A woman who launched her own collection of watches after struggling to find the right fit has revealed her business now makes £60,000 a year – but is still run as a side project.
Kirsty Whyte, 38, and her partner, Paul, 39, founded Freedom to Exist in 2014, while on a quest to find the perfect 1950s vintage design.
They say ‘the best ideas often come from your own experiences’ – and that’s exactly the case for them, who launched their minimalist collection of watches after Kirsty’s own struggle to find the right size for her small wrist.
Freedom to Exist is now a worldwide brand, turning over £60,000 a year from a spare room in their West London home.
“I was in a department store with Paul when the idea first came to me,” Kirsty told Mirror Money.
“I had envisioned the perfect watch in my head – something minimal with a leather strap, but all of the women’s designs were quite extravagant with the straps all too big for my wrist. I found myself in the men’s section, where I also started talking to a woman who faced the same dilemma – that’s when I realised there was clearly a gap in the market.”
Kirsty, who describes herself as ‘the creative one’, started sketching designs on paper around her day job.
Her perfect design, she explained, would be leather, with a small, simplistic dial and more piercings to fit different wrist sizes.
By October 2015, the couple had launched their own Instagram page and had invested £25,000 of their own savings into the company – in a gamble that they desperately hoped would pay off.
“We found a UK based manufacturer and although they were initially apprehensive, managed to eventually convince them to work with a start-up. We put our first orders through them and things started to fall into place.”
Their watches then landed in stores, selling in a few local boutiques, before the launch of their website in November 2015. Within months, all 30 had sold out.
“By this point we were spending around 40 hours a week on the idea – desperately trying to make it happen,” Kirsty said. “This included creating newer designs and trying to evolve the brand even further.”
That’s despite both juggling nine to five jobs – with Kirsty working as a creative director for Soho House and Paul working as head of furniture for Marks & Spencer.
“It was easy though,” Kirsty explains. “If you have a passion for something it doesn’t feel like a chore.”
But by spring 2016, the couple – who met in 2006, while both working in furniture design in Shanghai – needed more investment, so they turned to a Kickstarter campaign to help make up the shortfall.
“By this point we wanted to launch a bigger design – with a larger 40mm dial. So we started a Kickstarter campaign.
“We needed to order 250 per colour, per case – and to do this, we needed more money.
“Kickstarter seemed easy to use, so we created a campaign using renders for the visuals and then as fundraising grew, we did prototypes. It was risky, because we knew if we didn’t hit the target – we would get get zero.
“We needed £25,000. Thankfully, we just about managed it with £25,304 from 134 backers.”
In 2017, the couple launched their new design, after partnering with a manufacturer in Hong Kong. Today, it’s global.
“We initially launched with five designs in 2015 and now have 33 across two sizes,” Kirsty explained.
“Our first customer was from London, our second customer was from Australia.
“We’re able to keep our leather watches at a set price of £99, regardless of size or design, because they’re sold online only.
“We don’t have any overheads.”
Today, Kirsty and Paul have very different roles in the business.
It’s still run as a project in their spare time, with Kirsty managing the photography and designs while Paul oversees operations, logistics, finance and the website.
But it’s still run from their spare room, with their watches stocked at a trader in West London.
But despite juggling Freedom to Exist with a full-time job, it’s worth the effort.
“We really like having the company as our side project, in combination with our day jobs,” she explained.
“It allows us to have our own autonomy and creative output. Plus we have learnt a huge amount while running our own business, and that knowledge we have been able to put back into our day jobs,”
“It’s always great to make money while you sleep!”