Live in You has been among my top pen brands recently, even its Future series failed to reach me due to Taobao’s nasty international shipping partner. Other early adopters did get their Future pens, and their experience with this newest offer from Live in You seem to be pretty good. Ok, from MiTu, UNSEEN, to the Future, that’s a triple-kill!
I couldn’t stop thinking about the team behind it. The name of the brand didn’t show up when I was digging into the fountain pen market in China two years ago.
Last month, I managed to have an interview with the mastermind behind the curtain, Eason Ji. Following is our full conversation.
Frank: Please, tell me more about the Future series, where did you get those eye-popping materials and why chose not to name each model this time?
Eason: Future series is our newest product. We just launched it last weekend during a stationery fair, and I must concede here that we didn’t have enough time to name them. The reason is that its development was already behind the schedule, and the expectation has been high from the part of our customers. We decided to launch it first and name each one later. I know this sounds wired, but there is a bitter reason for this delay, which I will tell you later.
Other underlying reasons also exist. On the one hand, we are deciding to retire some of the colors, probably the white and orange ones, after the first batch is sold out. On the other hand, my long-term strategy for Live in You’s product line is to cut down the numbers of offerings.
As for the sources of Future series’ base materials, I imported top-quality acrylic and resin from America and process each kind of materials with a unique set-up of machinery to achieve the best outcomes.
Frank: Good point! Tell you an example–I was overwhelmed by the vast options offered by the PenBBS in the first glance and opted for two clear demonstrators in the end…Compare with other Chinese pen makers that produce acrylic pens, the variants for each Live in You line seem to be more consistent and well thought off. What drives you to the pen making business?
Eason: Yes, I don’t want to bombard my customers with too many options, and I want to keep the product line clear and easy to perceive.
Frank: Can you tell us what lead you to the pen-making business in the first place?
Eason: Sure. The first thing I want to point out is that the Live in You brand is my sideline business. In my daily routine I also run a design powerhouse called Qtian, which I founded after my graduation from college. Qtian has been doing great. Thus I have the resources to experiment with things I love, which is the fountain pen.
My experience with fountain pens started at 2012 when I began to play with cameras. I have found that a fountain pen could always be a great add-on for such visual works, and at the same time, my friend made me a gift of LAMY Safari. I still enjoy that one. Then I began to collect fountain pens, from Parker IM, Urban, to numerous Chinese ones. I can still recall the initial excitement I had when my friend first presented me a Parker Duofold Centennial. I ended up owning all the basic models of Pelikan Toledo line. By the way, for Pelikan, I like the TWIST series most.
The Live in You project officially kicked off in Nov. 2016. In the next year, we launched LiWu, YouMi, MiTu, and UNSEEN series. Believe it or not, I am the only one running this business unit, taking the majority of branding, designing, procurement, and supply-chain management.
Frank: Indeed, you are a diehard pen lover! Do you often join the offline pen meet-ups and events? Have you tried the Pelikan Hub in Shanghai?
Eason: Not yet. I think it is too early for me to do that. I am still a learner in terms of collecting and appreciating high-end stuff. Besides, I just don’t have the mindset to have it all. The most common type of people I am communicating with are the industrial people that make pens.
Frank: So, you are more of a practitioner than a mere observer. Could you tell me more about the goal you set for the Live in You brand?
Eason: I want to build up a reputable Chinese fountain pen brand, and it should feel in a way similar to Pelikan or Waterman. The brand’s current target market is the young professionals in China, and two rules guide the product development: to write well, and to feel unique the first time you see it.
Frank: Is that the reason why you outsource to Schmidt?
Eason: Yes, I did that as a result of a bitter lesson. During the making of the LiWu series, which is my first attempt to materialize a pen design, I was cheated by a nib seller who boasted about the quality of his “IPG” (Iridium Point Germany) nibs.
These nibs turned out not to be a choice of high quality. This incident drove me away from Chinese nib vendors, and I ended up in using Schmidt nib units for the following releases. Now I am planning using nibs from Bock as well. I mean, these are reputable nib makers with widely received solutions, which is far more better than nibs made inside mainland. But I have to say it is really hard for me to reach them, let along to get a wholesale discount as low as what pen makers outside China get.
(Above: Live in You LiWu)
Frank: Can’t agree more with that! I am also a huge fan of modern German-made #6 and #5 steel nibs! I have to say the higher cost of nib units is actually benefiting the Live in You brand in a big way–it sets Live in You apart from others instantly.
Eason: Yes, that is one of the many things I have done to differentiate the Live in You brand from other generic Chinese pen makers. Now the brand had positioned itself as a reformer and disrupter. As you may have probably known, these long-time Chinese brands were not in good shape two or three years ago, and their business ethics really sucks, even up today!For years, they have been copycatting tested designs and materials from western brands, and now, they are applying this usual practices to young brands like Live in You—they are just lazy.
The Smurfs pen launched by Delike
The newest example is the so-called The Smurfs pen launched by Delike. That pen use the same body design as our MiTu series and is made from the same base material. Another lesson learned: in In the future we should never make a product in such a minimalistic shape.
The early prototypes of the Future
Here I want to explain what happened to the Future series and delayed its launch. Last fall I went South to an OEM factory in Canton Province for prototyping the new model. However, the factory saw the potential of that design, and decided to take it as its own—they registered that design, using my blueprints! I was really pissed off and fought back. In the end, I managed to get that patent back under my name, but the competitive advantage of that design became questionable—only God knows how many people saw it. Therefore, the Future series must go through some reimagines, which caused the delay of its final debut.
