IN GOOD COMPANY
How a popular crowdfunding platform has helped local entrepreneurs to get a foot into the watch world.
Whether at its highest echelons or at the mass-market level, the watchmaking scene has long been dominated by a handful of conglomerates. This might yet change. In recent years, crowdfunding platform Kickstarter has given rise to a new breed of nimble watch “microbrands” that are directly connected to customers, and with access to quality Japanese and Swiss movements. In 2016 alone, it saw over 200 watch projects being funded, and millions of dollars changing hands, as both original and homage designs were made reality.
As it turns out, Singapore is home to a handful of such companies. Among the most successful of these upstarts is Boldr, founded in 2014 as a brand with a rugged and sporty aesthetic. The four-man operation moved more than 2,000 pieces of one of its early models in the international market, and has more projects in the pipeline as the brand gains steam.
“It was Kickstarter that made it all possible,” says co-founder Travis Tan, 32, who runs the brand with long-time entrepreneurial partner and ex-classmate Leon Leong, also 32. Tan, a commercial pilot for Singapore Airlines, says his fellow pilots’ fascination with high-end watches rubbed off on him and got him interested in watch design. When he learnt about how Kickstarter could get a brand on its feet very quickly, he roped in Leong, who is now devoted to the brand full time.
“The platform is a place to validate your ideas, and connect to buyers, before you sink in 50 grand to start production.”
This refers to the fact that shoppers are free to praise or critique the proposed designs before manufacturing even begins. They can also simply put up money if they wish to pre-order. No dollar costs are incurred should a “campaign” fail to attract enough investors (“backers” in Kickstarter lingo); it merely means going back to the drawing board for the pair, who themselves have to agree on the final design. While maintaining frequent communication with backers can be tiring, it helps to build a loyal customer base, says Leong.
Beyond helping brand founders gain assurance that a particular model is wellliked, the platform also provides a significant financial safety net for the duo by collecting the full retail sum from prospective buyers – even before the first Swiss movements are shipped to assembly factories in Shenzhen. This helps defray start-up costs, which start in the five-digit range and steadily mount as production progresses.
A READY MARKET
The fact that Kickstarter requires apparent supporters to put their money where their mouth is has allowed brand owners to go ahead with brave design decisions. Founder of Zelos Watches, Elshan Tang, favours the usage of unusual metals and textures in his collections. The brand’s first dive watch was cast in bronze and launched in 2014, when the material was first gaining popularity in the world of haute horlogerie. Recent Zelos collections sport meteorite dials or Damascus steel bodies, and Tang has plans to fashion a watch from the metal plating of the iconic American stealth plane, the SR-71 Blackbird.
“I didn’t want to do what others were doing; there are a lot of homage brands on Kickstarter and they are doing very well,” says Tang, a 29-year-old mechanical engineering graduate who traded in vintage watches while studying, and subsequently used the proceeds to fund Zelos. “It definitely helps to know that the watches already have buyers.”
Tang, who works with a Ukrainian designer remotely, highlights that experimentation alone can incur hefty costs. He has spent thousands on small blocks of new material, discovering unsuitable qualities only following machining. But these gambits have paid off. Zelos collections usually sell out within months of release, and Tang is sought after for small-batch commissions for private clients and groups.
On the side, Tang also runs two other home-grown brands with partners: Ventus, essentially his second brand “for more mainstream designs”, and Vilhelm, over which he has no design control, although he is involved in the liaising and operations end. Both Ventus and Vilhelm gained their early footing through successful Kickstarter launches as well.
That isn’t to say a well-received campaign guarantees success. Leong and Tan recall the biggest setback in Boldr’s history that nearly had them shelving the brand altogether. Their ambitious Voyage smartwatch project, which began in 2015, started to unravel at the seams midway through the campaigning period, despite raising more than four times the needed funds.
“Kickstarter is a place to validate your ideas and connect to buyers, before you sink in 50 grand to start production.”
BOLDR CO-FOUNDER TRAVIS TAN
“There were a lot of costs we weren’t aware of, and some shot up halfway. We were becoming a hardware company, and that was very hard,” says Leong. After failing to find solutions, the pair was forced to cancel the project prematurely, but not before all their previous earnings were wiped out due to prototyping costs. Although their Kickstarter backers were not charged a dime, there was, inevitably, some disappointment. Even so, the community rallied around the brand.
“We expected some backlash for not delivering, despite such a promising campaign,” says Leong. “But some of them actually came forward to say, ‘Hey, you guys did the right thing. You’re not falling back, you’re falling front.’ They were appreciative of how we managed it.” It helped to get the duo back on track, albeit with a new resolve to stick to analogue watches.
Despite having roots here, most of Boldr’s or Zelos’ sales do not come from Singapore. “Kickstarter is based in the US, so it’s natural that most of our early customer base comes from the States. They tend to be more open to trying new things and new brands,” says Tan. Kickstarter was only formally launched in Singapore in 2016, a full seven years after its inception.
Online, these brands have been lauded for good build quality and accessible price points, with satisfied customers and watch bloggers commending them as “punching above (their) weight” and having “visually arresting” designs. Bloomberg has featured Zelos alongside far bigger independent players such as Urwerk and MB&F.
It’s no surprise the brands are earning praise, however, considering how meticulous the brand owners are. “Our factory guy remarked that we were the only clients to make so many revisions before entering final production,” says Tan with a laugh.
THE NEXT PHASE Even though Kickstarter sees plenty of returning business owners, the entrepreneurs we spoke to believe that the platform – as its name suggests – is there to give start-ups a boost. So, what happens after one’s company gets off the ground? Tang foresees his brands “outgrowing” the platform. “Kickstarter is too saturated these days. Of course, it helps a lot in marketing the product, but not as much as it used to. After a certain point, you have to grow organically.” To this end, Tang is furthering his brands through e-commerce via their websites and physical multi-brand retail stores in Singapore and Hong Kong. He’s also looking to introduce pilot watches, as well as thin, 40mm diver watches. It looks like the serial entrepreneur – who has traded in mobile phones and vintage watches, and has even run a shortlived hawker business – has found his niche.
The founders of Boldr echo Tang’s thoughts. Leong muses: “After all, (the platform) is meant to kick-start your company, right? We can’t keep appearing there. It’s just not right, and people will begin to wonder.” Next, the company will expand its offerings to include accessories like wallets and leather goods.
Says Leong: “Functional, active wear. That’s our philosophy. We’re looking at making gear that accompanies you on your journey. Brands have to evolve. And we’re quite excited about that.”
01 01 Boldr founders Travis Tan (extreme left) and Leon Leong share a passion for entrepreneurship.
02 02 At 29, Elshan Tang helms two successful watch microbrands and is involved in the operations of a third.