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My wife Kirsty and I were out shopping one weekend when we had the idea for our business. Kirsty had her heart set on a new watch and we really struggled to find something she liked, at the right price, that would fit her wrist. Another customer in the shop was having the same issues and we wondered if this was the business we had been looking for.
We had toyed with the idea of starting something together but had full time jobs that we weren’t about to leave. Kirsty and I had met while working for Habitat, and then both joined Made.com, moving to Shanghai together for a year to help the business expand over there. I now work as the head of furniture for Marks and Spencer, while Kirsty is the creative director for Soho House.
By witnessing first hand how a startup operates, and working closely with the founders had made us eager to start our own project. We knew we could work together, we knew we had the skills – I have a background in manufacturing, and Kirsty is very creative – so we decided to work on our exciting new project after work and at weekends.
Nevertheless, it took time. We sourced a supplier, and turned Kirsty’s sketches and cardboard models into 2D drawings, which became 3D printed models, and then actual prototypes. We roped in friends and relations to pose as models and staged our first photoshoot in our neighbourhood in September 2015. The whole process, before we could make our first sale, took close to 18 months. But finally, Freedom To Exist existed.
We launched our debut collection in five colours in November and had strong sales and positive feedback over Christmas. In 2016, we started working on a larger dial watch and turned to Kickstarter to fund it, because we’d spent all our savings on the first watch range. It was a positive experience – we raised £25,000, got feedback from potential customers and took their advice on new colours and designs they were looking for. It also meant we instantly had 300 people wearing the new watch and working as unofficial ambassadors as soon as we sent them out.
Our biggest challenges have been balancing our ideas and aspirations with the time and budget we have available. Starting a business when you have a full time job can be good – the time restriction forces you to prioritise and work efficiently. If I know I have to create a marketing plan and only have Saturday morning to do it, I’ll get up early to make sure I get it done. If I had unlimited time, I’m sure I’d procrastinate, postpone the deadline, or get distracted by any number of things. But being short of time has limited the company’s growth – it’s been a healthy trajectory but I’m sure we would have grown faster if we had worked on the project full time.
Unfortunately there are only so many hours in a day, but we do both regularly work an extra 40 hours a week (between us) on the business. We’ll dedicate entire weekends, holidays, lunch breaks and time before and after work to it. Technology has been a great enabler – we can work on it anywhere from our iPhones, and have been able to sell online to customers all over the world from day one – our second ever customer was in Australia.
Sticking with our full time jobs has helped create a financial safety net and meant we haven’t had to drive a high volume of sales quickly. There’s been no undue stress over paying a mortgage, provide investors with a return, or answer to a board. We’ve been able to grow the brand organically in the way we wish to. That said, we did have to set a strict policy when we created Freedom to Exist not to let it interfere with our day jobs. It’s been important to keep the balance between professionalism for the jobs we have been employed to do and our entrepreneurial side project.
As we work in a creative industry, most the people we work with have also have either had their own business, or ongoing side projects of their own, and understand our mind-set and desire to have our own one. Kirsty and I informed our employers when we started, Kirsty moved from one company to another during Freedom To Exist’s lifetime, and had it written into her contract so that there was full transparency. We are fortunate that our minimalist watches are completely different to our day jobs (which is predominantly creating and developing Furniture for the high street), which removed any possible conflict of interest. If we had pursued a side business that was in keeping with our 9-5, then that would have raised issues – I have worked at companies during my career where people have used the same suppliers as their day job, and it each instance it has led to them leaving the business, as bad feeling can be caused by the overlap. We felt that it was important to be honest, mainly because it could turn a positive project into a negative one. We have cultivated an environment where colleagues are interested and regularly ask how it’s going, with some of them becoming customers, rather than us feeling the need to keep it a secret.
Kirsty and live and breath the design industry. It’s how we met and most of our close friends work in the same field, so we don't tend to have or feel we need down time. I’m sure if we didn’t have this business, we’d be doing something else entrepreneurial. Creating things and bringing ideas to life is part of who we are, and we don't tend to separate work and play.
Our ultimate aim is to work on Freedom to Exist full time, employ people and open our first studio. As successful as we’ve been so far, we can’t wait to commit to the project 100%. Starting our own thing has given us a new-found appreciation for fellow entrepreneurs. Kirsty and I learnt a lot from the MADE.COM founders (Ning Li, Chloe Macintosh and Julien Callede) and now we have a new perspective that makes what they achieved with MADE (and it becoming a household name) even more impressive.
There have been a couple of occasions where having a full-time job has held us back. There have been occasions where Press contacts have urgently needed samples for a photoshoot that we haven’t been able to fulfil due to us not being able to leave the office, and a few pop-up shop opportunities that we couldn’t take part in due to us having no holiday left to take, but overall it hasn’t held us back too much.
For anyone wishing to do their own thing, I would suggest keeping your full-time job and gradually introduce your side project until it naturally takes over. A term that we came across after we started our project was MVP, which stands for “Minimal Viable Product” which is something that we would strongly advise and will do ourselves next time. When we launched, we purchased 5 x colours from our supplier and spent our (life) savings on them, the MVP was actually 2 x colours, which would have given less options to the customer, but would have allowed us to trial things more at the start and would have given us more money in the bank for marketing and press. With hindsight, it would have been better to sell out but have lots of customers on a waiting list for when our product was back in stock, than having lots of stock and limited funds to promote our new brand. Most projects will have an MVP that will let you test the water before fully committing, allowing you to trial perhaps multiple business or products, without risking your house and lifestyle.
Top 5 Tips
- Get a contract. Despite the fact you’ve started things with your best friend or partner, things change, and starting a business will stretch any relationship, often to breaking point. You should research “CLIFF & VESTING”, which is a process where the founder’s ecru equity over time rather than on day one. I have heard horror stories where people have fallen out, and a co-founder has walked away with 25% of a company, with the remaining team having to buy them out, even though the business has no value and is only a few months old.
- It is better to sell out of your product and have a customer waiting list, than it is to have lots of stock and no money to promote it. Whatever you invest in stock, make sure you invest the same amount in PR and MARKETING. It’s a 50/50 split. Getting to market is easier than it’s ever been, but that also means its more competitive than it’s ever been. Social Media is no longer free, it’s very hard to get any form of traction on Facebook and Instagram without paying for it, so make sure you don’t spend everything on your new product that no one knows about.
- Be honest with your employer. Starting a side business is stressful, and it will be compounded if you are anxious about being caught working on it. Aim for something that uses your skillset but is not a conflict of interest, and most employers will be ok as long as your performance and time keeping does not drop. In most instances, the experience and mind-set a side project will give you, will make you better at your day job, and everyone will benefit.
- People buy stories, not products. You need to have a “Why” for your project, as this will gain you customers and will also motivate you when times are hard. It’s unlikely that your side business will make you rich for a number of years, the average is closer to 10 rather than 2 to 3 year you may be hoping for, and the “Why” is going to be the motivation during the difficult times when money is tight, and things feel overwhelming. The “Why“ is also the thing that the press will be interested in. It’s very unlikely that your product will be unique, and the “Why” will determine if there is a story for them to write about.
- Have a clear strategy and set yourself targets. Having a job does give you breathing space and removes some of the stresses, but you need to be focused on what you need to achieve so that you don’t treat it like a hobby. The aim is that the side project becomes the full-time role, and you want this to happen as quickly as possible. At some point, you have to commit to it, and you should set yourself targets for the first month, first 6 months, first year and so on. If you exceed the targets it shows you are on the right path and should commit to it, if you fall short of the targets, you must query why, and then either commit to it, or stop doing it.