USC grad launches Kickstarter campaign for watch startup

USC alumna Jennifer Zhang wanted to sell watchmaking kits to help others learn about the craft. Zhang will launch her watchmaking company Rotate later this month. 
(Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Zhang)

USC alumna Jennifer Zhang always had an interest in watches, but when she started tinkering with them a few years ago, she couldn’t figure out how to put one together. Even after scouring the internet for resources and instructions, she found few sites that could help.

“It took me about five months to assemble my first watch just because there was so much research to do,” Zhang said. “There’s not a lot of information on the internet on how to do it, and all the parts and tools came from over a dozen different suppliers from all over the world — shipping took forever.”

However, Zhang, who graduated from the Marshall School of Business in May 2019, said that actually constructing the watch was a relatively simple task. Had she been supplied a kit with the tools, parts and instructions she needed, she would have finished her first watch in only a few hours, she estimates.

No such kit existed — yet. 

About a year ago, Zhang decided to create Rotate, a startup that sells watchmaking kits. Before graduating in Spring 2019, Zhang took a business entrepreneurship class in Marshall, where she met her future business partners and founded the company. 

Those teammates were William Ma, then a senior majoring in architecture, and another classmate.

The specialized training of each member of the Rotate team worked to the advantage of the company. Ma said that his architecture schooling allowed him to better understand the moving parts of a watch, and his studies informed his watch design process.

While learning to build watches, Ma said he combined his knowledge of design with expertise in digital design platforms that he had used in architecture classes. He also talked to watchmakers to learn about the specialty parts of a mechanical watch.

After the team had learned the underlying mechanics of watchmaking, the project took off.

“We took a lot of photos, put together the manual [for the kits]  place then,” Zhang said. “We made our social media a few months later, started collecting lists of people who would be interested [in] building a website and everything.”

Zhang hopes to raise $20,000 through Kickstarter to make Rotate’s first line of kits, pay for marketing and help the company start selling at shops, markets and trade shows. 

Rotate purchases parts and tools for its kits from about a dozen suppliers around the  globe, and some items are custom made for the company.

“We chose the different suppliers based off of their quality, how relevant they were, whether they’re compatible and just put together what we felt like were the best combination of parts for these watches,” Zhang said.

Zhang explained that Rotate’s kits include all the equipment necessary for making a watch along with an instruction manual that guides the customer through the process. The intended market for the watch kits includes anyone with an interest in watches or building things in general, Zhang said. 

With Rotate, Zhang is taking a leap of faith — she said she quit her full-time job working in sales for a commercial real estate platform to focus on the startup’s launch.

Ma said that as Rotate prepares for launch, its main goal is to find a pool of potential customers. The company is currently trying to reach more people through in-person interactions and cold calls to tell people about the product.

“What we’re looking for is an audience that is engaged and passionate about our product, and we also want to find a new audience — people who are on the fence, who have never heard of this hobby and want to try it,” Ma said. “That’s kind of the vision of what we want to do: push the boundaries of what we normally think is fun and what we normally want to do.”

Zhang said that in the coming years, she hopes to expand Rotate’s reach to commercial platforms and big-box department stores.

“I would just love to grow it as far as I can,” Zhang said. “So like a general timeline would be the Kickstarter ends, we fulfill all the reward tiers, we have the proof of concept we need to get into trade shows, gift shows, shops, [then we start] pitching to bigger companies like Best Buy, Walmart and just growing as far as we can from there.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the class in which Zhang met her Rotate teammates was Strategic Management, a business administration course. It was a business entrepreneurship class.

The Daily Trojan regrets this error.