Jacob Juul, the founder of Bulbul Watches, is a globetrotting entrepreneur and design enthusiast, who started out studying journalism, but ended up traveling the world and making watches. Not your typical route to running an international company, in other words. Moreover, his unconventional way of doings things, of actualizing ideas, projects and products, still permeates his rapidly growing, Copenhagen-based company to this day.
Equipped with a good deal of general watch interest, but a modest amount of actual knowledge of the watch industry, Jacob went to Switzerland to study the ins and outs of the business of making timepieces and found that the heritage-driven industry could use a forward-thinking breath of fresh air. This brought about the ongoing collaboration with boundary-pushing, Danish design trio KiBiSi, and after a painstaking design process that dipped into Jacob’s last savings - and even had him questioning his own judgment ever so slightly - the Pebble watch was finally launched to critical acclaim in the world's leading design, tech and culture media. Perseverance pays and the Hjerting-native silenced all skepticism by coming confidently out on top.
Today, Bulbul can more or less be summed up as a direct extension of Jacob’s nuanced, diverse and curious worldview. Bulbul Communications Manager Ulrik Nørgaard sat down with Bulbul's founder for a chat about how it all got started, what Bulbul is all about and what kind of future he envisions for the company.
Could you start by telling me about your background?
Jacob Juul: Yes. I’ve studied at Roskilde University: At first I thought I wanted to be a journalist, but that didn’t last. In 2000 I moved to Canton, China. When I arrived I started teaching English, and I was only supposed to stay for a few months. But then I started working for a Danish start-up company. Helping to facilitate the start of a company taught me about running one in terms of basic things like manufacturing, payment and transportation. The funny thing is that I’ve never really been interested in business, as such. I never saw myself as being a part of that world. But I’ve always been very interested in entrepreneurship.
Where does that interest come from?
It started fairly early on in my youth. I come from a tiny town in Jutland called Hjerting, close to Esbjerg. It’s actually the westernmost point in Denmark and when looking out over the water, I would get this enormous yearning for freedom and going abroad. In connection with that, I’ve discovered that I feel more comfortable having my own project. Being someone’s employee never really worked out for me. I just felt confined. And that made me want to do my own thing.
It sounds like you wanted to set your own agenda?
Yes, I wanted to me my own boss, I guess. Not because I wanted to tell other people what to do, but because having the ability to steer things in my direction – in the direction of the life I wanted – was important to me. Also, being able to travel, so I didn’t have to be stuck in a provincial outpost, was a priority. These ideas simmered in my brain during my youth, and when I started working I encountered my employers for better or worse. Some of them were actually very competent, and I took some of their methods and ways of doing things to heart. After China I started a trading company in Hong Kong. It was somewhere around that time that I got interested in working with designers. I looked at product categories in terms of pros and cons and what would be the best experience to work with, and that led me to realize that jewelry and watches are the smart choice because they’re small and durable compared to big, clunky items like furniture or frail, potentially semi-hazardous objects like lamps. And you don’t need any kind of manual to operate a watch, if it’s designed properly your grandkids might inherit it, which means that it can transcend time, place and culture. That’s pretty fascinating to me. So I went ahead with the process of finding the appropriate design language for my new watch company. At that point in time, I noticed a lot of new Danish design that experimented with shape and colors in a way that made them able to shed the very heavy Danish design heritage, and out of this new generation of designers I thought KiBiSi represented the cream of the crop. As luck would have it, they were into the project.
Shortly after this, I went to a watch fair in Switzerland to get some insight into the world of watches. I spent a bit of time there and my immediate impression was that the watch industry was extremely technically proficient, but also stuck in a certain look and way of communicating their product. They were, to a certain degree, stuck in a traditional way of doing things. Almost every brand I encountered made a big thing of the year they were founded. They were also almost completely identical. Moreover, the innovation mostly consisted in slight changes to the movement.
This is where Bulbul stands out from the crowd?
Jacob: I think so. I mean, the overall impression I got when I went to the watch fair was that the watch industry was quite conservative, but also extremely competent in terms of craft and technical skill. Which makes sense because they’ve been around for a long time, so they know what they’re doing. But you can’t really call it a cutting-edge industry. And that probably has a lot to do with the fact that it is, for the most part, run by traditionalists steeped in heritage.
It sounds like you wanted to escape that traditionalism with Bulbul?
Jacob: That was definitely the case. My experience in Switzerland gave me this weird paradoxical feeling; This was an industry that revolved around time. And yet, it was as if time had just grinded to a halt. Having said that, there were a lot of other brands that tried to do things differently, but they almost always ended up going overboard into something odd, weird and unsightly - like a lot of unnecessary flashing parts worked into the timepiece. For me, that’s when a watch stops being beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. They were just weird for the sake of being new.
It also seems like most of those attempts at being radical or new end up as time-specific oddities that don’t really stand the test of time?
Jacob: Exactly. And that’s what I communicated to KiBiSi, which they were totally on board with. Then they started designing and came up with 5 different proposals, the slightly asymmetric Pebble being one of them. Needless to say, I fell for that design immediately. There was just something special about the shape that made it new and remarkable without being too off-kilter. Making a watch that’s different isn’t all that difficult. However, it’s difficult to make a watch that’s different and beautiful at the same time. Part of what makes the Pebble collection so unique is the fact that the watch industry is built on geometric shapes – circles, squares, rectangles and so on. It’s all very geometric and symmetric. Furthermore, because we had made an asymmetric watch it suddenly presented certain challenges since all the pre-fabricated materials are made in geometric shapes. In other words, we had to build our watch from scratch, which is a challenge in any industry, but especially in the watch industry because it’s so precision-driven. Making your watch water-proof is, for example, a question of 1 tenth of a millimeter. Consequently, the process of producing the watch – from idea to finished design – took two years. Which is, of course, a fair amount of time to spend on designing one product…
If we go further into this painstaking process, could you tell us a bit about your choice of materials?
