The Mission Watch Company Story: Hardware is Hard

Chapter 1: All Stories Great and Small

All stories great and small have a beginning, and ours is no exception. The foundation of our story is two people, each of whom self-identifies as entrepreneurial, each of whom are lifelong watch fanatics.

Let’s start with Aron.

Having discovered watches at 13 years old it became more of a passion with each year that passed. The idea of actually designing and building a watch was something that occurred to him only in the past decade, yet the idea of having some kind of watch business was something that he first tried in the late 1990s.

It was 1998 and the very early days of eBay and Internet watch trading message boards. The convergence of an early electronic commerce product where you could buy and sell goods, coupled with a watch fanatic community that was starting to find their way online proved irresistible for Aron.

Living near Washington DC, Aron began to frequent overstock and discount stores looking for watches at a deep discount that he knew he could sell online for more. This was a very grassroots activity, but one that Aron could replicate several times a week. While the vast majority of his buying and selling didn’t generate significant revenue per watch sold, It was not out of the norm for Aron to find a watch for $40 that he could quickly and easily sell for $80. Shipping was included at a fixed fee that would cover for the shipping and online selling fees. So the goal was a minimum of doubling the investment in each watch. Sure, there were times that the watch would sell for less than double, but given that especially in the early days most of Aron’s watch sales were in online auctions, at least once a month a watch would sell for more than anticipated. More on that in a moment.

Also in the early days of eBay, there were not yet even photographs. So that meant that someone could try to sell a watch on eBay and all they would have was a written description. So it was the wild wild west of watch selling - a real gamble. Further, there were no professional merchants on eBay. eBay was literally like a garage sale that just happened to be online and around the world.

One weekend, Aron had found this amazing early Orfina Porsche Design chronograph on eBay. He had studied eBay in great depth and found ways to beat last-minute bidding wars before software was built for this purpose. So Aron won this watch and it was from a reputable seller with whom he had dealt with before. Knowing the watch would arrive in around 4 days, Aron simply relisted the watch with a much more detailed technical and historical description, and he then spread the word among the watch community as well.

On the day that the watch arrived in Aron's mailbox, his eBay auction ended and he had sold the watch for eight times what he bought it for. While this was truly an exceptional case, Aron's little watch side business proved an important proposition for him. That it was possible to not only maintain love for a hobby, but find revenue streams that could generate profit and most importantly for him, sustain his watch habit.

This side watch business allowed Aron to maintain a fairly large watch collection for well over a decade without spending a cent out of his own pocket. Like the baker who is too in love with his own donuts, Aron definitely minimized his profits by dipping into his own pantry. Probably 30% of the watches that Aron bought and intended for resale would simply go on his wrist and be added to his collection. Not a great way to run a business, but a pretty great way to fund an expensive and growing hobby.

During this intense 15 years of buying and selling and trading probably 1,000 watches, Aron thought a lot about why he liked certain watches and why he didn't like other watches.

Part of it was being attracted to a brand or a name. and part of it was being attracted to either of the simplicity or complexity of a watch. For example, one of Aron's favorite watches in his collection was a Rolex Air King from the 1960s. It was such a simple, beautiful and perfect watch, very difficult to do anything with aside from honor and respect and enjoyed its design and beauty. But he also enjoyed a Seiko Giugiaro digital chronograph, with amazing Italian design from someone who design cars and race products. While our tastes can be eclectic, they become more clearly defined by experience and sharpened by time.

Throughout this process Aron realized that he kept adding a lot of the same style watches to his collection. A 40mm Fortis pilot watch was joined a couple weeks later by an Orfina pilot's watch. And while he would question why he needed multiple watches that essentially looked and felt the same, he was just drawn so much to a certain style and favored that in his collection over other things. More importantly it felt different wearing the Orfina than it felt wearing the Fortis, or wearing a Glycine Incursore, back then a massive massive pilot's watch at 44mm.

By the time 2008 came around, and after a decade of really intense watch collecting and trading, Aron made his first designs for watch. It was a 44mm military style watch, kind of a hybrid between a classic pilot and a Panerai. It was a design extremely similar to one of the first California-designed Tsovet watches, which Aron soon discovered and acquired. 

