IN GOOD COM­PANY

How a pop­u­lar crowd­fund­ing plat­form has helped lo­cal en­trepreneurs to get a foot into the watch world.

The Peak Selections: Timepieces - - The Digital Revolution - TEXT LIAO XIANGJUN PHO­TOG­RA­PHY VEE CHIN

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.

COM­MU­NITY SPIRIT

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.

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