all as a storefront. However, this is indeed common to do so in Romania, as I explained in the next reply. I also previously stated payments would be wire transfer - again, I never even mentioned Paypal. I also never mentioned selling to other countries besides Romania. The impression I got was that there was a list of "qualifier" questions that needed to be robotically satisfied before any real dialogue took place.  So be it:
From: Ken Huegel
Sent: Thursday, July 18, 2013 11:59 AM
To: 'Heather'
Greetings, Heather - 
I agree it is important to reach an understanding. The basis for ours should probably be "they do things differently over here", likely a familiar theme if you've handled Smooth-On distributors outside the First World. [...] My ambition is to use my reputation and access in the professional and private circles in which I operate to build an education and demand for Smooth-On products. For lack of a better word, I plan to be Romania's Smooth-on "missionary".
Do I have a pile of ready cash to use as seed money for this? No. Few small businesses in Romania do, at least legally. In the beginning my main investment into this distributorship will be personal more than financial. My first order from Smooth-On will be pathetic by your standards, because it will go towards creating giveaway rings of sample casting tags, and repackaged into trial-size kits to be handed out to select prospects, and used for in-person demonstrations at the offices of other prospects. My first order will not be used to generate direct revenue, but rather awareness and demand. The order itself will probably go like this:
  • ONE EACH of most of your popular products, to create sample castings
  • KIT forms of your products as you offer them, for demos and samples and perhaps sales
[...]you are concerned (rightfully) about my storage and delivery plans. In this regard, the first thing you probably need to know about Romania is that there are no zoning laws. Entrepreneurs who can't find or afford proper shop or storefront space, can simply rent an apartment in any huge Communist-era bloc of flats and set up there. Any entrance to any apartment complex in Romania is framed with signs: "Accounting, Apt.6", "Auto Parts, Apt.23", "Law Firm, Apt. 32", "Printer Supplies, Apt.48" , and so on.  For businesses which sell goods rather than services, the practice is to utilize secure storage space which each complex makes available, typically in the basement levels.  A photo of the space available to me is enclosed. The interior location, by happy coincidence, provides a consistent, comfortable environment for Smooth-on products. 
Orders are made mostly online, sometimes by phone; product is retrieved from storage, and shipped by local couriers with whom the business maintains an open account. Obviously, this mechanism doesn't much allow for casual walk-in customers, but that's typically one of the incentives to move to the Next Level - that being a true walk-in storefront once the "apartment-basement" model is outgrown.  So as you can see, I have the plan in place.  It's a plan that might not be considered professional, let alone legal, in other countries, but in Romania it is what works and it is what's done.
[...] I hadn't envisioned a need to sell to any other country which already has its own Smooth-On reseller. [...] If you have restrictions on such activity, I would be happy to know and obey them. In similar fashion, do you offer any kind of [DON'T WANT ANYONE TO STEAL THIS FANTASTIC IDEA] If there is a mechanism to address this, I would like to know that also.
I hope I have answered all your questions and more! What I needed to make clear to you, is that I am not a sprawling corporation simply looking to add Smooth-On to the dozen other lines of products I sell. I am, to coin a cliché, one man with a dream. Didn't Smooth-On start with one product to repair leaky pipes? If this is a paradigm that you can still support and work with in today's climates, then we have indeed arrived on the same page and I look forward to the next step!
I'll be continually apologizing for subjecting you, dear reader, to such insane verbosity in this post. But I feel it is essential to illustrate one thing: that I answered each and every question put to me in agonizing detail, to leave nothing to question, no stone unturned. What was my reward? This, two weeks later:
From: Heather
Sent: Friday, August 02, 2013 8:06 PM
Hello Ken,
Thank you for the additional information. Our initial stocking order is $25,000.00 (not including freight). You still have not named specific products and sizes that you plan to stock. You will need to provide us with this information when you submit your initial order, along with your pre-payment. Please let me know how you would like to proceed.
What did I miss? This was the slam to end all slams. All this effort to foster understanding of the foreign ways we do things here, just to result in "25 large, cash up front", something sounding like a line from "Breaking Bad". With what can now, in retrospect, only be considered extreme naivete, I attempted to soldier on with the only weapons I had, appeals to intelligence and common sense:
From: Ken Huegel
Sent: Wednesday, August 07, 2013 1:45 PM
To: 'Heather'
Dear [Oops, accidentally used her last name],
I am highly concerned at the one-way flow of information in our exchange.
In summarizing our interaction thus far:
  1. I have, to the best of my ability, answered every Smooth-On question, yet all of my many questions throughout our exchanges have gone unanswered.
  2. Smooth-On has repeatedly requested details of my order, yet provided no pricing so that I can make informed decisions about filling such an order.
  3. I have explained in great detail how I am currently a small company in a small economy, and yet Smooth-On seems to impose a dollar quota reachable only by an established leading megafranchise.
Based on this, I am now forced to wonder:
  • Is Smooth-On taking this potential cooperation seriously?
  • Is Smooth-On genuinely interested in establishing a "ground floor" presence in a developing economy?
  • How much value does Smooth-On really place on cultivating good relations with its distributors?
  • Is Smooth-On's goal immediate large profit to the exclusion of long-term growth assets such as resellers?
Frankly, from our interaction so far, I have yet to see the Smooth-On that appears so super-friendly and helpful on its website and social pages, the Smooth-On that I regularly dealt with in the past, at your own location, as a customer. The Smooth-On in our current exchange appears inflexible, uncooperative, dismissive of potential, not at all entrepreneurial and as such, highly disappointing.
For the record, I have up to $[BITE ME, IRS] in ready credit, and if our flow of information had been two-way and your quotas realistically based on reseller capacity, we may already have been doing business. Even now, in the interest of still achieving this goal, I welcome you to correct my perceptions with serious and reasonable dialogue.
I await your response.
This is the first time I noticed I'd been addressing her by her last name. It wasn't intentional, but I can't guarantee it wasn't subconscious either.  Maybe that's why I never heard from her again? By this time I knew I was being strung along, likely to get no useful interaction from Smooth-On.  But I did at least hope for some closure. Alas, after three weeks without response, I attempted to kick it upstairs to Joe, the S-O person with whom I was initially told I should deal with:
From: Ken Huegel
Sent: Tuesday, August 27, 2013 11:30 AM
To: 'j.@smooth-on.com'
Dear Mr. D.,
I gather from your online presence that you are a busy man. Yet I ask that you make the time to read this email exchange between Smooth-On and myself and weigh in on it. Since your name was the first one I was originally given in pursuing my endeavor, I want your input into this process, specifically to confirm if this is indeed how legitimate requests like mine are treated by Smooth-On. All I ask is that you read with the understanding that Romania is NOT the USA and the scale and procedures of its commerce differ accordingly.
                                                                                                                                                As you can see, it has been three weeks since my last communication to Smooth-On and I have yet to receive a reply, not that the flow of information was ever equally bidirectional to begin with. Therefore, I request your fair and reasonable assessment of what kept the following exchange from resulting in a mutually beneficial relationship, and whether or not it can still be so.
Well, to my utter surprise, Joe responded immediately with a full explanation of the misunderstanding!

