As smartwatch hype began to build a few years ago, Switzerland’s Boris Brault worried that his nation’s legendary watch industry was exhibiting a dangerous kind of hubris. Brault had been in the consumer electronics business for more than a decade and had seen what happens when an incumbent fails to take seriously the disruptive potential of new technologies.
So while Swiss watch giants were rolling their eyes at the prospect of smartwatches, Brault decided to found his own company in Geneva to stake a claim to what he was sure would soon be a critical market. In 2013, MyKronoz was born. Five years later, this feisty smartwatch maker has managed to grow and thrive in a market where many other tech giants have struggled.
MyKronoz has succeeded by focusing on design, keeping costs low, creating its own software, and studying the weaknesses of others to find opportunities. The latter has resulted in its latest product, ZeTime, a hybrid smartwatch that combines an interactive screen with traditional physical watch hands for people who don’t want to wait for the display to wake up. Funded through a crowdfunding campaign that raised $6.5 million, the watch’s success has given Brault confidence that the company can continue growing in a market almost completely dominated by the Apple Watch.
“The only way to survive is to have excellent design with great technology at an affordable price,” Brault says, summing up his philosophy.
The ZeTime is the perfect example of how the company continues to adapt all parts of its approach to the smartwatch business. Brault was in Barcelona earlier this year for Mobile World Congress, where he was proudly showing off display cases full of MyKronoz watches. The ZeTime was the latest addition, a design aimed at people who might want some smartwatch features, but with a more classic design with far greater battery life.
The ZeTime’s display has a hole in the center where the watch hands are set. When the digital display is activated for apps, the hands shift to a horizontal position, allowing a clear view of the screen. They then automatically return to the correct time. Inside the watch, the battery is split in two, with the battery powering the watch hands able to run for 30 days without a charge.
Like all MyKronoz watches, it runs on the company’s own operating system, but works with both the iPhone and Android devices.
“That’s in our Swiss DNA,” Brault said. “We are neutral guys.”
And it offers most of the most popular apps, such as Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, and Uber. Pricing starts about $234, which compares to the basic Apple Watch Series 3 price of $329.
While the company had raised venture capital early on, it decided to test interest in ZeTime by launching a crowdfunding campaign, which eventually raised $6.5 million from 35,000 backers on Indiegogo and Kickstarter. Now that the company has shipped those watches, it will now sell the ZeTime via retailers in 60 countries this year.
Prior to the launch of the ZeTime, MyKronoz sold 1 million watches in 2017, up from 850,000 in 2016 and 700,000 in 2015. By Apple standards, those are crumbs. Apple sold 18 million smartwatches in 2017 and today almost completely dominates the market.
Yet watches based on Android Wear haven’t gotten much traction, and pioneers like Pebble have collapsed. In that context, surviving and growing is no small accomplishment. MyKronoz now has 160 employees, with manufacturing of its watches being done in China.
Brault remembers when he was first launching the company a few years ago and visiting a Berlin tech trade show. Pebble was getting all the buzz, and some of the first Android Wear watches were being demonstrated. He was sure his instinct about the potential for smartwatches was on the money.
“My customers are the new generation, the connected,” he said. “My daughter loves the concept of a connected watch. She loves knowing she can see at a glance a Facebook notification or Instagram notification.”
But it wasn’t until the launch of the Apple Watch in 2015 that the category really took off. That would spell doom for Pebble and stifle sales of many Android watches. MyKronoz, however, exploited a niche.
That niche involved lower prices, with some of MyKronoz’s basic models costing less than $100. At the same time, the watches sported a more classic design than Apple’s more futuristic look as they tried to draw on the best traditions and culture of Swiss watch design.
“We try to be a fashion company in the technology world,” he said. “A watch should bring emotion.”
That combination has allowed the company to keep moving ahead. And while Apple remains a tough competitor to match, Brault says Apple’s dominance does bring some benefits. For instance, Apple is using its might to press component makers to continue advancing the technology inside smartwatches such as sensors and chips. A little company like MyKronoz wouldn’t have such influence, but it can buy many of those same components from the same suppliers.
“We are very lucky Apple is leading this product category,” Brault said.
About the only prediction Brault didn’t get quite right was the impact of the smartwatch on the Swiss watchmaking industry. Apple now claims to be the largest watch brand in the world. But after falling for a couple of years, Swiss watch makers reported that sales had stabilized and increased slightly last year, mainly thanks to increased demand for watches in Asian countries, particularly Hong Kong and China. The industry is far from dead, even if its future remains uncertain.
Still, while Swiss watchmakers have belatedly waded into smartwatches, Brault believes their limited interest in the category means they don’t understand the need to balance price, design, and features. He’s betting MyKronoz’s singular focus on smartwatches will continue to give it an advantage over his compatriots in the years to come.
“Back in 2013, every Swiss watch maker was arrogant and dismissive,” he said. “So I decided I wanted to build the Swatch of the smartwatch era. Today, they are listening and the Swiss industry is changing its position. Everyone is trying to do one smartwatch, but it doesn’t mean that they are focused on this every single day.
“But we have the best range of smartwatches because this is all we do. We are specialists, and we understand this category as well as anyone.”