When Seacy Pan and Ray Cai brought Formfree Branding to Charlottetown, they created more than a new branding, printing and photography studio.
They created another support service for newcomer entrepreneurs.
“We can become a connector with Chinese people and local people,” explains Pan, chatting at Formfree on the lower level of the Confederation Court Mall.
“Most of our clients are Chinese,” Cai explains. “We have no language block. We can talk directly to them.”
This husband-and-wife team operated Formfree for about two decades as a design studio in Guangzhou, a city of approximately 14 million people in southern China. Seeking a more relaxed pace of life, the couple emigrated with their son to P.E.I. in 2015 and set up Formfree in May 2016.
“Clients give them an idea, a proposal or a project — they can make it happen in a visual way,” says Amy Zhang, program officer with P.E.I. Connectors, who helps with translation during the interview.
Formfree offers a one-stop shop for products and services including design, digital printing, brand planning, logos, signs, posters, calendars, banners, brochures, and commercial photographs and videos.
In China, the business served clients from China, United States, Hong Kong and Australia. Now, the firm support all Island-based customers, with about two-thirds newcomer businesses and one-third “local.” Pan manages customer service and administration, while Cai focusses on design and technical aspects.
What is their biggest challenge?
“Language – always,” Cai says with a laugh.
While speaking Mandarin and Cantonese helps the couple communicate with many newcomer clients, they have trouble finding time to work on English.
“I’m just too busy,” Cai explains, “so my language doesn’t improve.”
The couple explains their business has become an important tenant for the mall, plus a key service for businesses inside and outside the shopping centre. Demand convinces them there is no reason to leave the province for a larger centre.
“I don’t even think about that right now because we are so needed here,” Cai says.
In addition to providing business services, the couple often finds themselves providing business advice. They say they encourage other entrepreneurs operating under the Provincial Nominee Program to see the initial investment and time commitment as an opportunity to learn local regulations, test the market and gain business contacts.
Despite the challenges, Cai says he enjoys running a small business on P.E.I. In China, he felt the added pressure of covering salaries for his 10-plus staff.
“Here, right now, we feel I work for myself, my family, my son,” he explains.
On P.E.I., he also feels he can take a break, while in China he felt he could never stop.
“Crazy life,” Pan says.
“In China, sometimes you tire of busy,” Cai adds. “Here, you can feel busy is a good thing.”