And if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you, cheap.

So, one MONTH after my note to Joe and nearly TWO months after my last note to Heather with no reply from either, I had no choice but to walk away and admit defeat at the hands of superior business acumen.

Did I mention that bridge in Brooklyn?
From: Ken Huegel
Sent: Monday, September 30, 2013 7:47 PM
To: 'j.@smooth-on.com'; 'Heather'
Dear Mr. D. and/or Ms. H.;
Based on the lack of progress in the enclosed correspondence, I have been made aware of my right to request a due diligence of Smooth-On's relevant business practices via the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977.  In order to determine the next step, please answer on record the following question:
"Has Smooth-On, Inc. interacted with SC HProps Design SRL at demonstrably similar levels of consideration and cooperation with which Smooth-On, Inc. would interact with any other current and potential Distributor of its products?"
A lack of answer to this email by COB Friday 04 October 2013 will be interpreted as a "no", as ISP data can prove its proper delivery if needed. 
I regret this potential course of action but as I have learned, non-native entrepreneurs in this country must often challenge the prejudice and resulting dubious business practices of foreign entities, via provisions such as the FCPA.  I await your reply.
Was this a desperate last resort? Or a bluff? Let's just say I'd decided I'd been placed firmly in the category of "Nothing Left to Lose". But oh boy, less than ONE DAY LATER, look who woke up!
Sent: Tuesday, October 01, 2013 4:49 PM
Dear Mr. Huegel,
Heather [...] is traveling, so allow me to respond.
Heather presented your interest in representing us in Romania to me.  I make all distributor decisions and receive many inquiries every week from people around the world seeking to be a Smooth-On distributor.  Heather conveyed to you that our minimum inventory position for new distributors $25,000 worth of our materials.   This is a requirement that we have applied to all who express an interest in selling Smooth-On materials.  Those that meet the requirement are then considered seriously as a candidate for a distributor partner.  Other requirements included a suitable warehouse facility with store front, a staff to service customers and more.  Those that do not meet the requirement do not qualify.
I am not understanding your question or your implied threat in sighting "the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977".  You accuse Smooth-On of prejudice and dubious business practices, but our requirements are clear and apply to all who express interest in selling our materials. You indicate that you cannot meet our minimum purchase requirement and therefore you do not meet our minimum qualifications as a distributor.  
I wanted you to know that we take your accusations quite seriously and respond accordingly.
Well, now, where had THIS guy been?  If he'd come down from his ivory tower a bit earlier in the circus, things might have gone a bit differently. Still and all, I tried my best to explain myself all over again to the fresh meat:
From: Ken Huegel
Sent: Wednesday, October 02, 2013 6:03 PM
To: 'Clay'
Thank you for your prompt and informative reply.  It is unfortunate things had to go this far to finally receive one. I suspect if you had joined earlier in the process, it would not have so escalated. In that respect, I understand you are busy but please give this letter your full attention.
First, let me clarify my FCPA reference. My concern was not that Smooth-On would fail scrutiny under this Act, but rather the spectre of such scrutiny would compel Smooth-On, as it has other US companies, to avoid doing business in countries with less-than-perfect reputations such as Romania. Perhaps then less a question of legality than of ethics, but pursuable nonetheless as has been necessary in the past. For the moment however, this concern is put aside.
Second, much of the information in your response is news to me. While Ms. Hanna grilled me thoroughly on my storage, budget and storefront capacity, at no time was I advised they did not meet your requirements. In fact, I received virtually no answers from Smooth-On, only more questions. It simply appeared that Smooth-On intended to string me along with no useful information until I gave up from exasperation.  Even the final demand for the $25,000 initial order was made without any information needed to meet it, such as:
  1. What pricing would be used to build the order? (Certainly not retail, but no alternative was ever presented)
  2. What methods and pricing of shipping do you employ?
