I guess you know Robert-Jan Broer, founder of the Fratellowatches online magazine, initiator of #SpeedyTuesday, and the Speedy Tuesday limited editions that OMEGA introduced in the past years. Robert-Jan and I met some fifteen years ago in The Hague, Netherlands, where both of us lived. We were both watch enthusiasts, and we craved more opportunities to talk about watches with like-minded folk. And both of us started a WordPress blog about the watches we loved so much, and for many years, we drove to Baselworld together. Robert-Jan got his Fratellowatches blog intertwined with Ebner Verlag, a German publishing house and later bought it back to team up with Chrono24. Over the past two years, Fratellowatches has gone from publishing to selling pre-owned watches, selling their own Limited Editions, and even new watches from some major watch brands. We’re talking with Robert-Jan Broer about his journey with Fratellowatches.
Frank, MONOCHROME – We all know by now how passionate you are about Omega Speedmasters. If I recall well, you sold your Peugeot 205 GTI so you could buy a Speedmaster. But how did it all start with the Fratellowatches blog?
Robert-Jan Broer – I didn’t sell anything to start the blog, of course. I was active on several forums in the days before Facebook and Instagram. I used to be active on TimeZone and Watchuseek, for example, and even had a role as administrator on the last one. But that was about 20 years ago now. In 2004, I decided that I wanted a platform to share my own voice on watches, and blogs were relatively new at the time. So I simply installed this open-source solution for blogs (WordPress) back then and started writing. Meanwhile, much like MONOCHROME, Fratello transformed from being a blog into an online magazine over time. The word ‘blog’ doesn’t cover what we’re doing any more. I see Twitter and Instagram channels more as a “bloggers” platform than our websites.
How did you decide to quit your job at the bank and start blogging full time?
It wasn’t easy. At first, I started to work one day less a week at the bank. Spending one day per week on Fratello was very welcome, but I also realized I could be spending seven days doing this. At some point, a year later or so, I had the opportunity to leave the bank and started doing it full time, but it was scary at first. Leaving a well-paid job at a bank with a lot of corporate security and step into the unknown. At first, I had to take some projects and assignments next to Fratello to make ends meet, but in the end, it all worked out, and Fratello became my main objective and source of income. Since the day I started doing this full time, it feels like I’ve never worked since. We now have 15 people in total, seven of whom are working full time for Fratello. And we foresee adding more full-time positions in the near future. It has become a real company, and it feels we’re just at the start of it, while in fact, I started it as a hobby nearly 17 years ago. It is an amazing ride, and although sometimes stressful, I can only say it was the best decision ever. Do what you love, and you will never work again sounds very cliché, but also very true.
I guess we have already said enough about the spectacular collaboration with OMEGA, resulting in two lovely Speedy Tuesday editions. We interviewed you (for the camera) for our Speedmaster Chronicle video series. So the big question is, will 2021 bring us a third Speedy Tuesday edition?
At the moment, we (OMEGA and ourselves) have plenty of ideas, but nothing concrete has come out of it yet. Due to the current situation we have to deal with in the world, we agreed that we only come forward with something if we really have something awesome to show. People were afraid it would be an annual thing, but it isn’t. It just needs to make sense. There will be a Speedmaster ST3 though, but no timeline yet. Let’s also first get over this Covid19 situation; meeting with brands like Omega in the flesh is more productive to discuss these things than to use Skype and email. Speedy Tuesday is also more than just these watches, it is about Speedmaster enthusiasts and connecting them using the same identifier, namely “Speedy Tuesday”. I can’t wait to get our Get-Togethers going again, perhaps even more so than a new Speedmaster Speedy Tuesday edition. For me, a huge part of the fun is in the community, enjoying our Speedmasters over a beer or schnitzel (or both). A Speedy Tuesday watch is to celebrate that community more than anything else. A cherry on top of the cake, you could say.
What were the main challenges in running Fratello before adding the shop and starting the retail business?
Time is always an issue. Funny, as that’s basically related to what we publish. But things are time-consuming. Writing is, taking pictures is, and so is travelling. So you have to make sure when covering a new watch, or a specific event, you’re able to do this promptly. What I found challenging was to let go of things. As a founder, you want to be involved in everything. Whether that’s doing videos, brand visits, commercial deals, or the shop, it is impossible — also timewise again — to be involved in all these things. I have full trust in my colleagues, and I made sure they are better than me in the things they are doing on a day-to-day basis. Of course, the challenge was to find the right people for these things. And I am glad that we did; it allows me to focus on growth and strategic discussions and not worry about the things that the others take care of. I still write a lot, because I like it, and I also communicate a lot with our readers per email, the comments they leave on the site or via social media channels. It’s what makes it so much fun, being part of the watch community.