Frank: That’s a sensational news on that sounds almost like a fictional story! Now I understand your concerns about their ethics.
Eason: But actually, I am not that indignant at their mean actions.
Eason: Because there is no way for them to make a good brand through imitation. I think the Live in You brand has already accumulated a distinguishing existence within its market segment, and it is still innovating. Thus it is actually another way of expressing flattery and confirmation for them if they keep copying us. This is the way to do business in China—keep innovating, or you would be kicked out by the followers.
By the way, from a pen lover’s perspective, it is a good thing for them to copy the design of Live in You pens. They always sell these knock-offs for a low price, which helps a lot to bring some fresh air to the Chinese fountain pen market. At least they educate the pen users about what is good design or material feels like. My prediction here is that in 2018 you will see a hike of generic acrylic pens made by Chinese companies. Meanwhile Live in You would still lead the competition by setting the next trend of material and design.
Frank: So why is your choice of material better than others’? Tell me more about the materials you are using.
Eason: They vary in price and quality. For example, the blue and purple materials used for the Future series cost $10 for each pen, and that is just the cost of importing them from America. They have a greater density along with a richer pattern, and at the same time, they are challenging the manufacturer to do their best since each of them has a unique character during production.
Frank: Wow, $10 is a huge proportion for a pen that sells for $39! Definitely will see this material in great detail!
Eason: And the UNSEEN represents our attempt to reimagine the possibility of metal as a base material for barrel. I designed something that hard to anticipate and outsourced to the best factory we could found in Taiwan.
Frank: Indeed, I came across people at pen shows asking me whether that one is made from glass! And people always got stunned knowing that is a metal body. So why not tell me more about the design process for Live in You? Where did you study for industrial design and what are your previous projects?
Eason: I personally designed all the Live in You pens. But I have a confession to make. As you have pointed out in your review, the MiTu series’ grip section is too thin, and the reason behind that design flaw is the fact that I don’t know too much about industrial design before Live in You.
I was at the Department of Visual Communication Design in college. If you can recall, the Qtian, the parent company of Live in You, started out as a photography studio in the first place. I did a lot of photography and film experiments during my student years, with no help from professional training but passion and self-teaching. I learned industrial design in the same manner…
Frank: That’s amazing, I thought you have a product or industrial design degree!
Eason: I am flattered. I hope future designs would be more matured and flawless. For the topic of design, I want to add that a real product innovation has nothing to do with the styles or materials. It is more than that. Although everybody is buying into the future of acrylic pens, we will circle back to metal pens our pens again in a foreseeable future. Metal is a kind of material I just can’t easily let it go.
Frank: What exactly does the next for the Live in You pen look like?
Eason: We will stick with the high-grade resin and acrylic imported from the U.S. for some time, while also trying to find some legitimate celluloid material. The incoming product would also remain simple in general and would have a flat-end design. Oh, tell you a secret, we will launch our first crowdfunding project later this year…
Frank: That’s a lot of threads happening there!
Eason: Yes, as I have just said, the growth strategy that Live in You is pursuing is a run strategy, in which we are always the first to get new ideas done. So far this strategy fits my need.
Frank: Feed me more about the crowdfunding project, would that be available on Kickstarter?
Eason: Not exactly the same platform, but still a good one—the crowdfunding platform supported by Taobao. I spent stupendously amount of time in finishing the design that would be debuted in that project, and you will like it!
Frank: Will the platform ship internationally? I think overseas fans would be super-willing to join it if it shipped internationally. And, since we are already on the topic of international sales, tell me about your planning for the Live in You brand overseas.
Eason: I am not sure whether that crowdfunding platform would ship internationally or not, but I know that the platform markets itself a place for a world premiere of our product. The project will go live either in July or August.
As for the international planning for the Live in You brand, honestly, I haven’t thought about that too much before. Since I already own a successful agency business, I don’t want to over-monetize the fountain pen business. The Live in You business unit has not made a profit so far, and I am OK with that. My primary goal in running this brand is to make a quality pen brand with both integrity and Chinese traditions for the pen community here.
Frank: But you’s pens are gaining more and more attention outside China! I can see one or two Live in You products here and there during pen meetings, although most of them are early models.
Eason: You are right, and I am always enamored of hearing that. Maybe one day when condition permits, I will reach out to stores that sell internationally.
Frank: Then my suggestion is that you can register for the next year’s Paperworld fair in German.
Eason: Oh, yes, that is a good one. Just can’t let Hero guys hanging around there every year, representing the whole Chinese fountain pen makers.
Frank: Final question, one that I should ask in the first place. What does Live in You stand for?
Eason: We all acknowledge the fact that writing instruments are fading away from people’s lives, and I want to be another person to address the idea of retrieving the lost beauty and goodness yielded by writing with a pen, in front of a desk full of sunshine. Coincidentally, my daughter was born around the time I kickstarted the fountain pen business, and her name contains the word 莜, which pronounced the same as You. I want to integrate my daughter’s name into the new business. Thus, combined with my agenda to infuse the practice of handwriting back into our everyday lives, I ended up with two Chinese characters—里 (pronounced as Li),which means inside or into and 莜, my daughter’s name. And this name could be developed into an English wording Live in You.
- Live in You: 里莜
- LiWu: 里物
- MiTu: 谜图
- Future: 未来
- UNSEEN: 看见