While this project never went past the design phase. Aron had some professional drawings done for the watch. He then ended up getting very deep into some professional projects for a couple years. While Aron's watch love remained as strong as ever, he pulled back on the buying and trading.at that point. Aron was traveling over 300,000 miles a year and while he would pick up the occasional watch on his travels, there just wasn't the kind of time necessary to sit behind  the computer and do the work to maintain an online watch trading business.

What was also important at that point is that the watch buying and trading world had changed significantly. eBay had basically become a big retails store where it was impossible to find any value or anything really worth acquiring. While going to physical discount stores and finding great deals remained an attractive option, it was one that has no potential to scale. You had to be living in a place where the stores existed, and Aron wasn't. So Aron’s watch activity decreased probably by 80%, bringing in or moving out maybe 1 to 2 watches per month.Things pretty much remain that way until Aron and Peter met and realized that they had a common love for watches.

Similar to Aron, Peter has loved watches all of his life. While the passion for timepieces has always been there, the shape of Peter’s passion is a little different than Aron’s. Peter’s collection could never rival Aron’s for size and variety and for the amount of trading. Instead, like many other watch enthusiasts, Peter began to slowly and methodically acquire watches of particular interest, with a specific aesthetic, and often tied to some event or attachment. For instance, Peter would constantly gravitate to watches that were easy to read, with lots of contrast.  Dark and light. Black and white. Big enough to read easily and quickly. Small enough to not get in the way of a shirt sleeve or glove or bang into everything. It wasn’t til years later that Peter would understand that he liked “tool watches.” Watches with a job description. Watches that answered the simple question: “What time is it?” It would be many years later, again, where Peter could re-frame this into question into watches with a mission.

And so Peter’s journey began to gravitate around straightforward automatic watches that were simple and honest. In fact, one of the earliest watches he remembers is father’s Rolex DateJust from the early 1970’s (a watch that remains in the family and gets regular wear). This journey eventually took him to Toronto’s premier vintage and second hand watch shops, owned by Mr. Van Rijk and known, simply, as Van Rijks. It’s a shop Peter visited many times over the years.  Sometimes to talk about watches. Sometimes to look at watches. Sometimes to investigate and research the “next” watch. And, sometimes, to buy.  

One day Peter invited Aron to join him on a trip to Van Rijk.  Peter was ready to buy his first Rolex Submariner and wanted Aron to come along for the ride. Peter could tell Aron wasn’t sure about this watch shop (note from Aron: He thought it was going to be a total dump) and maybe had some preconceptions about the store. But he was happy to tag along. At least we’d be talking about watches and would likely buy a nice coffee later in the day. Fast forward a few hours and Aron’s mind was changed. We did buy the coffee, but only after we each bought a watch that we loved.

It was only after that special visit to what we think of as a candy store for watch fanatics, and Aron's departure from Toronto for Europe, that we started to build what we thought would be at least a prototype for an idea for a watch. To be honest, at that point, if you would have asked us the percentage chance that we would actually end up building a watch or a watch company I think we would have said it was less than 20%. At best.

As two people who have done a lot of entrepreneurial activities in their lives, one important lesson to share with you is that we were aware that we did not know what we did not know

The importance of this cannot be over-emphasized. Too often entrepreneurs, especially those of a relatively tender age, go into an entrepreneurial activity with a lot of energy and focus but they're just not aware of what they don't know. And, of course, what they don't know tends to appear when it's in the shape of a bear and ready to give them a solid bite. Sometimes that's a bite from which they don't recover in time to save the business.

Being more seasoned entrepreneurs, even though we were moving into a new business for us -  the business of manufacturing a piece of hardware (which is what a watch really is) - we were aware that we didn't yet have all of the questions. Without not just the information needed to succeed but without the right questions to ask, we proceeded cautiously yet enthusiastically. And we soon realized the title of what will be our story building Mission Watch Company, and that is “Hardware is Hard.”

