Help with designing a watch and building prototypes is one of the things I’m asked most often. Apparently, everyone wants to get into the watch game! My brand Hamtun makes affordable automatic watches and does very well, so it’s only natural that people ask. When I was starting, I’d have killed for a few pointers!

So I’ve written this article to point people towards. I do not claim to be the fount of all knowledge – plenty of my competitors, people I’d now consider friends, have been going longer and make more money. But I do pretty well, and if I can help others start their journey I’d consider this time well spent. Maybe send me one of your models when you launch as a thanks 😉

Anyway, here’s my story.

In early 2015 I was worried. I had 2 kids, a wife, and not much money. I had an OK job and worked with people I liked so I was in a better position than many, but I wanted more. Specifically, I wanted to work at home so I could see my family growing up, I wanted to build things that I was excited about, and I wanted to wake up in the morning excited to start work.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always assumed that one day I would have that life. My job was just something I did until I’d built my own business and could run it full time. But I was 34, and time was passing. If I didn’t get a move on I was going to have spent half my life in a job, each year convincing myself that by this time next year I’d be out.

There was no eureka moment or memorable event that gave me the kick I needed, but one morning I just woke up and decided it was time to get on with it. I needed to start or I was never going to get anywhere, and not getting anywhere wasn’t part of my plan.

My whole working life I’d worked with internet businesses, so I was damn sure I wasn’t going to do that. The AppStore has ruined software, to the point where anything software related that costs over 99p is considered expensive! Ad-funded was never an option, I wanted to build a real business, not get lucky with a hobby.

So I had to look at what else I knew about, and which I could make money from.

I’d always been interested in watches, despite not knowing much about them. I have owned lots of (pretty cheap) ones over the years but had never found one I loved. It was a hobby rather than an obsession, and I never really considered designing a watch. I read blogs about them though and had started to pay attention to the “microbrands” popping up all over the place. Microbrands are small watch brands usually run by just one person, often making unusual or interesting designs and selling them in small numbers.

That sounded really interesting, but also really expensive. I knew I wasn’t going to have money to spend advertising whatever I made, so I had to come up with another plan.

Building an audience

This is the section that most people skip when starting up, but it’s the most important part of the whole process. It’s tempting to rush ahead with designing a watch and then worry about selling it afterwards. That’s backwards thinking. You need to think about selling the product first, and worry about designing it later.

If you want to sell something to someone, you need their trust. Trust that you’re a real business and not someone out to steal their money, trust that you’ll deliver when you say you will, trust that you’ll deliver something of a good standard, and trust that you’ll back your product with support if there are any issues.

Apple or Amazon find it easy to sell products because they have huge trust from their customers.

Apple is trusted to deliver high-quality products because they have done over and over. The products aren’t cheap, but they can charge their premiums because they have earned that trust.

Amazon sells a lot of stuff much cheaper, but a customer buying on the Amazon website trusts that should there be an issue, Amazon will deal with it. Their returns and complaints policies are solid and so people buy based on that trust.

You don’t have those name recognition advantages yet, but you can start to build trust on a smaller scale and target the customers that do know who you are.

That’s what I did. I knew I was interested in designing a watch, so I became a watch blogger. I started a watch site called WatchRoundup.com and started publishing as often as I could. If you’re interested, Watch Roundup is still online but I’ve not been involved with it for years.

I spent around a year growing my watch blog at every opportunity. I wrote posts on new watches in the price range I was targetting (I didn’t want people only interested in $10,000 watches when I’d be selling for $200-$300). I ran contests and giveaways to get more people on to the site, I targetted people via social media to try to get them to read my posts, and I did the best SEO I could in the timeframe.

To turn that readership into trust I started a mailing list and encouraged every visitor to the blog to sign up. Once people were on the mailing list I kept in regular contact so that my subscribers began to recognise who I was and know that I’d be sharing content worth reading.

The more I wrote and the more I shared, the more trust I built up with my subscribers. After around a year I had a few thousand subscribers on my mailing list, a good percentage of which were opening my emails. Once I got to the point where I was confident that I had enough people opening my emails each week to completely fund a production run of a watch, I moved on to the next stage.

