How to Start a Microbrand

Today's Guest Bum is Léo Vidal-Giraud, one of the co-founders of Kosmos 24, a French-Russian microbrand making 24h watches inspired by vintage Soviet timepieces. Kosmos 24 recently wrapped up a very successful Kickstarter campaign for its first watches, and Léo has kindly offered to share some the secrets of his success. 

Many watch enthusiasts dream of making their own watch and sharing it with the world, but it can be difficult to determine where to start. The following are the steps my partners and I took when we created Kosmos 24, as well as some of the valuable lessons we learned along the way. I would suggest you start by asking yourself a few key questions. 


Why am I doing this?

While the answer to that first question may seem obvious, it is worth the time to pause for a minute and ask yourself: why? In other words, what is the reason your brand should exist? Is it going to bring something new to the table? Is it improving on something that already exists? Did you figure out a better way to bring something existing to customers?

All of the above are absolutely valid answers. You don’t have to be a bold innovator to start your watch business, but you have to know what you are bringing to the table. That same question can also be read as “What I am expecting from this,” which is also a good question to ask yourself: what is your end game? Do you want the joy of seeing your product come to life? Are you after some money on the side, or do you plan on becoming the next Daniel Wellington?

It’s okay if your answer changed with time too: with Kosmos 24, we were first going to create updated copies of vintage Soviet polar watches; but as the design process went on, we slowly switched to a modern reinvention of those watches, while still paying tribute to our predecessors. Just know where you are, and you will be just fine!


Who will design my watch? 

At this point, you probably have a clear idea of what your future watches are going to look like; however, there is a lot of work between a first sketch and proof of concept and the actual final design. To get that work done, you will need a professional designer. Not only will they be able to help you fine-tune your original idea and often improve on it a lot, their main contribution will be putting together the vector files (.ai or .eps) that you need for a high-quality printing of your dials. Doodling it by yourself on Photoshop and saving your work as a JPG is not going to cut it. 

But perhaps even more importantly, you need somebody to design your watch’s blueprints. It is not enough to have the case drawn front, back and side. A watch’s blueprints are dozens of pages of extremely accurate specs for the factory to work on, and you cannot do without them. That is the job of an industrial designer, and they probably won’t be the same person that is going to design your dials.

For Kosmos 24, we worked with a young Russian graphic designer that we personally knew and whose work we really liked. She hadn’t worked with watches before, but when it comes to designing the face, it’s okay, what matters most is the person’s artistic talent. For the blueprints, however, we decided to work with someone more experienced and found a master watchmaker called Konstantin Chaykin. Even though he usually works on extremely high-end luxury watches (above the 100.000$ mark), he agreed to design our watch and draw the blueprints for us. 

To give you an idea of how far we were from a professional design when we started, here is the very first proof of concept for Kosmos 24, next to the final designed it inspired:


And this is what we thought counted as blueprints, next to approximately 10% of our actual final blueprints.


Where will it be produced?

Now that you’ve got your watch figured out, it’s time to find a manufacturer. Your main options are Switzerland, China, or the rest of the world. While a few other countries, such as Japan or Germany, may have a viable domestic watch industry, the Swiss and the Chinese are the most accessible for small brand production.


The right answer will largely depend on your marketing positioning. If your brand has a very strong local flavor and you can find a small watch assembly workshop in your country, it may be worth the extra money to have your timepieces manufactured there. But remember, unless you are producing very high-end watches, most of the parts will be made in China anyway, and only final assembly will be done in your given country.

The Swiss are well known for watch making and this is reflected in their prices. Whether you decide to pursue production there may depend on your brand marketing. The Chinese make perfectly good watches for many reputable brands. In fact, I'd say any watch under $400  (and many even more expensive ones too!) is at least partially made in China, so unless you really cut corners, you will get good value for money if you go with a Chinese manufacturer. Just keep in mind that if you are going for a high-end luxury product, many buyers will expect to see "Swiss Made" and the dial and may not accept anything else.

