Interview: Josh Fairbairn of MorphoMFG

So you've been collecting and researching watches for a while and you finally decided, "Hey, I've got a great idea for a watch. I should make my own." That thought was probably followed by, "But where do I even start?" The fact is, the prospect of independent watch manufacturing has never been more attainable than it is today: you dream up the concept, get funding on Kickstarter, manufacture in China, and sell on the Internet. It sounds easy enough, but most of us are not familiar with the world of precision mass production, even fewer are comfortable managing a product taking shape halfway around the world, and if you have those first two down, how fluent you are in Mandarin? 

Enter Josh Fairbairn. Originally from Toronto, Canada, he is now living in Guangzhou, China where he has a relationship with a factory, knows the local business culture, and speaks the language. He established MorphoMFG, a fourteen person team that bridges the gap between Chinese producers and their overseas clients. Their mission is to "help businesses entrepreneurs design, source, prototype, and manufacture their ideas." This fills a vital niche and I suspect we will see many more production facilitators step up in the coming years, but as of today,  Morpho is one of the only firms providing this service.

How does all this work? The Time Bum spoke with Josh to find out.
Josh Fairbairn, photo courtesy of MorphoMFG

TB: My first question is the most important to Time Bum readers. Are you a watch guy, or are watches just one of many products you help manufacture?

JF: Good start. If you check out our site, www.morphomfg.com, you can see that most of our testimonials come from tech products. We were certainly not a watch manufacturing company, but having said that, about 6 months ago I fell in love with watches and haven't looked back. Now we’re picking up a new watch client every week.

TB: Alas, watch nerdery happens to the best of us! How did this happen for you and what watches do you like?

JF: My wife's dad always wore the same timepiece, a 14k gold Longines Prestige, and I was always checking it out. I asked him and my wife about it (they are French, so this was a tough conversation for me!) and slowly asked and learned more and more. I spend a lot of my time learning about the intricacies of watches. Although I'm still a n00b, we have now manufactured or prototyped for over 10 brands, including Domenico and Original Grain, and are moving at a really quick pace. As of recently, we have started working more and more with automatic watches as we become more comfortable taking on bigger challenges.

The last time I was back in the states on vacation, I really got into going into as many thrift shops as I could and searching out some beauties. Although I haven't got anything too crazy yet, I did pick up a vintage Seiko that I really liked.

TB: When a potential client looks you up, how does the process start? I assume you need some form of product plan, technical specs, concept renderings, etc., but I am imagining someone sending you a drawing on the back of a cocktail napkin and asking you to make it the next Kickstarter sensation. 

JF: You couldn't be more right. It seems like 90 per cent of what we get is truly ridiculous in terms of lack of preparation. People don't really understand what it takes to manufacture a watch (or any product for that matter). But when I started this company 3 years ago, I was in the exact same position. So it is totally reasonable.

Most of what we do with our new customers is helping them to make sure their designs are DFM (Design For Manufacturability) ready. We charge our clients $299/$599/$999 depending on what they need and take them from that napkin sketch all the way to specs/plans/concepts/renderings/etc., prototypes, to mass production, to logistics, and even fulfillment direct to their customers if that's what they need.

TB: Ok, so here's the $64,000 question: How much does it cost to get a watch off the ground? I realize this will depend on many factors, including specifications, availability of movements, use of off-the-shelf parts, etc. but is there a range? 

JF: I think this part would surprise a lot of people. Most people come to me telling me that they don't have a lot of capital to start their watch business and are afraid that they won't be able to get things moving. After a quick discussion, most shortly realize that it doesn't take a lot and that things are very attainable!

I'll give you a quick example. Let's start by taking your napkin sketch to DFM ready engineering drafts. That's $999. Prototyping depends on how many samples are required and what movements in the watch, but it will equal the cost of the molds, plus the per unit cost of the watch times three for each sample. A single case with a basic Miyota movement can cost as little as $565 per sample. This is obviously just one simplified example but gives you an idea.

TB: I would imagine that most of your clients are new to this. How do you educate them? 

Education is all about communication. Although lately we've been very busy with Chinese New Year and some almost uncontrollable exponential growth while we build new systems, communication is the most important part to new watch builders. Most manufacturers don't guide their customers in a good way. There are a lot of misunderstandings that leave people looking for new options. That is often where we step in and straighten things out.

TB: What are some of the common misconceptions you encounter? 

JF: First, many people think that Chinese manufacturers cannot produce quality. It is true that a lot of Chinese factories produce cheap junk, but that is true everywhere. In China, it's all about connections. If you know the right people, you might find a factory that produces some parts for the big Swiss brands.

Next, people worry that it will take a lot of money to get going, but as I explained above, it is really very attainable.

Finally, people think you need to be an expert to get going, but really all you need is a love of watches, time to devote, and patience to make sure that things go right. You must wait to have a perfect prototype before proceeding with mass production. If you skip over that, you will run into too many problems and everyone pointing fingers. Perfection on prototypes is the deadline.

TB: How do you select manufacturers? What factors do you use to match a client and a factory?

JF: This one's easy. We actually have an equity share in our factory. We use the same watch factory for every single project. Some products/brands do different/unique things with their watches (i.e., stone dials, wooden links, etc.) so those things have to be sourced separately. We have partners for most of what you can imagine going into a watch, but as for the main parts of the watch, we work with the same factory and crafts people on every single project.

TB: In which factory do you have the equity share? 

JF: Sorry, this is still a little bit on the private side actually as the deal is still in process.

TB: If a customer wanted their watch production through a different factory, could you accommodate that request? 

JF: Yes. If a customer wanted their watch in a different factory and it was for legitimate reasons. Let's say they found somebody that could source 904 Stainless Steel, something that usually only the big brands can get their hands on, I would 100% support them and hope that we could still work together throughout product development. Also, some projects have parts that require specialized production, like the wooden links on the Original Grain watches. 

TB: I notice some of your plans offer IP (intellectual property) protection, and you say you can protect your customers by manufacturing the components in different factories. Is this the extent of the IP protection you offer, or do you assist with legal IP protection like patents and trademarks as well? 

JF: We don't offer any legal IP protection help for a few reasons which are very important. First of all, in China, it just doesn't really work like that yet. 

Second, if you break up a design and only give sections of an entire project to each factory, it is truly impossible for them to have a leg up in piracy. Divide and conquer. 

Third, too many people are focused on IP. A friend of mine who is very successful in the crowdfunding world told me that unless you have an incredibly large company, are trying to go public or get acquired, are building a patent portfolio, or must love the documentation - execution is the new patent. In my opinion, he is right on point. It is all about delivery of the idea. 

TB: So what is next? How do you see MorphoMFG developing in the next few years?

JF: I truly believe that we can become the number one go-to watch manufacturer for microbrands in the entire world. We have a very competent in-house team of engineers, product managers, and sales people. Designing and creating your own watch and brand is becoming easier and easier for the creative individual. This leads to a huge demand for manufacturing services. We entered the market at the perfect time. As we grow at an exponential rate it is tough to make sure that every customer gets all the attention they deserve; however, at the heart of my business is customer service. I believe that customer service is what separates us and I am determined to create the perfect business model and accompanying systems to make sure that happens. If so, there’s not telling what levels we’ll be able to attain.

TB: Thanks for the chat. Good luck! 

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