What we knew we knew was that we had a pretty huge knowledge of watches, so we decided that our knowledge of and passion for watches would be our North Star. 

Aron, particularly, had a lifelong love of Japanese watches, Aron's first watch, that he received at age 13, was a mid-70s Seiko Speed-Timer. For Aron, this hooked him on Asian watches for life. No matter what other styles of watches and watch brands Aron enjoyed, he would always gravitate back to Asian watches, with a particular love for Seiko and all of its different varieties and sub-brands. Parenthetically, Aron is also a huge fan of Japanese G-Shock watches. Before our Mission 1, Aron's daily wearer, even with a full collection of watches some of which are quite high-end, would be a G-Shock.

So as the idea for Mission Watch Company began to play itself out, we realized that we wanted to provide amazing value for people who would wear our watches. As we had many conversations over many months, we began to unfold the vision. Our vision would be to build a watch in Asia, of custom-made components, using a global supply chain, that would allow us to produce a great watch of Swiss quality at a significantly lesser price. That was our vision. That was our value proposition.

We resolved from day one that cutting corners was an impossibility. We knew that the only way we would sell even one watch is if we built a watch that Peter and Aron would both love and want to be our own daily wearer. 

You have to think about what a high bar we intentionally set for ourselves. To have two lifelong watch fanatics both feel strongly enough about a watch that they would want it on their wrist every day is a massive mountain to climb. And, to be very honest, for both of us, if this watch wasn't that quality of watch, we wouldn't wear it even if we built it. The end result would have been us building a watch that never would have made it to market because we personally wouldn't have been proud and excited about it.

So our first challenge was obviously designing a watch. It's one thing to design a watch by yourself. It's another thing to design a watch with another human being.The same withhold true whether it was a watch or any other physical thing. No matter how much two people can have respect for an admirer the same physical thing, they have different tastes, styles, and design influences.

While common sense may dictate that the design process should then become both collaborative and deeply based upon compromise, that simply doesn't work. The collaboration piece works great but in designing any physical thing two people are going to come across many different points where they're views don't intersect.

While we will dive into much detail about this in later chapters, suffice it to say for now that each of us had certain aspects of design that we felt much more strongly about.This turned out to be a very good thing. There were very few points where we had philosophical and practical disagreements, yet felt equally strongly about that piece of the design and build.As in any relationship, it is much easier to compromise on something that you don't feel is as critically important as the other person does. 

The beginning of the process focussed on determining everything we didn’t like in a watch. This was easy, and fun. Small watches. Fussy  watches. Fancy watches. Hard to read watches. By eliminating all the elements we knew we would never include in the Mission 1, we began to be able to focus more narrowly on the important elements of the watch that we would build. It kind of felt as if each time we agreed upon something we didn’t want (for example, a crown that sticks way out and pokes you in the hand) we were forming the watch, maybe like a novice sculptor clumsily works through a block of clay.

It is those occasions where a line is drawn in the sand that compromise becomes impossible. We chalk it up to good luck that we encountered extremely few of those points, and each of us was able to take the design lead on elements we held closest to our individual hearts.

It is also important to be connected in your own mind and body to why you feel certain things are more important than other things and building any kind of product, whether it is hardware or software. When frustration comes in building something, it helps  to take the time to connect yourself to the source of that frustration.If we recognize that the reasons for our creative frustration comes from a place of some kind of personal frustration or block in our own vision, that is a very different proposition than frustration that stems from the evolution of what you are building. When you are actually becoming dissatisfied with what you are building, it is, of course, critically important to take a step back and examine the direction your design is going. Luckily, we encountered extremely few of those points and when we felt that ourdesign was not being true to our mission statement and our vision,  we were fairly quickly able to right our own course. As any good navigator knows, deviating from your course is natural - tides, winds and weather can move you around. The way to get to your final destination is consistent and careful course correction. And our design process allowed for us to go deep into watch design and aesthetics but consistent course correction and reference to our North Star kept us on track.

That's really the end to the beginning of our story. In the following chapters, we will fill in all the details and we hope that when we do, it benefits you and all of your own entrepreneurial and business endeavors.