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Amit Khatri, Gaurav Khatri of Noise: The wrist watchers

Amit and Gaurav Khatri, co-founders of Noise, on building a brand around wearables and hearables, instilling a culture of fitness at work, and upcoming technology trends

Gaurav Khatri (left) and Amit Khatri are co-founders of the personal lifestyle technology brand Noise.
Gaurav Khatri (left) and Amit Khatri are co-founders of the personal lifestyle technology brand Noise. (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

It’s close to the end of business hours on a weekday but the energy in the Noise office in Gurugram, Haryana, is that of a startup operating at full steam.

I am told co-founders and cousins Amit and Gaurav Khatri are running late as they are busy in another meeting. I catch a glimpse of them walking out of another meeting room a little later.

They are bound to be busy. In just under 10 years, Noise, which began in 2014 by selling smartphone covers and cases, has become one of the top-selling wearables brands in India. It’s excelling, in particular, in the smartwatches category.

According to the International Data Corporation (IDC) India Monthly Wearable Device Tracker for August 2023, Noise has regained the top spot in the smartwatch market with a 27.6% share, growing by 93.2% year-on-year—it was trailing Fire-Boltt in the first quarter of 2023.

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When we meet, their drive is infectious. Amit notices the vintage analogue watch on my wrist. During our hour-long conversation, they come across as relaxed, focused, completely sure of their trajectory. No doubts, no hesitation.

Amit, 42, and Gaurav, 33, had not planned to enter this business. Amit had his own business, as a supply chain partner for global fashion brands, and Gaurav had trained to be a commercial pilot. But Gaurav found himself staring at an aviation industry slump. The idea for the firm came when he couldn’t find a good smartphone cover and asked Amit, who was in Hong Kong on work, to get him one. They figured there was a gap in the market.

And so it has been since. They have been learning on the job, entering the wearables segment when they felt the time was right. They need to be “agile”, confirms Amit, since the business is changing. Today, they seem to be expanding beyond earbuds and smartwatches and have set up a tech incubator, Noise Labs, to keep up with new, upcoming and future technology trends.

In a wearables market that has more than 80 smartwatch brands alone, Noise is betting on its ability to offer newer features at a competitive price, experimenting with newer technologies and categories, and promising long-lasting products to stand out from the rest. Watches like the Noise Colorfit Icon 2, Colorfit Icon Buzz and Colorfit Pulse Go Buzz, all currently costing less than 2,000, contributed to 39% of its shipments, notes IDC.

Overall, it has been a green patch as more and more fitness-conscious and tech-savvy Indians take to wearables. In 2022, Noise broke into the top 5 smartwatch selling brands in the world, rubbing shoulders with brands such as Apple, Samsung, Huawei and Garmin. The year before, it led the smartwatch market in India with a 27% share, ahead of competition like boAt, Fire-Boltt, realme and Amazfit, according to Counterpoint Technology Market Research.

Today, they stand second only to boAt in the wearables section, growing by 61.6% year-on-year, with a 13.5% market share, the IDC data says. According to Counterpoint's India Smartwatch Shipments Model Tracker 2021, expanding its portfolio towards lower price points, “designing products according to preferences backed by a strong consumer database, and new alliances and partnerships helped the brand become the market leader”. Four of the top 10 selling smartwatch models in 2021 were from Noise, it noted.

How it started

“We were always inclined to build something for consumers. Gaurav was interested in the technology side of things.... When he asked me (about the smartphone cover), we thought if we are facing this problem (of having no access to good brands), it must be a problem for many Indians,” says Amit, who has worked in the merchandising industry—from 2004-07, he managed the supply chain for Far Eastern countries for Orient Craft Ltd, a garment design manufacturer. In 2007, he set up Transcend Sourcing Ltd, working as a supply chain partner for fashion brands such as H&M, Calvin Klein, Gap, Marks & Spencer and Vero Moda, across Hong Kong, China and India. This experience came in handy when they built Noise—blending lifestyle-oriented products and good design with technology.

Both Amit and Gaurav did their schooling in Bikaner, Rajasthan. While Gaurav has a bachelor’s in business administration from Amity University in Uttar Pradesh’s Noida, Amit studied fashion management at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi.