  3. What are the minimum size and frequency requirements for subsequent orders? Will credit terms ever apply?
  4. What documentation (contract, bank transfer data, warranty) officiates the business relationship?
  5. What support exists to ensure distributors meet Smooth-On's end-user experience requirements?
  • Product literature or templates, promotional/demo/sample materials, etc.
  • Corporate Identity Guidelines for logo placement and usage, website templates, etc.
  • Best Practices Guidelines, Staff Training Requirements, etc.
These are basic, legitimate business questions which I asked more than once to no reply. To hear only "$25 grand, cash up front" is something one would expect from a drug dealer, not Smooth-On.
Third, your $25K demand is exclusionary to legitimate Small/Medium Enterprises, especially in developing market economies and especially during a global financial crisis. Is it considered a responsible business model to choose no distributor revenue at all, over a smaller source with strong growth potential? In a world of financial, technical, and similar corporations offering support for SMEs, does Smooth-On truly seek to actively discourage them?
Regarding your other requirements, know that I already have suitable storage available and an online shop/delivery model ready to go. However, brand-new storefronts stand ready to rent in my own residence complex, and in this economy, applicants will flood the merest hint of a service staff position. But in no way will I undertake these investments until after I have assurances of product to sell. If you require the opposite, then we have a chicken-and-egg vicious circle where nobody wins. It bears mentioning that when I lived in NJ, I would phone in my smooth-On orders directly to C. at your St. John Street HQ and pick them up directly from your loading dock.   I do not recall seeing any storefront as per your requirements.
In summary, there is viable market potential for molding and casting products in Romania.  My considerable experience with several brands has made Smooth-On my first choice to fill this need. Whatever turnover my small business may start with, is still better than the virtually zero currently transacting in this market. I have no choice but to start small, but I have no intention to stay small. If your policy truly is to disregard such opportunity, then, again, nobody wins. I hold out one last hope this is not the case.
Finally, make the time to read, really read, the entire email between myself and Ms. H. I doubt anyone really has. I bent over backwards to explain my situation and intention.  I probably erred in appearing more personal than professional, but it still accurately portrays my passion and efforts to make this happen. All I ask is that if you have any questions or doubts, please voice them to me instead of hiding behind arbitrary impossible requirements.
Not my most diplomatic of missives, but all things considered, the high point of my professional composition in this entire debacle.  A masterpiece; concise, factual, standing its ground but yet still appealing to the common sense, or at least the business sense, of the recipient.  I was so proud.  I got the following back about ninety seconds after it was received, allowing conservatively for Internet travel time:
From: Clay
Sent: Wednesday, October 02, 2013 6:06 PM
Dear Mr. Huegel,
Thank you for your e-mail.  We choose not to pursue a relationship with you at this time.
Boom! DE-nied. RE-jected. Clearly without my letter even being read. And with that, pride hereby goeth before the fall.

Mr. Clay and his bunch choose to dismiss any potential revenue from a strongly-indicated growth market because I huwt dere widdle feewings.  With my rapier weapons of common sense and appeal to reason, no less.

Or is it something far simpler... good old fashioned corporate greed? Their $25K cost (aptly named) of entry is a completely arbitrary choice, apparently intended to act as a filter of some sort, possibly to weed out scammers looking to score wholesale prices for their personal purchases. Fair enough, but to mindlessly cling to that filter knowing how many "false positives" it may generate from eager, legit small business, preventing all but the largest First-World conglomerates from playing, is bad business, bad relations, bad everything. If Smooth-On has stockholders, they should take serious notice of this practice.

Behind the ultra-friendly and helpful facades on their website and Facebook page appears to lurk a closed-minded mercenary culture of greed and snobbery.

And I seem to now attract it from whole companies instead of mere individuals.  I suppose that's some kind of progress.

Shine me on, Smooth-On.