How three engineers came up with a sharp idea

 In In Focus, News, Original

Since being founded in 2016, Tatara Razors, inspired by the precision and sharpness of ancient Japanese Samurai warrior swords, has gone from strength to strength. 

Text: Chris Graeme Photos: Tatara Razors

Based in Portugal, Tatara Razors was founded  by a team of three friends, all mechanical engineers, João Gomes, Luís Oliveira, and André Guimarães, who armed with a dream and a shared passion about Japanese culture and product development, came together to design, develop and create top-quality shaving products.

The original idea came from André, a black belt in Karate and a great fan of Japanese culture and philosophy, its practice of self control and loyalty.

He had used normal disposable razors, but suffered from skin irritation. This was because up to five ‘blind’ blades in disposable cartridges scratch the skin as they are aimed at all skin types. As he has sensitive skin and shaves daily, he began searching the market for an alternative.

André joined blogs and forums to discuss the problem of irritated, blotchy shaving skin, and opted for straight or ‘cutthroat’ razors. But these can be dangerous because the blade overlaps and can inflict a nasty cut.        

He bought a made-in-China safety razor but the body was not stainless steel and rusted. André quickly understood it was not a premium razor. 

“Because we were all either designers or engineers we realised that we could machine tool a razor together. The Japanese aspect came up because I’m a big fan of Japanese martial arts and blade craftsmanship”, says co-founder João Gomes.

Tatara – furnace inspired

The friends came up with the name Tatara, which is inspired by the furnace where the forge masters used to smelt the steel for Samurai swords in ancient Japan.

“Like the Japanese katanas, our products are made with extreme dedication and attention to detail thanks to the precession of modern engineering”, explains João Gomes.

In fact, João used to work in an investment casting company with a foundry and their first pilot models were cast in that foundry. “In the end, we didn’t opt for foundry because the results were not as perfect as machine tooling”, he adds.

Another reason for the Japanese association is that knowledge that the Japanese make high quality sharp tools.  

André is the production manager at the Computer Numerical Control (CNC) which is located 10km from Porto and is were the razors are made. 

So far, Tatara does not use its own blades, because the process is hugely expensive, and millions have to be made to justify the cost of manufacture.

Instead, the company buys Japanese feather brand blades, from the Feather Safety Razor Co. which are among the highest quality premium performance blades on the market. They are incredibly well-made and the quality control is second to none. Each blade can be used for five to eight shaves depending on the thickness of the beard bristle. 

The big advantage over other well-known established brands such as Gillettes Mach 3 and Fusion (currently the best-selling cartridge blades in the world) is price. These blades cost €3-€4 per cartridge. The blades Tatara uses cost €4 for a box of 10.

What Tatara make are the razors. “We mathematically studied the angles, since everyone’s face shape and skin is different. We consulted people that were already very knowledgable about this niche razor market, made several prototypes, and asked them their preferences, what they liked and didn’t like, until we reached a standard and efficient razor. The result was the Masamune razor”. 

The Masamune seems to suit a broad church of people as a standard model, but the engineers quickly realised that some people wanted a closer, smoother shave, and launched the Muramasa adjustable razor which sells at a hefty €329.

These feature a patented head, with adjustments from 1-5, although the designers recognise the calibration numbers are somewhat small and will have to make them larger for their next model. By changing the setting number, the customer either gets a smoother shave, or for those with a coarser beard, can opt for the higher setting. There are plans to increase the settings to 10 in a future model. All the stainless steel razors have a lifetime guarantee.

“Although expensive, we made a calculation that if you buy our Masamune razor (€149) and shave three times a week, you will pay the investment in eight months”, says João Gomes who adds that the secret of a good shave is partly in the quality of the blade and partly in the pivot head.      

From strength to strength

Unlike many startups which get pre-seed or series 1 financing from venture capital or business angel investors, André, Luís and João actually dipped into their own savings for the initial production, launched the product, and managed to make sufficient “noise” on the market, particularly in the forums, to arouse interest.

“Once we had launched the first model in 2016, we managed to make enough money to create new products and continue growing. By 2018 we were doubling sales year-on-year, and without wishing to divulge sales figures, we are on course this year to more than double our previous sales to 2,500 units”, explains João Gomes.  

Most of Tatara’s sales are online (70%) but stores have approached the company offering sale points. “This year we want to be more active and go looking for stores because we want to grow”.

João Gomes admits that the margins in retail outlets are tighter, but the exposure helps the brand to grow. However, their goal is not to go for mass retail outlets such as hypermarkets, but rather certain upmarket stores where the brand makes sense, such as Harrods or Harvey Nichols in the UK, for example. They also want to target specialist quality barber outlets and luxury websites such as the Portuguese luxury platform Farfetch.

Protecting the brand and maintaining control over marketing is in the forefront of the founders’ minds, and they have produced a number of accessory items, in addition to the razors, such as premium boar brushes, shaving soaps and aftershaves, a base razor holder in stainless steel and cork (a very Portuguese natural product) and a porcelain shaving bowl.

“We want to keep the brand intrinsically linked to shaving, because it’s what we do, but we are in discussions with other luxury, traditional brands regarding developing exclusive products which will enhance the reputation of our brand and help it grow, but also reinforce the quality of their own  brands in the market”, he says.

Partnering with big names

João remains tight-lipped about one particular famous, historic Portuguese high-end brand of toiletries with which Tatara will soon form a partnership to produce an exclusive shaving soap and aftershave, but believes the two have quality, singularity, and a certain Portugality in common.

He says there are still other prototype models currently under development, such as a single-edge razor, as well as new updated versions in the pipeline. “Just like with mobile phones, there are always changes and improvements to both design and function and that’s the case with Tatara too.

But what about the ladies? Do the trio of engineers have something in development for the fairer sex? 

Weve actually been approached by women asking us to make a shaver with a longer handle to make it easier to shave their legs, and a feminine line of razors is something that we will definitely tackle with specific strategy in the future.”

Selling worldwide    

João Gomes says their razors sell worldwide with the largest sales quota in the United States. This is followed by Canada, the UK, Italy and Greece, and Portugal too. 

“Initially Portugal hadn’t been a strong market for us, but then we started to become known after we went to TV and now Portugal’s in the Top 5. We are studying options to sell our products in small boutique barber shops in Lisbon which have a name, and even top-end pharmacies and expensive toiletry shops at airports would make sense for us”, he explains.

“At the end of the day its an ergonomic and tactile product, people can feel the quality from the weight when they handle it. Its a completely sustainable item, made from 100% high-grade stainless steel with a lifetime guarantee,” he adds.

And one of the greatest dreams that resulted from their interest in Japanese craftsmanship and philosophy came true as the brand became more successful.

“We were able to travel to Japan after we actually started to make some money and that was a big step for us. We took our girlfriends and took the time to research, take photos for marketing purposes, visited Samurai museums and did Samurai sword courses.

João Gomes says that although he doesn’t yet have a Samurai sword (he is looking for one), he really wants to have a set of Japanese armour or ōyoroi and dōmaru to showcase in his house, or even in their office which will certainly serve to remind him on a daily basis that nothing cuts the mustard quite like Japanese inspired blades and razors.