The Minimalist Timekeepers | Interview with Paul Tanner of Freedom To Exist

There’s not much that I actively dislike about the blogging community but if you asked me, the one thing I would probably say is the occasionally throwaway culture that slips into certain feeds, with competitor products being advertised just weeks apart. Of course, we are all welcome to like more than one brand at a time but I truly believe that there are some things that are your go-to products and as a loyalist myself, I tend not to sway from my daily favourites.

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Installation by Morag Myerscough, Bag: Topshop, Trousers: Zara, Watch: Freedom To Exist

One of the things that I hold close to my heart/wrist is my Freedom To Exist 40mm Rose Gold & Tan Watch – a product purchased via a Kickstarter campaign whose founders I have since met and become even more intrigued by the brand.

Kirsty Whyte and Paul Tanner have more than 25 years worth of experience between them of bringing ideas and sketches to life as products. They met while designing for Habitat before both joining Made.com as two of their first ever employees. That knowledge and experience, combined with a love of classic detailing that make vintage watches truly timeless, inspired them to create Freedom To Exist – a minimalist watch brand with a story to boot.

Never one to miss a chance to explore more of a brand I adore (one that I also get many a compliment on), I had a chat with Paul to ask his advice on setting up shop and how Freedom to Exist came to be. I also didn’t need too much convincing to shoot it against Morag Myerscough’s latest installation in West Smithfield Rotunda Garden!

Firstly, I love the name Freedom To Exist, what does it mean to you both personally and how did you come up with it?

It dawned on me that the only time I wasn’t using my phone, was during the 20 minutes at the start of a flight when they ask you to turn off electronic devices. I was using it to wake me, to manage my diary, for my news, for my social interaction, for work, for play, for music, for everything…and most noticeably, I was using my phone to tell the time. During that 20 minutes on the plane, I was checking the time on my phone repeatedly, and it really hit home how utterly dependent I was on the device.

Due to a chain of events – Kirsty was unable to find a watch she liked that would fit her, they tended to spin or slide on her wrist, we decided to create a watch brand that solved this issue – when brainstorming names, we gathered a series of words we felt summed out how we were feeling and what we wanted to achieve. Having “the freedom to exist” was a motif for not being dependent on your phone, it was about having the headspace and the calmness to be who you want to be, without the need for a device that beeps, monitors you and dominates your life.

Using my plane metaphor again, that 20 minutes as we took off made me feel more relaxed and de-stressed than I had been for a while, and I suddenly felt free as I was unable to check my email, news or social feeds, even if I wanted to.

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Installation by Morag Myerscough, Watch: Freedom To Exist

Your business is still fairly young but you have seen great success since you set up. With so many watch brands out there these days, and the ever-increasing throwaway trend culture, what makes you stand out from the crowd?

We created a product that has the best specification we could achieve for the price point. Quality and honesty were two important words when designing the watch, and our use of Italian leather on the straps, and Swiss Ronda mechanisms gives us a point of difference against our peers, as they tend to focus on the logo and often don’t even mention the specification.

We also offer a long guarantee, and it is our intention to support the customer for many years, should they need our support.

You also have brand ambassadors who come from all different creative lifestyles. What do you look for when working with someone to spread the Freedom To Exist message?

We look for people that would use our watch as their go-to timepiece. Some of the Ambassadors came to us, and others we contacted. It was important that in their social feeds that if they wore our watch, it was because they liked it, which then made it the only watch that they wore. The ‘influencer’ culture is taking over social media, and often if you look at their feeds, you can see them advertising multiples of the same product, i.e. they advertise a different watch brand each month and we did not want to be part of this.

With us being self-funded we wouldn’t be able to pay the large fees that this kind of promotion requires, but also, the kind of customer we are looking for wouldn’t be interested in a new watch brand that was doing the same as all the other ones. Our whole ethos is about discretion and quality, and our Ambassador selection reflects this. A common theme amongst our Ambassadors is that they all work with their hands, so we have teamed up with photographers, carpenters, stylists and designers.

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Installation by Morag Myerscough, Bag: Topshop, Trousers: Zara, Trainers: Adidas Stan Smiths, Watch: Freedom To Exist

What’s your secret to staying motivated?

Each time Kirsty and I get a sale, we still text each other, and I think this will continue to even when we have a 100 strong team. Seeing people wearing our watches is also a big motivator. Often we bump into friends unexpectedly in town, and it’s great to see that they are wearing the watch they bought from our Kickstarter campaign – it shows they really do like it rather than wearing it just to support us.

That’s me! One of the things that attracted me to your brand in the first place was the lack of branding, can you tell me a little bit more about your design decisions and how you both work together to create the watch designs?

We felt that a watch was a very personal item, often it’s a gift and may signify an 18th, 21st, 30th, 40th , 50th birthday or another significant milestone. We felt that a lot of the watches on the market at our price point were using the watch face as retail space rather than respecting the use of the watch. With the advent of social media, people are getting more and more distracted by the noise of everyday life, and we wanted to ensure that our new brand did not to add to this.

In terms of how we work together, Kirsty is the creative force behind the watch design, our social media and all branding and I look after the finances, the website and the product development. As we have separate skills that complement rather than overlap, it makes us an efficient team.

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Watch: Freedom To Exist

And of those designs, what’s your go-to Freedom To Exist model?

It’s one of the new ones which is just about to be released in a new silver colourway. I have been wearing a prototype for a couple of months and I have had a number of people stop to ask me where it is from. It’s the fte4208. We have also upgraded the design with quick release straps, which means I can swap it for a tan strap, depending on my belt and shoes.

You ran a Kickstarter for the 40 Edition which was successfully funded (hooray)! What do you think is the key to a great Kickstarter campaign?

The video. I think this makes or breaks a campaign. Customers watch the first 20 seconds, and then if they’re interested they scroll down to start reading about the project while still listening to the video. A product that solves a problem is definitely something that will get a lot of attention and depending on how unique it is, and the size of the audience it could help, it could make getting press a lot easier, but the video sells the story and customers are buying the story more so than the product.

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Installation by Morag Myerscough, Bag: Topshop, Watch: Freedom To Exist

You’ve also just done your first trade show at Scoop, how did that go and any advice for trade show newbies?

You should attend the event before attending. Normally fairs are every 6 months or every 12 months, and you should attend the one before you intend to exhibit at. It will give you an understanding of the layout of the venue, the kind of stands that get attention (and adversely the ones that don’t), the types of people that are attending, and most importantly the kind of competition you will be facing.

I would also advise that for any paperwork you create to give away at the show – price lists, press books, business cards etc – you should avoid making them specific to the event so that you can use them for other fairs, and even the same fair the following year. I have a friend who printed a lot of material with “TRADESHOW X 2016” across the top, and only gave away 50% of his leaflets away, and due to the trade fair name and date on the documentation, he had to throw the rest away rather than use them again.

What can we expect from Freedom to Exist next?

In the short term, more colours and more materials, and ultimately new designs and a wider product range. Currently fte is our side project, and the next step would be for Kirsty and I to pursue it fulltime, which once we hit a certain turnover, is something we are really looking forward to doing.

The EJP Top Three:

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1 // fte3005 | Small Silver & Grey Watch | £145
2 // fte4015 | Large Rose Gold & Black Watch with Sunny Todd Prints Gift Wrap | £165
3 // fte4002 | Large Rose Gold & Tan Watch | £165
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