The Entrepreneur: Mike France, Christopher Ward

The co-founder of the luxury watch brand on his addiction to sales figures, selling to the North Pole, and "proper watches" over "smart watches"...

Co-founder: Mike France
Company: Christopher Ward
Website: www.christopherward.co.uk
Description in one line: Luxury British watch brand which aims to provide premium, quality Swiss made timepieces at affordable prices
Previous companies: Early Learning Centre
Turnover: £9m (year ending March 2016)

Business growth

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

  • We are the first digital direct-to-consumer premium quality watch brand
  • No middlemen and no celebrity endorsements keeps the cost base down
  • A three times cost to retail multiple of less than half the rest of the industry means unique value for the customer

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Probably energising a team that turned around Early Learning Centre from losing £10m and heading out of business to making £15m and finding its raison d ‘etre again. The hardest work I have ever known but ultimately hugely rewarding in every sense.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

The sales numbers – several times a day! As most of our sales are online we can see in real-time, down to the names and addresses, who is buying what across the world. It’s addictive and an evening rarely passes without me checking how things are going.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

Our digital roots meant that from day one we were an international business. We now sell in more than 100 countries and even have a customer at the North Pole!

Nearly half of our sales come from overseas and we expect this to be a growing share with the US being our largest single market within three to five years. There’s nothing as universal as time – as we remind ourselves frequently.

Describe your growth funding path

To this point we have been self-funded (with working capital provided by Barclays) and only now are we beginning to explore bringing in outside capital. Given our propensity to do things somewhat differently than the norm, we are interested in looking at some of the newer markets for raising fund, including crowdfunding.

What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

As an online business we have embraced and been reliant on web-based systems from the outset. The mobile phone has become a huge part of both the search and discover process for our customers and, increasingly, the preferred device for buying. We see this trend continuing at pace.

We have also embraced 3D printing from an early stage and now all of our prototyping is done this way. We think it’s only a matter of time before 3D printing of watches is integrated into the manufacturing process and we want to be in the vanguard of this development.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

We aim to have at least doubled our turnover in three years, and for the mix of our business to be greater outside of the UK.

Growth challenges

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

Firing a very good friend.

What was your biggest business mistake?

Not firing that close friend sooner.

Piece of Red Tape that hampers growth most:

Different duty regimes across borders.

What is the most common serious mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Not being close enough to the cash.

How will your market look in three years?

We will see the rise of independent brands that have an interesting and real back-story, strong values (and value) and transparent provenance continuing apace as will disinter-mediation in the watch market.

We think “proper” mechanical watches will thrive as an antidote to “smart watches” and we believe that the current trend towards mixing the two in a single product will be in decline as the market polarises.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

If you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not trying hard enough. Just don’t make too many big ones twice!

Personal growth

Biggest luxury:

My Aston Martin DB9.

Executive education or learn it on the job?

Learn it on the Job.

What would make you a better leader?

More patience.

What one thing do you wish you’d known when you started?

It would be alright in the end!

One business app and one personal app you can’t do without:

Spotify for personal and Watchville for business as it keeps me up to date with industry news and new launches.

Business book:

The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High Performance Organization by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith.

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