So, what do Freedom to exist do?
We specialise in minimalist watches free from overt branding. We offer two sizes, a Small and a Large, with strap sizing catering for the petite, average or large wrist.
What’s behind the business idea?
Kirsty (my girlfriend who I run Freedom To Exist with) and I were out shopping one weekend when we had the idea for our business. Kirsty had her heart set on a new watch and we really struggled to find something she liked, at the right price, that would fit her wrist. Another customer in the shop was having the same issues and we wondered if this was the business we had been looking for. We had toyed with the idea of starting something together but had full time jobs that we weren’t about to leave. Kirsty and I had met while working for Habitat, and then both joined Made.com, moving to Shanghai together for a year to help the business expand over there. I now work as the head of furniture for Marks and Spencer, while Kirsty is the creative director for Soho House.
Witnessing first-hand how a start-up operates, and working closely with the founders during our time at Made.com, had made us eager to start our own project. We knew we could work together, we knew we had the skills – I have a background in manufacturing, and Kirsty is very creative – so we decided to work on our exciting new project after work and at weekends.
Was it hard becoming a business owner?
It felt like a natural progression. We had both worked for large multinational companies and worked at a start-up, which gave us opposite ends of the spectrum and ignited a desire to have our own thing.
How did you recruit your employees?
We are yet to recruit, currently every aspect of fte (Freedom To Exist) is performed by Kirsty and me. We will look to expand the team in the near future. As and when that happens, both Kirsty and I will carry out the interviews, the early employees in a company can make or break the business, so it will be critical that we are both happy, and the person is someone that can grow with us.
Was there a breakthrough moment?
Yes, our initial customers were friends and family, who helped support us by being some of our early customers, and I remember the first time Kirsty and I saw a customer wearing one of our watches (our rose gold and tan watch) who we didn’t know. We were at a design event in east London and spotted him wearing it, and did a double take. We went over and introduced ourselves, and will remain a key milestone and fond memory in our journey.
How is the company doing?
It’s going well. Christmas is a key period for us due to the giftable nature of our product, and we are focusing on ten times growth each Christmas compared to the year before. Our focus is on brand awareness, and the aim to be on the list of brands people think of when they are looking for a new watch.
Do you have any regrets?
No, we have learnt a huge amount, and everything good and bad has fed into where we are. It’s a journey, and the unpredictability of it will take us to an end point we can’t predict, and our focus is moving forwards rather than regretting the past.
If so how did you overcome them?
One thing we would have changed, or will take into account if we start something new, is not taking on more ourselves at the start. We did use third parties for things like the website as we felt outsourcing for expertise would help with execution and speed, which caused a bottleneck in terms of what Kirsty and I wanted to achieve online and how quickly that would happen, and by taking that on ourselves and learning things outside of our comfort zone, sped up the process and gave us more control and satisfaction.
What makes you stand out from your competitors?
Our discretional branding and specification. We felt that the watch category at our price point was becoming overtly branded. Rather than tell the time, the watch face was becoming more about a logo, and we wanted to move away from this, as we wanted to create a beautiful object rather than a canvas for yet another logo. We place our logo on the back of the watch, where on the wearer knows it is there. As Freedom To Exist is just me and Kirsty, we can keep costs down and pass the savings to the customer, so we use Swiss Made Ronda mechanisms, and Italian leather straps. The competition often done mention the specification, but for us it was critical we provide the best product possible that we are very proud of.
What is your definition of a positive customer experience?
To provide service above and beyond the customers expectation. It’s an area we can really compete against the competition as Kirsty and I prepare each parcel by hand. We have all been through the experience of buying something from a huge brand and they send the wrong one, or the wrong size and you’re treated like a number when you’re on the help line, we wanted to avoid this, so we really focus on the personal touch. I check each watch before dispatch, and Kirsty writes a thank you note and gift wraps them herself. We were conscious that our first 100 customers (and even our first 10 customers) would help define us and act as a Launchpad, these early adopters were taking a risk on a new brand, and we wanted to make sure we made them feel the risk was worth it, so that they remained loyal customers and would also tell their friends. We have gone above and beyond where we can, we replaced a watch for free for a customer who had hers stolen, and we also had a customer who had a cycling accident and damaged the glass, and we replaced the whole watch for her.
If you could help a business now with a single piece of advice, what would it be?
It will cost twice as much as you imagine, and it will take twice as long. Any estimates and predications you make will make a good guide but it’s a framework that will always be different. I think a lot of people thing the journey from having an idea in a pub with a friend to buying a Porsche is a couple of years, but it’s probably closer to ten.
Finally, Paul what is your favourite biscuit?!
Penguin biscuit. Kirsty and I have developed a bit of a routine where each night around 10pm we have lemon & ginger tea and a penguin biscuit. Its great way to discuss our day and catch up if we haven’t seen each other – Kirsty has also developed a novel way of eating the penguin which I am yet to master (despite multiple attempts), she bites off the opposite corners, and then uses the biscuit as a straw to drink the tea.