The Online Watch Market – Wei Koh from Revolution/The Rake
Deciphering the world of online watch marketplaces.
As you’ve seen from our previous episodes, the online watch market isn’t just a trend anymore. It is now well established and multiple heavyweight companies are playing market-makers. When talking about these marketplace players, we are generally referring to specialised firms, with one and only activity. But there are other surprising players in the field with names such as Hodinkee, Worn & Wound or Revolution. All of them started their lives as watch magazines and have now added e-commerce to their portfolio of activities. To understand why and how watch media can legitimately create value from such a business, we will talk to our good friend Wei Koh, founder of Revolution and The Rake.
You probably know Wei Koh from his magazines or his Instagram account, or maybe as a fashion icon talking about style and watches. However, Wei is first and foremost a wise businessman who has been active in the print and online worlds for over a decade. So it is safe to say that his vision of the market is certainly quite accurate. This is why we thought that, in addition to more traditional e-commerce companies, it would be interesting to understand why more and more magazines merge editorial with watch retail – and since Revolution recently started a Web shop focused on watches, it is time for Wei Koh to clarify this situation.
Could you give us a short history of Revolution and The Rake?
Revolution was created thirteen years ago because at the time, in American high school movie terms, watch magazines had been placed on the nerd or social outcast table, meaning the hobby section of the bookstore or magazine rack. The objective of Revolution was to move the watch magazine to the cool kids’ table by making it the intersection point for art, cinema, music and sports but without losing its technical substance and horological veracity.
The Rake was created because 10 years ago men were being encouraged to try to look and dress young as if to say that as men got older they lost their societal relevance. I wanted to create a magazine that brought back the message that men became their more pure essential selves as they aged. After all, you don’t think of a 20-year-old Cary Grant as being in his prime, rather you think of him in his 50s or 60s with his silver hair and immaculate style. Part of the Rake’s ethos was to reconnect men with classic elegance rather than fashion and to bring back glorious long format journalism written by people with a genuine mastery of the English language.
How would you describe your work today, at Revolution and The Rake?
For both magazines to endure we’ve merged them with e-commerce, which will, from a revenue perspective, outstrip print very soon. In the case of the Rake, the existence of e-commerce also caused our print business to grow by 50% in the first six months of 2018. The idea is that print will evolve toward becoming a more emotional, warm, analogue touch point like vinyl, while information will most rapidly be consumed through social media and in particular in video format. Web sits in between the two but is also equally important. Today you need to have multiple emotional touch points, print, web, social and e-commerce if you want to be relevant to the future.
You started your career as an editor/magazine CEO and you now sell watches? Why was it important to change?
In some ways I’ve become what they used to call the “head buyer” of our two companies meaning that I seek out the brands to partner with, curate the offer and collaborate on unique editions with them while also defining an editorial strategy. It’s funny but I had a young journalist ask me ‘What about my editorial integrity?” to which I replied, “dude wake up, you are in luxury journalism not embedded with the troops in A-fucking-ghanistan.” Second, tell me this… what takes greater integrity? To accept a flight in the part of the plane you normally can’t afford, to stay at a hotel you can’t normally afford, to eat a meal you can’t normally afford and quaff innumerable glasses of champagne you can’t normally afford? Or be obligated to write about some brand’s gold eagle-headed belt buckle or some horological monstrosity in glowing, fawning but mendacious terms?
Or does it take more integrity to say, “I, whatever your name is, stake my reputation on my recommendation that this watch, this suit, this pair of handmade gloves is awesome and I know you will love it.” You will only jeopardise your reputation if you bullshit people and tell them something is good when you know it is bad. You will enhance your reputation by recommending, emotionalising and offering great things for sale.
You started creating limited edition watches with brands a few years ago. Could you explain the reason for this choice and why this specific angle?
It’s simple. I don’t want to compete with the existing multi-brand retailers or mono-brand boutiques. In fact, I can think of ways that we could work together to enhance their business. I don’t want to eat someone else’s lunch for them. Things are competitive enough as it is. And a lot of my friends are retailers. So I only want to offer watches you can’t find anywhere else. Watches that I always dreamed of having or hoped brands would make but they don’t. To be honest, to create a watch that everyone loves, and to see it sell well and that our customers are happy and are posting their watches on Instagram – as they do with the TAG Heuer Carrera Blue Dreamer we designed – is incredibly rewarding and satisfying. It gives me a tingle in my lady parts!