This was only a high-level overview. I’ve written in far more detail on blogging, building trust and generating an email list in these articles:

Prototyping a watch

Designing a watch prototype

With my audience starting to grow, it was time to start designing a watch. That meant getting the idea out of my head and onto the screen so I could find someone to build it for me.

This was a problem as I can’t draw and I’m even worse with design software, so designing a watch wasn’t going to be easy! The iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil is great for this, but it didn’t exist when I started so I used paper, pencil and a scanner. I found colour codes and textures that I wanted to use, wrote a very detailed specification, then found a graphics person to put it all together for me.

I used upwork.com, a service that connects you with specialist freelancers, to find a 3D artist to work with. It’s a simple site that allows you to post a project and then pick someone to work with from the applicants.

I explained in the specification that the drawings they’d be working from would be very basic and that there would be a lot of communication between us to get the renders looking exactly how I wanted. I found someone who was excited at the idea of designing a watch and willing to work with me via Skype to get the design right, and spent a few days talking it through with them as they made tweaks and improvements. At the end of this process I had a realistic 3D image of my watch from various angles that I could pass on to a factory.

Finding a watch factory

It’s here that things start to get a bit scary because you’re not going to get prototypes made without spending a bit of money. If, like me, you can’t afford to lose that money it’s important to find a factory that you can trust. But how?

Well I tried a few things.

First I tried contacting a few other microbrands to see if any of them would help out. Most didn’t answer, a couple said no, but one person did put me in touch with a supplier.

I also posted a project on Alibaba. If you don’t know of Alibaba that’s fine, it’s not something most people would come across in daily life. It’s a huge marketplace for connecting with suppliers. Most of them are in China, but you can find suppliers for almost any product from anywhere in the World.

I posted a project (which is free to do) asking for watch factories and gave a few details of my project.

Lots of people will tell you not to use Alibaba because some of the suppliers on there aren’t great, however with almost nobody willing to share their contacts unless they’re trying to sell to you themselves, you don’t have many other options. If you’re careful, you’ll be OK.

Designing a watch - technical drawings of one of my designs
Designing a watch – technical drawings of one of my designs

I looked through the references and details of the factories that responded to my project post and picked two to go ahead with. I paid them both to create technical drawings based off my renders, which was very cheap to have done. Once I had the drawings in hand I picked one to work with based off how easy it had been to work with on the technical drawings, examples of their work they had provided, and references from other clients.

When working with these factories, here are a few things to watch out for:

  • They will promise the world but once you get into details you’ll start noticing them trying to cut corners. If you have a 100% custom designed product but they keep trying to convince you to use factory parts, find another supplier. “Kickstarter watch” has become synonymous with a generic catalogue case with a logo stuck on it, and I’m sure it’s the same in many other industries. You don’t want to be that company! That’s not to say that there is never a reason to use catalogue parts – if someone has made something already that matches what you need, there is no point paying for tooling again just for the sake of it. Just don’t be talked out of building your vision.
  • If a watch supplier offers you a minimum order quantity (MOQ) of 50-100, be worried. If they can make their profit from such a small number of watches there is a good chance they are cutting corners or overcharging. I talked to a few factories that offered a MOQ of 50-100 and the examples of their work that they sent me weren’t up to scratch. This is probably more relevant at my price point. If you’re building $10k products, a lower MOQ might be OK.
  • Lots of suppliers will employ someone with good English skills but limited industry experience to communicate with their English speaking clients. That is very helpful but they sometimes answer questions without the required knowledge in order to close a sale. Make sure you get to talk to someone on the technical and management side to ensure that your vision is understood and you’re confident they will deliver the product you need.

This isn’t groundbreaking advice, but it’s stuff that I wasted time on and that I wish had been advised up front.

Designing a watch: Factory renders of one of my models

Finding watch accessory suppliers

As I said above, if you present something well and appear to know what you’re doing, that’s half the battle won already. So I wasn’t going to deliver something stuffed in a little plastic bag like so many Kickstarter campaigns do.

If you’re asking someone to part with their money, they need to feel they’ve got value for it. Even if you’re only charging $20 for something, the customer needs to feel that they got value for their $20, and hopefully feel like they picked up a bargain.

