On time: Q&A with Hodinkee founder Benjamin Clymer

January 10, 2013

At the most recent Pop Up Flea, a temporary Americana brand and menswear bazaar in New York City, one unexpected vendor stood out. Not only was the sheer size of its crowd impressive, but it wasn’t even a traditional retail store. The popular booth featured the watch blog Hodinkee—pronounced ho-dinkey—founded by former UBS consultant Ben Clymer.

Clymer was there to sell vintage watches, owned by others, as part of a larger marketing effort that he hopes will make Hodinkee the online destination for all things watch. So far, the strategy seems to be working. Clymer says Hodinkee gets about 300,000 unique visitors a month from more than 50 countries. Traffic to the site doubled in 2011 and grew 120 percent in 2012.

Hodinkee already has partnerships with online retailers Gilt, Park & Bond and Club Monaco. Clymer helps those outlets select watches to sell on their sites. John Mayer is a regular contributor to Hodinkee and Clymer is in talks to launch a web series on Jay-Z’s Life + Times YouTube channel. Clymer says there are currently no plans for a retail operation, but Hodinkee continues to add new products, including straps, pouches and ties to its online store.

Reuters spoke with Clymer to find out how he built Hodinkee, what worked, what didn’t and what’s next.

Tell me about when you started Hodinkee.

I started it when I was working at UBS as a consultant. I have always liked watches and mechanical watches. My grandfather had given me an Omega when I was 16. I always liked to write so I looked at my Omega Speedmaster at the time and thought, what is this? Why is this special? I posted a blog and started researching the bigger brands—Rolex, Patek Philippe —and writing what I was learning each day. And then an editor [got in touch] kind of randomly and said I really like what you’re doing, writing about these high-end watches from a younger perspective, and interviewed me for GQ.com. After that, 1,000 people came to the site and that was the first big break.
So you never had a business plan and you never did a competitive landscape analysis. You just went for it?

Yeah, that’s exactly right. I went to school for business and computer science and I competed in entrepreneurial things and was fairly successful and won a few contests with business plans. I probably spent 100 hours writing business plans and submitting them to VCs and angel investors. I got some traction but it was just such an immense amount of time, when I could have been building the product. Looking back, I realize now I’ll just never write another business plan again; so much time wasted.

Tell me a little bit about your collaborations. I know you work with Gilt Groupe and others. How do those collaborations help?

One thing we always have to clear up with people is that we’re not watch dealers. We don’t hold inventory. We don’t want to deal with that. We’re writers. That said, we know more about watches than, say, a menswear buyer, so we try and help them and are essentially consultants for them.

So it’s a marketing thing for you.

It is. And the Pop Up Flea as well was total marketing. This past Pop Up we did $90,000 in revenue in three days, but that’s not our money. We don’t own these watches.

We take a margin [on what we sell], but it’s all about getting out in front of people. At the Pop Up we’re just there to talk about watches because there are a lot of people who are obsessed with them. When you meet someone equally obsessed, it’s like an instant bond. And if we’re there for no other reason than just to talk about watches that’s totally fine.

Describe your readership.

We’ve got a strong following. Our average follower is 34 years old. Average household income is over $250,000 and [the average reader] has a master’s degree. So it’s young wealthy guys. [It’s] 90 percent men that read us and listen to us.

That’s a strong demographic for advertisers. What’s your approach to advertising?

As soon as we stop being real with people, our influence will be gone. And we’re hyper-aware of that. We only take advertising money from brands that we believe in. If you see an ad on Hodinkee, it’s essentially me saying that I personally would wear that watch. So we actually turn down more ad money than we take.

I know you’re selling bands on the site, so there is some retail. Is Hodinkee going to move more in that direction?

The retail aspect of the site is there. I don’t even know what percentage of revenue it is; it’s not significant. It’s really just for fun and, again, to build the brand for Hodinkee. I met a guy who made custom leather straps and said, “Hey can you make me 50 of them?”, and people loved them. The first batch sold out in a day. We ordered 100 more and they sold out in another day.

And again I have no desire to sell watches or make watches, but now all of a sudden we have Hodinkee on the wrist of a few thousand people.

What other sites do you look to for inspiration in innovation and directions?

Michael Williams at A Continuous Lean is someone I consider a close friend, if not mentor. I immensely respect what he does in terms of collaborations and editorial. I’m close with the guys at Gear Patrol as well. Their design aesthetic is superb.

OM Malik, who started GigaOm. His business is different than mine. A lot of revenue comes from premier membership but in terms of an entrepreneur who has navigated the media landscape, I really have a lot of respect for him.

Can you give me background on the business? What do your revenues look like? Are you profitable?

We are certainly profitable. Revenue is in the six figures. It’s significant but, you know, I’m not Jay-Z. We’re doing okay enough for me to live in the West Village, to buy a nice watch every now and then and to pay another person. So we’re doing well. Again, I never thought this would be a business, so it’s a dream.

Do you have a vision for where the site will be in two years?

I want Hodinkee to be a driving force behind a renaissance of the watch in the Unites States, if not the world. That sounds grandiose but we’ve been successful because we write about things that are often perceived as pretentious, and slightly obnoxious, and ridiculously expensive and overpriced, in a way that explains them to normal people, that they can understand and appreciate them.

I want Hodinkee to be the go-to source for mechanical watches in general. And if anyone is talking about mechanical watches in New York or in Paris, I want us to be mentioned in the same breath, for them to say “Did you see the review on Hodinkee?”

Finally, what advice would you have for other entrepreneurs thinking about taking the leap and starting their own business?

My biggest piece of advice is just do it and just don’t worry about the business plans. If it’s a good idea, the money will come. It’s as simple as that.


 Images from the 2012 Pop Up Flea courtesy of Benjamin Clymer and Hodinkee. 

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