Kirsty Whyte and Paul Tanner, co-founders of minimalist watch brand Freedom to Exist, tell Business Advice their story of starting and growing a new business on the side of two full-time jobs.
The couple first met while developing products for homewares retailer Habitat, before both joined Made.com as two of the ecommerce brand’s first employees. Despite demanding day-to-day lives as creative director at Soho House (Whyte) and head of furniture at Marks & Spencer (Tanner), the duo couldn’t resist the draw of their own entrepreneurial ambitions.
Bringing their complimentary skill sets together, Whyte and Tanner launched Freedom to Exist in November 2015 are continuing to grow the brand at an impressive pace.
Business Advice caught up with Tanner to talk about the couple’s aspirations for the brand, crowdfunding campaigns and the sacrifices made to build a business on the side.
At what moment did you decide to start your own business?
Kirsty and I had met at Habitat, and then both joined Made.com when it first launched. Due to the rapid growth of the company, we were offered to move to China to help keep up with the pace (as we were spending a huge amount of time flying back and forth). The experience of working within a startup makes you start to see what’s possible if you put your mind to it. When we were back in London, we knew we wanted to do something together as a side project but didn’t know what.
One day whilst shopping, we couldn’t find Kirsty a watch she liked that would also fit her, and we overheard another customer in the shop with the same issue, and we both looked at each other, knowing we had found our next project.
What kind of targets did you set yourselves in the early days of Freedom to Exist?
We launched in November 2015, so our first target was to make our mark quickly and take advantage of the Christmas gifting opportunity. Due to our homewares and buying experience, we knew how to pitch to stores – we knew what the buyer was looking for and how best to make an approach – and we quickly had five stockists in London helping to support our new brand.
How do you find time to run your business on the side of a full-time job?
It’s not easy – we rarely have any spare time at weekends or after work. Our holiday in the summer was our first since 2012. We really enjoy it which helps, it doesn’t feel like a chore. We are learning a huge amount and it’s benefiting our full-time jobs as well.
Has having a full-time job brought any limitations to Freedom To Exist?
Only time. There’s been a few opportunities that we have had to turn down because we couldn’t take more holiday, or they clashed with an important meeting at work. We would love to commit to it full-time eventually, as that’s the only way to really take it to the next level.
Would you advise other full-time workers to build their dream business on the side at first?
Yes. 100 per cent. It allows you to test the water and get to know your customer and the opportunity before you invest too much money or time into it. Going “all in” does have its benefits – many startup books will talk about the motivational aspects of having no parachute, but the lack of financial security could cause you to slash the prices of your item to pay the mortgage, or give equity away just to keep things going.
Having the safety net to allow you to learn, and make mistakes (because you will make mistakes), allows you to do more of a soft launch before going all in.
Who will your first hire be?
The first recruit is likely going to help with dispatching stock. It’s a very time consuming aspect of the business and would free us up to spend more time on boosting the profile of the brand. We handwrite a note and prepare every parcel ourselves, and if we get 20 parcels to send out, this can take a number of hours.
Was the Kickstarter campaign a success?
It went well. We achieved our target and it’s a process we will use again. It allowed us to have 150 new customers that we may not have had otherwise, and it also allowed us to test product/market fit.
If you need, say, £20,000 and your project fails, it’s an indication that perhaps your market is not interested, and you’ve saved yourself £20,000 and a lot of stress. I would say that Kickstarter is a good indication of future business – a successful Kickstarter will be a successful business; a failed Kickstarter is a sign that a business is a big risk.
Your respective professional backgrounds complement one other – do you both bring separate expertise?
We do. We have very clear defined roles and areas where one or the other has the power of veto. In businesses with three or more people, once you get to a voting scenario you are going to create bad feeling and tension as all disputes will result someone winning and someone losing, but with just the two of us, we do not clash as we have separate areas of responsibility.
Do Kirsty and yourself treat one another as business partners first and foremost?
Nope, that’s secondary. Our relationship is the priority. If Freedom To Exist were to jeopardise that, we would stop the project.
Did your experiences with Made.com inform the way you run your own company?
It did. Made.com was ahead of the curve with regards to online sales. We learnt a huge amount about how to boost conversion on a product listing page, and the importance of photography, which are aspects we have focused on with our own site.
Kirsty and I fully manage our own website as it’s the portal to our customer base and we need to have complete control of that experience.
Is the ambition to take on Freedom To Exist full-time?
Yes. Once we hit a financial goal we have in mind, we will commit to it full-time. We want to add more and more products and achieving that goal will give us the funds to invest in more stock.
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