In addition to the limited editions, you now also sell vintage watches. How did you manage to enter this specific market?
We are doing this slowly and with a focus on Omega for two reasons. First, the Omega Speedmaster is one of my all-time favourite watches. Second that Omega makes the commitment to certify and issue extracts from their archive for their vintage watches. I have so much respect for the Omega team, in particular, their CEO Raynald Aeschlimann whom I consider one of the top three most dynamic men in the watch industry.
What are the key challenges for a watch magazine to additionally become a watch shop? How did you manage this transition?
Well, for the limited edition watches it’s simple. You cannot design a watch that sucks. The moment you do that you’ve lost all credibility. You have to push yourself and your partners to create something that really connects with customers in an honest way. I suppose we are able to do this because first and foremost we love watches and we are geeked out to the max on their culture and their nuances. So we kind of have an idea in terms of what we want to do at each opportunity. Beyond that, there are the traditional marketing, logistical and customer service challenges – but that’s normal. What I love most about e-commerce is you can’t bullshit anyone. It’s like Warren Buffet says, “When the tide goes out you can see who’s swimming naked.” If you take a brand on board or create a watch that’s a flop, everyone will see it immediately because it’s not selling. On the other hand, I no longer have to have the insufferable conversation with brands where they ask, “What is your core demographic, etc.?” Now I can just reply, “My core demographic bought 800 pairs of your pants last year or they bought 100 of your watches in 8 minutes. How do you like me now?”
What differentiates Revolution/The Rake? What do you bring to your clients?
There are lots of crossovers, but in general, the Revolution guy is more of a gearhead, he drives a fast car, he’s a bit of a badass, he’s extroverted, loves to have fun and lives the #buggylife – your classic Richard Mille or URWERK guy. The Rake guy is more of a classicist, a little more understated but still super fun and deeply and emotionally involved with the sartorial world. The commonality is that everyone drinks heavily.
How do you analyse the watch market today, from a retailing point of view?
Actually – and maybe this reveals that I actually have no idea what I’m doing – but I’m fairly instinctive when it comes to our e-commerce. For example, I get that vintage is the big trend now but I’ve put a cap on how many watches we do with faux vintage lume cause I just don’t like it. For 2018 we did none. For next year we may do one or two but because it fits the general theme of our launches.
We see mainly vintage timepieces and new watches (limited editions) being sold through Revolution? Was it a choice to stay out of the secondary market (watches that are more recent or still available)?
We dabbled in the pre-owned market but for the moment we decide to stay out of it because those types of watches are a little too abundantly available. As Bruce, my business partner, puts it we prefer a Sniper approach rather than a spray and pray or a shotgun approach. If we do move more into pre-owned it will be to curate very special watches and maybe go a bit deeper into specific references that I love and are a bit overlooked at the moment. I love what Geoff and the guys at Analog Shift or Silas at A Collected Man are doing for example.
What is your main advice for collectors?
Buy what you love. And don’t give a fuck what anyone else says. If you’re going to buy vintage, buy the best version of a less expensive reference than the worst version of a more expensive reference. OK, if you want the God’s honest truth, if you really want to own one of the rarest and coolest watches in the world, go find yourself an original Omega Ultraman. But make sure it comes with an extract – or passes the extract process – as there is a very specific movement number range for these. I paid what was considered the highest for this reference a couple of months back and I got to thank the great guys at Analog Shift for making this happen for me. But there are only 40 of these in existence, so do the math.
Personal question – What will be your next watch acquisition?
A very, very, very special Patek Philippe 5970 that will be a huge honour for me to own. And I owe an immense depth of gratitude to one great man for allowing me this privilege. Merci, mon ami!
Mr Koh needs to have some intellectual integrity and use none of the un-educated toilet wall language in print or for that matter in any conversation. He contributes to our intellectual suicide. I buy Revolution to read the print articles and see watches photographed in an informative manner. I understand his melding of fashion and horology. I do not necessarily subscribe but it’s fine. My advice is grow up in your use of language. Gutter talk does not have a place in informed society. He is his own wealthy self (which is perfectly fine) and can do as he chooses. He should choose more wisely and edify not “toiletfy.”