Now a good part of that perception of value is down to the final product being great, but you can heavily influence it by presenting your product well. By spending a few dollars extra on a decent box and some professionally printed documentation you can vastly improve the initial reaction. Unboxing videos are a big deal on YouTube – people like receiving something special and then taking their time to experience the whole package.

I found a box supplier in the same way that I’d found my watch factory – by posting on Alibaba and waiting for the offers to come flooding in. Unlike the watch, I wasn’t insisting on designing my own box. I was happy to just find a good supplier and then put my logo on one of their catalogue boxes. Several potential suppliers sent me samples and I picked the one that felt best in my hands. Because things like boxes and accessories are cheap, it’s far more affordable to try a good number of suppliers and pick one that you really like.

I also needed a silicone strap supplier, and silicone straps need to be custom made for the watch in my opinion so I couldn’t buy a catalogue strap. I followed the Alibaba route yet again and found a supplier that could provide me with high-quality samples of their previous work. I then put them in touch with my watch factory to make sure that the fit was perfect. This is something that you can’t control, you just need to make sure that the two factories are having regular conversations and understand who has the final responsibility for making sure they fit is perfect.

You will find that some watch suppliers offer to handle everything for you. They’ll make the case, source the movements, find straps and do all of the assembly. They aren’t building everything themselves though, they are just bringing it all together. I strongly suggest that you maintain most of these relationships yourself rather than letting one company handle it all for you. If you fall out with them or they fail to deliver, you don’t want to have to start everything again with all new suppliers. By owning those relationships yourself you have control.

Funding production

If you can afford to fund a production run of watches out of pocket then lucky you. I couldn’t though, and I’m sure most other people can’t.

Over the last few years, crowdfunding has become so established that sites like Kickstarter are just thought of as another sales platform. This has its problems, as backers on Kickstarter seem to have lost the patience that you really need to back a startup product. You need to manage expectations well.

It’s still a powerful platform though, and it’s the one I went with. By going ahead with a Kickstarter campaign I was able to launch my watch having only invested in prototypes, marketing materials, and the blog.

We’ve already covered building a blog and prototyping the product, and both are critical, but presenting your campaign is equally important. If you have a great watch but launch with a few sparse paragraphs and a few photos taken with your phone you’ll fail. You’ll almost never see an ugly campaign do well.

If you’re not a product photographer, hire one. If you don’t have experience with focus stacking, dust removal, shadow cleanup, colour correction etc then you’re not a product photographer. Find one. Same with video. These are two areas that you simply can not afford to get wrong if you want to succeed.

You don’t need to spend a fortune or pick the most famous companies in the world. Find up and coming freelancers that can show you examples of their work but aren’t established yet. They’ll probably jump at the chance of working on a campaign that could look good in their portfolio.

Once you have a video and photos sorted out, build a nice looking campaign page. The easiest way is to find a few that have done well and “borrow” aspects of their layout. Kickstarter campaigns aren’t doing anything groundbreaking in design terms as the editor is very simplistic and doesn’t give much power, so it’s not like you’ll be stealing something especially unique. Don’t copy though, and write your own content. But being inspired by a layout won’t do any harm.

If you build trust, build a decent product, get the pricing right, and build a good promo page you should find that a Kickstarter campaign is easy to fund. My first one was fully funded in less than 20 minutes and went on to raise over $220,000. That’s not something should be hard to reproduce.

This isn’t meant to be a detailed article on how to run a Kickstarter though, so here are a few articles I have written on that topic that I hope you’ll find useful:

Want help designing a watch and starting a brand?

If you’ve read all of that and can’t be bothered to do it all yourself, you’re in luck. I can help!

The most sensible thing would be to just do as I suggested though. Build a blog, build trust, build a product, sell it.

My blogging guides and advice are linked to throughout the article. If you’re new to blogging, those should give you the information you need.

If you need help designing a watch, building prototypes or sourcing parts then you can either do what I did and start doing your own research, or you can hire me and get access to my suppliers. If that’s something you’re interested in, drop an email to [email protected] and we can discuss your options.

That’s it. I hope it’s been interesting. I’ve loved building my watch brand and while it’s had some incredibly stressful moments, I’m delighted that I did it. I’d genuinely love to help you start your journey towards building yours, so get in touch if there is anything I can do to help.