Most people would be surprised to learn that this is Gaurav’s first job. “This is the first business that I have had in my life,” he says. In 2010, Gaurav, who had completed his commercial pilot’s training from the Philippines, says, “I had thought I will join an airline and settle my life there... but fortunately I think those three years (from 2011-14) grilled me enough to figure out what are the other ways that I can turn my career around. Amit was running his own business and—being cousins—I had the luxury of using his resources easily, understanding what he’s doing, how business is done,” he recalls.

“When we started, we never thought we would be selling a gadget,” Amit says. “Smartwatches are a very tough category—an operating system, algorithms, apps. If you asked me back then, ‘can you make a tech product?’, I would have said no. It’s like a mini mobile. But, with time, we learnt.”

Gaurav was always keen on technology-related work. “As a teenager or a young kid in the 1990s and 2000s, you saw a lot of technology or personal gadgets coming into our lives: the PlayStation, feature phones, smartphones. You were surrounded by them. We have seen the journey and hence there was this personal nudge: that we wanted to create a brand in the personal lifestyle tech category.”

One of the key things that worked for Noise, they say, was identifying trends early. They started selling smartwatches in 2016 and launched their first truly wireless (TWS) audio product the same year. Offering interesting features at competitive pricing has worked: be it TWS earbuds designed specifically for gaming or earbuds that have smart gesture controls, or affordable smartwatches with Bluetooth calling.

Explaining how the market in India moved from wired headphones to neckbands and then to TWS audio, Amit says: “The market pivoted really well when the economies of scale came in. I think our first TWS was 5,000. When the market went under 1,500, with economies of scale, it moved on from there.”

Last year, the brand introduced its first pair of smart eyewear, and, more recently, a smart ring and a dedicated smartwatch category for children. The 400-employee Noise, which remains bootstrapped, registered 100% year-on-year growth and closed FY23 with revenue of more than 2,000 crore, according to the company. Almost 80% of their sales are online, on their own website and marketplaces.

The challenges

One challenge remains manufacturing entirely in India—a common theme amongst most of the big players in the wearables and affordable audio accessories segment. While most product components—like sensors, for instance—are sourced from South-East Asian countries like Taiwan, China and other parts of the world, the assembly of Noise’s products, the UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) development and product design all happen within India, says Gaurav.

That’s one area, he adds, they are focusing on now. “We have spent a lot of time and energy on R&D. A lot of hardware design is happening in-house now. More than 85-90% of our business in the wearable category is being made in India now. In May, we made more than one million smartwatch units entirely in India... People are slowly wanting to detach from their phones. In the next year or so, all your data will be on a smartwatch, on your wrist. That is the brand’s idea: to take people from the palm to wrist,” says Gaurav. “The overall (manufacturing) ecosystem is building up in India. It’s a phased exercise. Within a few years, I think a lot of Indian companies will be creators of technologies that will be sold to the world.”

Earlier this week, Noise also announced a joint venture with Il Jin Electronics, a subsidiary of Amber Enterprises India Ltd, to set up a facility in the country.

But, it turns out, manufacturing is not really the biggest hurdle. “The biggest challenge in every step of the business was getting the right set of people. I believe talent is very crucial for our business. We are not into manufacturing.... Our arsenal is the people. When you grow, at different stages, you need a different set of expertise. When we were starting, it was very tough to attract talent. Why should you join Noise? How does it make a difference? So the early years were tough for us,” says Amit. “That’s the biggest challenge. The rest is manageable.”

Gaurav says running “out of stock” was another problem. “Maal nahi hota tha (we didn’t have enough products to sell).

Are they spreading themselves too thin? Amit stresses agility. “We don’t want to land up in a Kodak or BlackBerry moment where we are over-obsessed with what we have. We see technology changing very quickly,” he says. “So, on one side, we are very focused on wearables. But on the other hand, we incubated this separate vertical—Noise Labs—which is a separate team with a separate focus. They keep working on newer technologies. The idea is to look at what are the five big things that could be coming in the future. We should be ready,” he adds.

Away from work, Amit is big on fitness, while Gaurav likes spending time with family and prefers drives or staycations. “Amit has created that culture of fitness in the workplace too,” says Gaurav. “We have built a fun, happy-go-lucky, collaborative environment, and when you are working the whole day with so many young people around, with new thoughts and ideas, you don’t really feel the pressure of unwinding.”

Also read: Aman Gupta: Riding a sound wave

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