Sandfox is turning heads, from its recent appearance at CES to the other watchmakers in the industry keen to see what the marriage of future tech and Swiss watchmaking looks like. We had the pleasure to chat with its creator and CEO Mike Barry Ehouman about his compelling story going from pastor to entrepreneur.
GRACIOUS WATCH: What an interesting trajectory your life has taken. Give us a look back at how you firstly became a pastor and then found a second calling as an entrepreneurial designer of a smart timepiece. How and where did those two unique paths intersect?
MIKE BARRY EHOUMAN: My nomadic childhood and an absentee father are probably the biggest factors that sparked my interest in becoming a pastor. I was born Brazil but when I was seven, my family moved to Ivory Coast, a West African country where my father worked for the government and through a series of appointments, ended up becoming one of Ivory Coast’s ambassadors, constantly traveling and spending very little time at home. I was the son of an ambassador but it was not a privileged life. It was a lonely life. I didn’t have a father figure and felt out of place. The church gave me the guidance and sense of home and family I did not experience growing up.
My second calling to become an entrepreneur is a happier tale (thank goodness!). In my teens, I lived in Geneva Switzerland, not far from the world headquarters of Rolex, and in a neighborhood of watchmakers. I started collecting, disassembling, and reassembling mechanical watches as a hobby. I was a horologist long before I learned there was a word that described my hobby. This hobby and my vast mechanical watch collection were key factors in formulating my entrepreneurship. Eventually, after I left the ministry, I returned to Switzerland but this time I had a new plan – to build a new kind of Swiss-made watch, a computerized smartwatch that had the look of a classic mechanical watch but a watch with digital, internet-connected, multimedia features that made it the Swiss watch of the future.
GW: On a personal level both my grandfather and father were in ministry as pastors. And interestingly enough my father has a huge watch collection. What is it about developing a new timepiece that spoke to you so profoundly?
The fact that I spent my teenage years in Switzerland, in a town and neighborhood filled with watches and watchmakers, naturally bolstered my interest in timepieces. But I was also a “Trekkie” (a fan of the futurist TV show Star Trek) so Futuristic gadgets, whether real or imagined, always fascinated me.
Then, when I saw the first true smartwatches enter the marketplace in 2012 and 2013, I was hooked on smartwatches. I knew a Dick Tracy watch was right around the corner. I wanted to get there first.
GW: Walk us through your creative brainstorming process. The Sandfox is not like any other smartwatch on the market. How did you conceptualize something of this caliber?
My childhood hobby of horology became more of an obsession after I bought one of the first smartwatches to hit the market in 2012, the Sony Smartwatch. When it broke within a week after I received it by mail order, I had an epiphany. i decided at that moment that I could build a better smartwatch, a digital timepiece that would look like a classic Swiss-made timepiece but on the inside it would have more computerized features than any smartphone on the market.
Of course, I followed up my epiphany with extensive market research to identify the features customers would value more than any others and make sure they were added to the Sandfox.
Bottom line – I knew that if we could build the Swiss Army knife of smartwatches and give it a classic Swiss-made style it would be a hit. Armed with an SOS button, telephony, a radio and a PowerPoint projection tool, the Sandfox has tons of features and we plan to add even more in the next few months. For example, we’re going to make the watch waterproof and shockproof for increasingly mobile users. Imagine you’re a skier on top of a snow-covered mountain and you’re about to race down a black diamond trail. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could tell your watch face to activate your Skype or Facebook Live app for a live video chat with friends and relatives, all this through your watch! This is where our exciting industry is taking us. Consumers want to be hands free and they want access to their smart devices everywhere.
When we conceptualize new apps for the Sandfox, we first identify a cool feature we would like to use ourselves. We then confirm, through market research, that there are specific customer types eager to the buy the Sandfox because of the feature we’re considering. It’s not enough to add some cool, new tech to the Sandfox that we would use ourselves. It has to be cool technology that our customers will use as well.
GW: There is a compelling marriage between traditional design aesthetic and future tech at play here in the Sandfox. How important is it to woo the watch enthusiasts and purists as well as techies who are interested in making their daily routines more efficient?
Striking that balance between a classic design aesthetic and computerized functionality is absolutely essential for the success of the Sandfox. We set out to design a watch that serves both “old school” mechanical watch fans and millennials who believe the traditional analogue watch is dead. What they want to put on their wrist instead is a mini-computer and multimedia center that helps them stay connected at all times. Honestly, I believe the word “watch” is being redefined by the millennials who need much more than a timepiece.
GW: What are some of your personal favorite design nuances of the Sandfox? Any particular Sandfox bell or whistle that you personally avail yourself of on a regular basis?
My favorite feature of the Sandfox is one we’re actually adding to the watch right now. The app called “Snap’n’Shop” will be officially unveiled in mid-March. It allows watch owners to use the Sandfox as a mobile shopping tool. As they move through their daily routine, if they see a coworker or a stranger wearing a nice pair of shoes or beautiful dress or they see an article of clothing that interests them in an online photo or video, they can use Snap’n’Shop to capture an image of the item. The app will instantly identify the brand name of the product and tell the Sandfox owner where they can a purchase the product online.
GW: Where do you imagine design going in the next 10 years? What will Sandfox’s next 10 years look like as you imagine them?
While I’m excited to share my ideas about the future of smartwatch and wearable tech design, I know my predictions could change in an instant because of some new revolutionary technology that allows tech designers to get even more creative.
In the wearable tech space, there really is an artistic version of Moore’s law underway that’s very exciting! As consumers get more comfortable using their voice instead of their fingers to interact with the digital assistant in their smartphone, the keyboard component in most mobile phone will become less valuable and will eventually disappear. I believe that’s when we’ll start to see our smart devices migrate to other parts of the body, not just the wrist. Smart necklaces, smart hats, smart belts, and smart rings will be prevalent. Also, because the digital assistant software programs running our smart devices can be stored on increasingly smaller computers, we’ll start to see millions of people walking around who will, at first glance, look as if they’re talking to themselves. But they’ll actually be talking to their smart jacket, smart necklace, smartwatch or some other smart tech that blends in with their wardrobe. If you can see this future as I see it, you know that smart technology, including smartwatches, will be powerful communication tools as well as fashion statements.
GW: Where can we next get a glimpse of the Sandfox?
For now the watch can be bought online but we’re also talking to two major U.S. retailers. You plan to formally announce one of these retail partnerships by the end of March.