Jacob: Sure. Further into the process, I realized that our price range wasn’t going to be low as we’d already spent so much time perfecting the details. That’s when I thought that I might as well upgrade to the very best materials available. The reasoning behind this was that the design and the overall aesthetic was so exceptional that the materials had to be on par. This led us to the use of sapphire glass, which is the best glass you can possibly get. We also used Italian leather, some durable, German steel meshes and a Swiss movement.
Did KiBiSi play an active part in choosing the materials?
Jacob: It was actually mostly me. But they agreed with my choices and thought it added to the value and overall appeal of the product. On the other hand, I wanted to keep things at a reasonable price level. I wasn’t too keen on going into high-end luxury because that’s a totally different world, which a lot of people don’t have access to. And we’re not about excluding people. Still, today I’m thankful that we used durable, high-end materials. It would be a shame if the meticulousness and quality of the design wasn’t supported by excellent, durable materials.
A small aside in all of this is that I didn’t have any alternate income in this rather lengthy period - and my money wasn’t that far from running out. But I stuck to my guns and eventually we managed to launch the final product in August 2013. Luckily, this caused a small media explosion with media like WIRED interviewing me and features on Selectism and Hypebeast. Dezeen did an in-depth interview with Lars from KiBiSi. Ultimately, the attention resulted in our stock being sold immediately. We launched on the 10th and by the 21st of August we were sold out. That was actually pretty crazy. At first I thought it was some kind of scam when this massive amount of orders rolled in, but thankfully it turned out to be the real deal. Then a lot of prominent, leading retailers started ordering and the rest is history, as they say.
Those months without income must have been slightly nerve-wrecking?
Totally. At some point, you start questioning your own judgment and you need to really push yourself to keep believing in a successful outcome. That’s why it was such a huge relief that we got off to an amazing start. All of our problems were gone save for the fact that we couldn’t keep up with the demand for our watches – which is a positive problem. I’m happy to say that this a problem we still have to this day.
OK, let’s try a question, which is slightly more abstract: How would you describe your brand to someone who’s never heard of you before?
Jacob: Good question. People actually often ask me that. It usually depends on the person who’s asking, but I always say that it’s a contemporary Danish watch brand and that the design represents the best of the new generation of Danish designers. That’s pretty much it, actually. I don’t really have a concept sentence that I can just repeat. That said, there are certain essential qualities and values that are consistent in everything we do. Values like integrity, honesty and no-nonsense and qualities like durability, and a stubborn will to innovate – to take the path less traveled.
Does that have anything to do with the design process being fairly complex? So many nuances and ideas going into one product, making it difficult to reduce to easy catchphrases?
Jacob: I think so. I guess I don’t want to be locked into one category or description. I personally think that we have the potential to reach a very wide and diverse spectrum of people. I think we resonate with a lot of different types of people – from watch nerds and 18-year-old students to 60-year-old architects. To me, that’s super interesting. This is also very much down to KiBiSi. I actually think they might go down in design history as one of the great design institutions along with the likes of Panton and Arne Jacobsen.
I personally really like Lars from KiBiSi’s aesthetic sustainability concept. Designing for future generations is very ambitious and presupposes an extremely strong vision.
Jacob: Exactly. And that’s more or less a concept that I’m trying to communicate to people. Finding a designer in Denmark isn’t difficult. It’s actually pretty easy. But you have to distinguish between, say, a design student who designs nice and pretty things and next level design, which is what I think KiBiSi and Lars represent.
Who do you see as our peers?
Jacob: That’s hard. I guess the Apple watch and Smart watches in general are competitors. But our analogue, minimalistic watches are so different to what they’re doing that we aren’t exactly direct competitors. There are a lot of smaller indie brands doing good things…but I don’t want to mention them because I want you to buy our watches instead (laughs).
What kind of words and values do you associate with Bulbul?
Creativity is one value that we try to keep at the forefront of things. We like to keep pushing ourselves. And we don’t want to fall into the trap of getting too comfortable or taking the easy way out. The thing is that getting too comfortable would make our products look like everyone else’s products. We don’t want that. And it’s that specific drive that the company was founded on. It’s also the spirit that permeates most of what we do. So that’s a value that I like to cultivate. It’s important that we force ourselves to innovate despite the fact that it can be scary. Apart from that, I think honesty and integrity are important values in our communication and the way we do things in general. Another value, if you can call it that, is that we surround ourselves with skilled, competent and talented people. Which basically means that we aim at being great at what we do. Then there are certain business ethics like a good, swift customer service, etc. I’m not sure sustainability is a value, as such. But I am a fan of using sustainable, durable materials that can last for generations instead of using cheap polluting plastic that gets dumped somewhere. If we can produce a watch that lasts around 10 years, I consider that an acheivement compared to a lot of other products that people just use and throw away after 6 months. To paraphrase Lars from KiBiSi: there’s enough disposable shit in the world as it is. Let’s try not to add to that.
Where do you see Bulbul in 5 years?
The dream scenario when I started out, was to have around 5000 retailers worldwide. But that has changed a bit. Today, the dream scenario is a bit different; If we could have upwards of 25 extremely talented employees running a great designer watch brand with a healthy economy, I think that we’ll have come a long way.