Ryan Beltran’s Original Grain watches have a comfortable market niche among the fashion savvy.
The unique pieces are inlaid with cuts from vintage oak barrels and one-of-a-kind wood textures from around the world. They are the kind of watches you might expect to see in Brooklyn coffee shops or a London high street.
Which is why it’s surprising that his journey began somewhere completely different; in 2011 Ryan moved to Guangzhou, one of China’s booming manufacturing hubs, to pursue his entrepreneurial ambitions. When he first landed in southern China, he tried his hand at product sourcing from local manufacturers. Not long after, he started longing to create his own brand.
Using specialty woods sourced from around the world, Original Grain watches are imbedded – literally and figuratively – with the environment, culture and influences of their founder’s birthplace around Portland Oregon and the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
In March 2013 he launched a Kickstarter with the modest goal of securing $10,000 in funding to develop a watch brand that featured specialty woods from his native Oregon in the design. To Ryan’s surprise the campaign raised close to $400K in 30 days, a 4000% boost on his original prediction. He’s since been working full time on between China and the US to grow Original Grain’s brand and product range.
Technode spoke to Ryan about developing the products, Kickstarter campaigns and the intricacies of manufacturing in China;
Why did you choose to use Kickstarter again for your latest campaign and how do you choose a funding goal?
We delivered the original watch in August 2013 after the first successful Kickstarter campaign and then began work on the second watch in April 2014. For the latest watch, we did a full year of planning and product design plus seeded the market before launching the second Kickstarter campaign in June 2015.
Originally I wasn’t even going to use Kickstarter [for our second campaign] because they take a 10% cut of sales and as an established brand we already have a decent following and confidence about the design process. But we also saw a big opportunity to capitalize on the success of our first campaign and the buzz generated on Kickstarter.
As for the funding goal itself, it depends on the products. For products like ours that aren’t embedded with technology, having a low [funding] goal that you can pass quickly becomes a promotion tool for the media and also for better promotion on Kickstarter. If you’re developing a technology product that requires a lot of resources to develop then you need to raise much more
How has China played a part in your entrepreneurial journey?
I originally chose to move to Guangzhou in 2011 because it would be the easiest place to source anything there and I was planning to do some trading type business. I also had friends in Shenzhen and it was enticing because it’s close to Hong Kong. Once I knew the watch was becoming a real brand I moved back to the US in spring 2014 to work fulltime on it. So I was in China fulltime for three years and since 2014 I’ve been going between China and the US. It’s a bit cliché to say, but relationships are maintained much better when you’re physically there, so I go to China all the time.
What issues did you encounter with manufacturing?
For the watches, we source woods from all over the world including South America, Indonesia, North Africa and maple wood plus whisky barrels from the US. In terms of importing the wood to China, we were shipping reasonably small amounts because the watches don’t use a lot and so we didn’t encounter any major customs or freight issues.
Our number one hurdle was quality control of the final product and also how to design watch with imbedded wood that wouldn’t waste a lot of wood during production and also that the watch wouldn’t break after it was finished and being worn. So we did a bunch of different renditions of the watch’s band and the design allowed the wood to be fully inlaid and not exposed which protects it.
During all of 2014 we experienced inventory problems, we kept selling out of the watch, which was great, but we couldn’t keep up supply to meet demand. It was very difficult to find a good manufacturer that could cut the wood precisely and it was also tough to find a manufacturer willing to innovate and develop something new with us. Our most recent supplier was introduced through an agent that works with different watch suppliers and we met with 3 or 4 different factories to find one that worked.
Do you have any special advice for entrepreneurs looking to manufacture in China?
Once you have a sample [from a given supplier] you know they can actually manufacturer what you want, and in China lead times are never stated accurately. Manufactures will just say “yes, yes – we can do everything you ask”, and its not that you don’t want to trust them, but you need to be weary with what your told, especially from people who you aren’t familiar with. Make sure you cross all the ‘T’s and dot the ‘I’s and check manufacturers’ track records and who else they are working with.
I don’t think its critical [for entrepreneurs] to go to China before a Kickstarter campaign or if launching with a prototype, but once you can see your on target to do a big successful Kickstarter campaign you better go to China pretty quick and start to prepare things for manufacturing!
This post is a guest contribution from Timothy Coghlan, editor of China Fashion and luxury blog Maosuit.com. Timothy is a fashion and retail industry consultant based in Beijing