'We want to be number two behind Apple': The inside story of Vector, the first really smart watch

The 30-day battery life gadget stole the show at Baselworld and will soon hit the markets around the globe.
Written by Andrada Fiscutean, Contributor on

Meet the Vector Watch

"We want to be number two, after Apple."

It's 1.10 pm in Bucharest on a drizzly Tuesday. Vector Watch CEO Joe Santana adjusts his scarf. "Who wants to buy a watch that every day needs to recharge?" he says.

Santana is set up at Readers Cafe, just outside Vector Watch's Bucharest office. The CEO flew in from London to work with the tech team, who are busy fine-tuning the product ahead of its launch, scheduled for August in London and Los Angeles.

"Sexy", "subtle", and "best Apple Watch alternative" are some of the ways the Vector Watch has been described in the media so far. The coverage the company received during the Baselworld watch show in Switzerland earlier this year took many by surprise: it was as if an unknown singer released their first song and it went straight to the top of the Billboard chart.

Hopes are high, and the clock is ticking. Now they need to prove themselves.

25 people who could checkmate an industry

The company behind Vector Watch is based in London, where its marketing, sales and management are all located. But the tech guys are in Bucharest. Andrei Pitis, the CTO, joins Santana and me in the Readers Cafe.

Pitis was the first to believe that a 30-day battery watch could be made. He had the idea, developed a prototype, and then realized he needed a watch expert to make a well-rounded product. Last July, he approached Santana, who had spent time as CEO of watchmaker Timex.

"I was skeptical in the beginning, because I had had experience [with smartwatches] in the 1990s. Well, [Pitis] proved to me that it could be done. So here we are," Santana says.

Now, there are 25 people in total working on Luna and Meridian, the two flavors of Vector Watch.

It's 1.16pm. The waitress takes their orders.

Battery failure

Timex was an early pioneer in the smartwatch business. The company spent millions of dollars on developing smartwatch products, but none worked out. "Consumers, basically, didn't want to recharge a watch. And to change batteries every week? Forget it. And that's why we failed," Santana says.

Pitis started out as one such smartwatch consumer. He's used several fitness bands and says of the experience: "I found that once you forget to charge them, they disappear from your life. You won't charge them anymore."

Pitis thought he could do better. He started working with Dan Tudose on hardware and Irina Alexandru on design engineering.

"I look at battery life as a cost," he says. "I pay with my time to charge it. For a phone, I pay daily, because I need to use it daily. But for a watch, it's not enough. There's not enough to justify a daily charge," he says.

As with laptops, smartwatch batteries wear out over time. "The life of a battery is proportionally dependent on how many times you recharge, OK? So after 300 times, the battery that lasted 18 hours, lasts 10. So just imagine six months later - you may feel very frustrated. People are going to be angry," Santana says.

It's 1:28pm. The food arrives.

It has to tell time

The design of Vector Watch bears the signature of Steve Jarvis, who worked on the Nike Fuelband. The startup wanted to make a true watch, not a small screen you attach to your wrist and connect to your smartphone.

"It's important to look like a watch. It has to tell time," Pitis says. "You need to look at it and say: this is a watch, it's not a smartwatch. And then it can be smart," Santana adds.

Santana and Pitis show me the watch face that could be worn with a tux at a formal gathering, then a smart-casual face for everyday wear. Pitis has a metal strap, while Santana prefers black leather. "We want to stay very close to the business watch look that has been around for more than a hundred years. It needs to be luxurious, it needs to be fashionable," Santana tells me.

They've put a lot of thought into details. The Vector Watch has a stainless steel and mineral glass body, and it's water resistant up to 50 metres. It feels thin and it's easy to look at without the glare of a bright screen. To describe the design, Pitis quotes Pythagoras: "Beauty is in the proportion of the parts."

Are all the other tech companies missing out on making sure the watch is an integral part of the smartwatch? "They are getting watch guys, but they silenced them," Pitis says. He and Santana have been working together for almost a year now. "We're able to look at each other's worlds in a different way and overcome the prejudice."

Why buy a smartwatch?

Vector Watch has a black-and-white screen which is not touch-sensitive, and is controlled by a smartphone app. Unlike Apple and Samsung, which made their wearables work with just a few handsets that bear their brand, Vector is compatible with iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.

"Having notifications from your phone on the wrist is very important. You'll be able to save time by not looking at the phone when it's not important," Pitis says. The Vector execs argue that, in the future, we will interact with phones by using notifications, not by opening apps per se. "There are a lot of people who instead of starting WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, see a notification from somebody and they go into the app."

A lot of our time gets lost on unimportant things, he says. With Vector Watch, the notification appears on the screen and can easily be discarded by a 90-degree wrist rotation. "That saves you 10,15, 30 seconds per notification, but if you count them, they may add up to minutes or even more per day."

"We're building a watch that saves time for you. It doesn't add another activity, there's no Angry Birds. The watch should isolate you, it should give you time."

It's 1:42pm. Pitis shows me Calendar, one of his favorite apps. Inside the analogue face are tiny lines which show meetings positioned around the clock. You can easily see when they start and end. The app gives you an accurate view of how busy your day is, and where the gaps are. It's simple, yet smart. "We're telling time," he says.

Vector Watch also has fitness applications. It offers calorie counting, as well as distance and step tracking, and it can monitor your sleep. The fitness bands Pitis has previously used missed something. "The data they were producing month after month was not very relevant. I wanted to have data for one year."

Second to Apple

"I think we've done a really good job with existing technology," Santana tells me. From the start the company has wanted a black-and-white display that offers excellent resolution, better than the one offered by the main producer on the market.

Also, it was hard for them to find suppliers and hire people who believed in them. "No one wants to waste time on something that may not succeed, right?" Santana says.

According to Statista, last year 89 companies shipped a total of 6.8 million smartwatches. So where will Vector Watch be in a year's time?

Santana points his finger right below LG on Statista's chart - LG sold 420,000 units last year. "I think we will be maybe around here in terms of volume."

And in five years?

"In five years we hope to be number two, after Apple."

The smartwatch market is expected to spike this year, fueled by the release of the Apple Watch last month. GfK estimates that sales in the category will expand from four million units in 2014 to as many as 26.1 million this year.

Devices such as Vector Watch will eventually overtake the traditional watch market, the Vector Watch CTO believes. "My youngest daughter, who has been testing the smartwatch for a month now, will never buy a mechanical watch when she's older. She's used to having notifications. Younger people will grow up like this," Pitis says.

The two are confident they can make a name for themselves in the smartwatch business, regardless of the presence of giants like Apple, Samsung, Sony, and LG. They don't even fear Pebble, as they're aiming at a broader niche. "We've had people saying: this is the first smartwatch that I would wear," Pitis says.

Apple is seen as their only competitor, because of the company's devotees, not the devices. Their products are different, but there is one thing they agree on: a watch enters your space, it's personal, just like a lunch conversation. "To convince people that they have to wear something, it has to be incredible," Apple CEO Tim Cook once said.

It's 2:16pm in Bucharest, and the drizzle has stopped. The guys are about to head back to their office. Time moves on.

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