If you feel existing watch designs don’t truly represent your inner creative and artistic self then you’re not alone.
Nicholas Han, CEO and co-founder of Singaporean boutique watch startup Schaffen, agrees with you. Him and his brother, Jonathan, are on a mission to democratize customizable timepieces. The duo offer their clients the chance to literally build their own watch from scratch; with everything from the dial, caseback, hands, and straps catered to customer needs.
It all started when Jonathan, aspiring doctor-to-be, wished to purchase a watch in 2015. Unsatisfied with existing retail options, he took it upon himself to build one. What followed was an interesting few weeks; he shopped around for component suppliers, did a ton of research, and spoke with several existing watchmakers in an effort to hone his craft.
It didn’t go exactly as planned: the first prototype lost three minutes everyday. Nevertheless, Jonathan’s father encouraged him to pursue this more seriously. He roped in his brother, Nicholas, who has a business and economics background, and the duo got to work.
“The first design was a fun experience and an experiment of sorts,” Nicholas tells Shopify. “Our family has a bit of a background in this - my aunt has operated a jewelry business for the past 30 years so we have access to suppliers, components, designers, an ecosystem of sorts. We put that together with our technical expertise and came up with a watch company.”
Schaffen - which means ‘to create’ in German - has enjoyed success since launch. Its Kickstarter earlier this year was oversubscribed and raked in about US$85,000. The niche brand has also locked in deals with government bodies like the Singaporean air force and receives various customization requests from clients who want their timepieces to represent a significant milestone in their lives or careers.
“We believe the name Schaffen was a nice encapsulation of what we’re doing as a brand,” explains Nicholas. “The idea is to create a timepiece that tells a story as well as showcase individuality. Our watches represent who our clients are and their passions in life.”
While the watches aren’t exactly cheap - current prices start at about US$500 - Nicholas feels that clients understand the value and don’t feel deterred by the boutique nature of the brand.
A painstaking amount of research went into determining product-market fit and validating customer needs.
“We spoke to potential customers at places like schools, airports, and malls in order to determine whether they are interested in boutique watch brands, what designs they would like, what appeals to them in a watch, and whether they would pay for customization,” says Nicholas. “We used these responses to create a comprehensive data set and further segmented that into marketing channels and target customers.”
“It might not be hard to get your first 50 customers, but the real challenge is how to go from that to 300 customers. That’s when you need a different approach towards marketing and we believe that really talking to our customers and understanding what got them excited about the product has helped us tremendously.”
Not rushed for time
Just by scrolling through Schaffen’s website, it’s obvious that a lot of work has gone into perfecting the design elements and creating a brand that exudes quality and craftsmanship. Nicholas agrees that building the brand has been a “difficult challenge” and that it has taken time to get to where they are today.
That’s because buying watches isn’t nearly as frequent as buying clothes, accessories, or other lifestyle items and people tend to prefer bigger brands when it comes to timepieces.
“The way we approached this challenge was to gain credibility [...] we spoke to several influencers and sent our watches for review. We received favorable feedback from reviewers and that helped us gain recognition from enthusiasts,” outlines Nicholas.
“Another method was to appeal to the technical elements of the watch. A few things that come into play here are the finishing, the look and feel, and the movement. Generally speaking, about 20 percent of the market are people who really value the movement and design.”
The startup’s also fortunate to have relied on experienced mentors along the way that have helped it shore up all marketing and branding efforts. Nicholas credits one of them effusively - a former creative director at Disney - and says his expertise gave the burgeoning company a lot of understanding and direction on how to create the right messaging.
But it’s not just impressive branding that’s helped the company stand out. All the movements - the rotors that power the dial and ensure perfect time synchronization - are sourced from Swiss suppliers. The supply chain extends to several countries across the world and took about a year to piece together completely. It was quite complicated in the beginning but has gotten better now, admits Nicholas.
Scaling with Shopify
Schaffen has relied on Shopify to power its web presence ever since the company came into being. The team wanted a highly interactive website that showed off all its customizable options and allowed users to toggle with the different variations. Its developer at the time recommended Shopify and there’s never been any looking back.
“We think it’s quite an interactive platform and we’re very happy with it,” affirms Nicholas.
Other apps that the team uses are Mailchimp, Instagram, and Google Analytics. Paid acquisition channels make up a tiny proportion of the marketing mix, mainly because it’s harder to get people to convert. The uniqueness of the product means most potential customers take time understanding the value proposition before eventually settling on a purchase. Organic growth and word-of-mouth are larger drivers.
Another interesting aspect about Schaffen is that the founders have not accepted a single dollar of venture capital funding so far. Initial talks with VCs indicated to them that investors would be adamant on scaling as quickly as possible, while the brothers felt it would be better to be less aggressive and work on firming up the brand.
The decision has paid off; an initial loan of about US$72,000 secured from friends and family to kickstart the business has already been returned in full. Over the past two years, Schaffen has sold over 500 watches and corporate sales are a fast-growing category. These are usually in the form of customizable watches as rewards for employee performance and recognition.
So what’s next for the enterprising team?
“Boutique brands like us have a tendency to get bored quickly,” laughs Nicholas. “While the idea is to launch a new product every year, we are seeing quite a bit of traction in our existing categories especially after our Kickstarter closed. So we might concentrate on this for now and focus on something else later.”
—Written by Osman Husain