Beyond the PR side of the question, the real risk you are taking when looking for a supplier in China is that you will likely not know much about them. Do NOT just pick a supplier at random off of AliBaba! There are many trustworthy suppliers out there, but also many who will disappear after you wire them your money. If you are going to work with a Chinese partner, you should do it properly. Getting in touch with your country’s Embassy in China, your local Chamber of Commerce or the Chinese Embassy in your home country is a good first step to avoid getting conned. Also, I strongly recommend visiting your supplier in person. Get yourself a passport, a Chinese visa and fly there; it’s not that hard. It’s certainly easier than pretty much everything you will be doing for your project, and at least you’ll make sure that you are dealing with a real person, visit their factory and establish a good personal relationship. Also, you’ll get to say “I can’t come next week, I’ll be on a business trip in China,” and let’s face it, this sounds awesome.


Be aware that most Chinese manufacturers will often offer you the services of their in-house designers too, but this is not something I’d recommend. Design is all about fine-tuning, and tiny details, and getting back a hundred times to the drawing board. You need to be around, to see for yourself, and most importantly you need to be paying that person. Otherwise, it will start feeling uneasy demanding for a new version sometime around the twelfth modification of the original design. Keep it under control.

For Kosmos 24, we got in touch with the French embassy in Hong-Kong and took it from there, which eventually led us to our supplier, a small family company with over 30 years of experience. We loved the way they helped us better understand our own project, asked very insightful questions and overall were just incredibly helpful. We developed a good relationship with them and have absolutely no doubt that they will deliver excellent quality.


How much time and money am I prepared to spend?  

Designing and producing a watch takes time. Expect four to five months for design, another three months for producing your first prototypes, then two months of getting your funding up, topped by two to three months of manufacturing. You can do some of those things simultaneously, but even then, if your project is ready within just a few months, you’ve probably forgotten something. 

It will be more than a year between the moment you start working and the moment you start shipping watches. During that time, not only will you not be paying yourself, and you will be actively spending money on design, blueprints, traveling, photo shoots, advertising, and paying for your original batch. At the very least, expect to spend around $7000 in development charges, plus the cost of that first batch of watches. Minimal orders for watches are usually 500 pieces, so your first order will probably be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Be ready for all of that. It took us more than a year between the moment we started looking for a supplier and the moment we successfully ended the Kosmos 24 Kickstarter campaign!

Where will I find the money? 

If you are thinking of starting your own microbrand and you are not independently wealthy, then you probably are planning a crowdfunding campaign. Given all of the above costs we mentioned, it may also be your only choice. As with every aspect of your venture, do your research. There are hundreds of articles out there that will explain much better than I could all the ins and outs of launching a crowdfunding campaign. Some tips you’ll apply, some you’ll ignore: that’s okay, it works like that. There seem to be very few absolute truths out there as to how to lead a successful campaign on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. 

There were a couple things that we didn’t expect, though. First of all, do not underestimate the amount of time you will need to get ready. Between the moment you get your hands on your working prototypes (don’t run a Kickstarter campaign on 3D renders, don’t be that guy.) and the moment you can safely begin your campaign, at least one month will pass, probably two. Plan ahead, so you don’t have to move your launch date from week to week five times over. Second, family is everything. If your campaign is to look serious enough to get random people to contribute, you’ll need to hit 30 to 50% by day two, and that is on friends and family alone. A big part of your time in the months that lead up to your campaign launch will be spent letting everybody in your family tree, your old high school and college friends, your colleagues and drinking buddies know what you’re planning, when the launch will take place, and how much you’d appreciate their support. This is also the main reason why it’s good to work with a team. If there’s three of you, that’s three families and three circles of friends to support you!

What to expect from your campaign? 

When clicking the launch button, we all hope for the best and dream of becoming the next big hit on Kickstarter, raising hundreds of thousand dollars, hitting all your stretch goals and ending 1000% funded ; and we all fear a complete and utter failure, only a few hundred dollars raised and no-one wanting anything to do with you. Calm down: odds are none of those two things are going to happen. If you’ve done your homework, rallied all your friends and family and set yourself a reasonable goal, then you’ll probably be ok. And unless you are a master of social media, have an incredibly good product or get really, really lucky, then you probably won’t become the next big hit either. You’ll raise your money, get to 110-120% and that will be it. And believe me, you’ll already be ecstatic!

That’s what happened for Kosmos 24 anyway; we ended up at 130%, really happy with the result, although slightly frustrated that we could have done much more. Don’t worry about that, just store in that experience, and come back stronger next time. We are certainly planning to do so! ⬩
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