INTRODUCING: FREEDOM TO EXIST
Combining their more-than-25-years worth of experience in design with their joined love of timeless watch pieces, Kirsty Whyte and Paul Tanner introduced Freedom to Exist in 2015. Together they have created an affordable product range that refrains from flashy logos and other time-related functions that watches feature today – fte watches stick to the traditional function of timekeeping. Their debut collection, the “30 Edition,” which initially focused on timepieces for the smaller wrist, soon expanded to include a larger version, the “40 Edition,” which came to life after a successful Kickstarter campaign. We caught up with Tanner to discuss how they came to start their business, how customer demand is shaping it, and the struggles of entrepreneurship.
How did interior design nurture your love for fashion? In what ways, does it influence your aesthetic and design decisions today?
It has a big impact. Kirsty and I met whilst working together for Habitat (a UK homewares brand), and the shared interest in design – and in the particular type of modern design that Habitat delivers – was the reason we met in the first place. We then both joined Made.com and moved to China for a year to help grow the brands product range, and that gave us the knowledge, experience and motivation to start our own thing. We created Freedom to Exist, as we both felt there wasn’t a watch on the market that we wanted to buy, so our shared taste in design was the basis for the company. Kirsty has designed a lot of furniture and lights for brands around the world – a number of which we have in our home – and the same principles and process were applied when creating our watch. Kirsty spent months sketching, model making and rapid prototyping, before we started production on our watch; the design was tweaked and worked on until it was just right. Our customers have noticed this when they wear our watches. A lot of feedback we have had is about how well-considered our packaging and watch is, and exceeds their expectations.
Where and how did you educated yourselves about watch craftsmanship?
We spent a lot of time finding the right supplier, and when we found them and they agreed to work with us, we spent time in their facility learning every aspect of the watch, what components we could use, what packaging options were available, what design details we could create or we would have to work around, to allow us to create a watch we loved and hoped other customers would as well. We selected a “Swiss Made Ronda” watch movement, and then used this as a foundation for the design. Kirsty designed each aspect of the watch – from the subtlety of the face, the way the watch hands line up with the 12,3,6 and the 9, to the hidden logos on the buckle and the reverse of the watch.
You chose to eliminate logos, which are a brand’s identifier. In the early stages of Freedom to Exist, how did you want your customers to associate the brand with the product?
We have one identifier on our watch: a small dot located at the 12 mark. This dot will be something that we use to identify ourselves as we grow our ranges. A number of our early sales came from people asking me where my watch was from, while I was on the tube or out and about. This created a 30-second chat and an explanation of our story, that’s proved more powerful than someone glancing a logo over my shoulder. The lack of logo is something that we decided to do from the beginning, as we felt that a watch is such a personal item, it shouldn’t be a billboard space for a brand, it should be kept clean and private. We keep our logo on the reverse of the watch; it’s still there, but we keep discretion as one of our brand promises.
I read how customer demand dictated your next launches. How do you balance it with your creative vision?
Our limitation at the moment is finances rather than creative vision. We have lots of ideas for new designs, products, marketing, press, website updates and concepts for social media, but as we are self-funded, we have to prioritize and focus on things one at a time. Our second collection was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, which is something we may consider again in the future for product additions to our range, as not only does it provide the money for the order, it also gives you a sense of customer demand and allows for customer feedback. Our Kickstarter campaign led us to hundreds of more customers, and we were also able to get their feedback on colors, designs and detailing. We created Freedom To Exist, as we felt we couldn’t find the watch on the market that we wanted, and crowd-sourcing allows us to find out if there are any other opportunities out there.
I believe that, especially when it comes to watches which are typically considered an investment piece, craftsmanship and quality are associated with pricing. What are your thoughts on this?
I agree. Watches also tend to mark key milestones in a customer’s life – a wedding, a major birthday, starting or leaving a job. They become part of someone’s history, and are often used for the customers’ whole life and then passed down to the next generation. Our pricing is based upon creating a product the best it can be for the price point. We felt it key to be in the £150-£175 mark, and the specification on our watches is similar to other brands in the £250-£350 region.
You are very active on social media, but I know that you firmly believe in putting your product in front of the audiences. What are the perfect opportunities for spreading the word out about your work?
We have taken part in a number of pop-up shops this year. We have found these a great way to meet and present our collection to new customers. Our watches look even better in the flesh and really feel like quality timepieces when they are held, and we are keen to take part in as many ways as we can where we can showcase them. We offer 30-day free returns if the customer doesn’t like the watch when they receive it, and in two years of business we are yet to have one sent back. We also call out our story in our branding and on our website, so meeting Kirsty and I is also something customers like and are interested in. We have been selected to take part in the Design Museum and Monocle Christmas markets this year, which is a great honor, and will allow us to showcase our range to an even wider audience. We do have stockists, mainly in London, and with more national ones being added soon, ultimately, we would like a store of our own, so that we can completely manage the environment and shopping experience.
How do you feel about industry recognition? Is having the approval or praise by well-respected professionals important to you?
It is. The watch market is becoming quite saturated, and industry recognition and praise is a great way to separate yourselves from other brands. We focused on the quality of our product when we developed it – we use “Swiss Made Ronda” movements, and Italian leather straps, and watches at our price point often don’t even mention the specification.
A decision I believe is critical for every budding entrepreneur: when do you think you will be ready to quit your day jobs? What are some of the milestones you would like to have achieved?
We have given ourselves a financial target that will make us quit our day jobs. Once we hit this milestone, it will give us the confidence in the project and the security for covering our costs that we need, and will allow us both to commit full-time. It has been our ambition to do this since we launched. Kirsty and I enjoy working together, and to make that possible, and then to build a team, was the intention from the very beginning.
In what creative directions do you see the brand growing? Would you be interested to shift or expand from a fashion to a luxury watch label?
Our customers will help steer our direction. I read a quote recently that said, “only start a business when people ask you to”, which was geared around doing something that you love, or having multiple requests for something that forces you to create a product to meet a demand, when people keep asking for it. We have had customers ask us for complimentary products, and higher-specification watches would be a natural progression for us, with date functionality and perhaps higher-grade materials. For now, our focus is on our current range, and making customers as happy as possible. I’m sure Freedom To Exist in five years will look very different from today, and we can’t wait to see where our journey takes us.
Images © Freedom to Exist