And now… selling pre-owned Speedmasters and a selection from Hamilton, Fortis, Rado, and Seiko. How is that? Going from the blogging side of the watch world to retail?
It is a very interesting world. I didn’t have experience in retail, but luckily one of our editors used to have a watch shop in The Hague for 15 years, which definitely helps. The setting up was quite a bit of work because we want to do it properly. Since we purchase all watches – nothing is in consignment – you need a place where you can keep stock and ship from; basically the entire logistic side of things needed to be taken care of. What is most important to me is that buyers have the best experience when purchasing a watch from us. So we want to be in touch with the customer (we hired Dave to manage the shop), to make sure everything goes smoothly and that people are happy with their purchase. We don’t have a physical store (yet), so you can’t welcome someone in your shop with a smile and a conversation, so you need to make sure that if someone sends you a message with a question, it gets a proper and timely answer. So, it is an entirely different world from publishing articles, but great fun nevertheless. However, let me stress that our main objective is being an online watch magazine, with content that is good and that excites people. We love the watches we sell, but we do not depend on those sales.
And then there were the Frederique Constant Moonphase Manufacture and more recently the Oris Big Crown Pointer Date? Two special editions exclusively for Fratello. How nerve-wracking was it to launch these models?
We started with the Frederique Constant Moonphase Manufacture at the end of 2019, more or less as a pilot for the shop. We developed our own shop system, had to talk to several payment service providers, deal with logistics, etc. It was exciting! We only made one mistake: we started operations without making it known to the world. We didn’t put out teasers or make a lot of fuss about it. A wise lesson!
Even though the watch is an amazing offer, it wasn’t a good seller as we just put too little effort into it. We also made the mistake of putting an alligator leather strap on the watch, making this watch’s shipment outside the EU a nightmare due to the Cites certificate. With a manufacture movement with moon phase complication, I still think it is a great watch and looks beautiful.
The Oris was quite a different story. From A to Z, we were involved in the design process of this watch. It was a bit like Speedy Tuesday, where it really was a joint venture between the brand and us, to create something really cool for our audience. The result is something to be proud of, and we are happy to see many of the owners showing their “Fratelloris” with pride on Instagram and Facebook. We learned a lot from the mistakes we made with the FC watch and made sure we had everything right with the Oris Big Crown Pointer Date. A totally different experience, but nevertheless nerve-wracking. It is a big thing, a lot of our money is involved, you want to make it a success, and you want people to be as enthusiastic as we are about this watch. It is not even so much about making a profit, in the end, but rather to create something exciting. We are now working on some new ideas with different brands for the future.
How successful were the sales?
We are very happy with the sales from the Oris. We were excited about this watch ourselves, and I think it reflected in all the things we published about it. People got excited too and ordered it. Even during the teaser period, without even showing the watch to people, we received messages from people who wanted to make sure they could get one. We bought 250 of these Oris watches ourselves, and Oris wanted to have 50 in their own boutiques. So 300 watches in total and the majority were sold within the first week. Only a few left but we still have sales every day, so we will be out of stock soon.
Interestingly enough, the ones we still have in stock are returns from fraud cases. We experienced some fraudulent purchases from certain countries. After they received the watches, they’ll do a chargeback. And it is a nightmare to get your money (or watch) back. We lost a few watches but were at least in time to stop a few shipments and get them back in stock. It is all part of the learning process; this will not happen a second time for sure.
And now… a second time with Seiko. Tell us more!
It is no secret that we love Seiko over at Fratello. An amazing brand and for many people, a brand that got them into collecting in the first place. I find myself buying some new, and vintage Seiko watches from time to time. When Seiko proposed that we could have the exclusive pre-order for one of their watches, we immediately said yes. It fits us, and it fits our audience.
So in short, in October we had the opportunity to offer a watch for pre-order a month before it would be available via its regular points of sale. And, we were able to ship them out two weeks before they’d become available. A massive success, we bought a few dozen watches upfront (I can’t disclose the exact number) and sold them in a flash. We also included a nice custom-made leather strap to go with the watch and offered free shipping for the same retail price as the official Seiko dealers. Just a great experience, and a wonderful watch. I got myself one as well.
Now, there’s a second Seiko watch. Just like the last time, it is an exclusivity deal with them, where we can offer the watch for pre-order to Seiko fans. And again, it does include a cool strap, different from last time of course and comes with free shipping. This second version is also only for the European market. To be honest, it was about time to have something for this part in the world, after all the JDM and US exclusives in the past. We purchased a certain amount of the 2021 pieces in total, but I am sure they will be gone in a flash again. Seiko just knows how to make a really good proposition! (Editor: the pieces that Fratello could sell are now sold out.)