Nixon Founders on Key Lessons Learned in 25 Years of Business
Nixon is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and the industry stalwart that pioneered the watch category in our space has had an incredible ride. That ride has included big growth, some not-so-big growth, different financial partners and leaders, notable sponsored athletes, and all sorts of other evolution that has happened over the years.
In honor of their anniversary, SES asked founders Andy Laats and Chad DiNenna about what they are most proud of, the lessons learned over the years, what they would do differently if they could, and what advice they have for other entrepreneurs.
What are a few of Nixon’s biggest accomplishments over the years?
Nixon co-founder Andy Laats: On the product side, I would have to say it was launching the world’s first 100m water resistant fully connected smart watch. It taught us a lot, not just about how to build something that nobody in the world knew how to build at the time, but also how different the watch business is from the computer-on-your-wrist business.
On the sales side, I’d say it was being one of the longest running brands in Fred Segal at one point – Fred Segal is a very discerning retailer in LA who set the trends.
But overall, I think our biggest accomplishment is the working environment we’ve built. We’ve had 1,756 employees who’ve worked at Nixon over the years and we think a big measure of success is how many of those folks had a positive experience where they moved the brand forward as well as learned some things that they value.
Co-founder Chad DiNenna: Being awarded a design patent and recognized as an innovator in a 400-year old watch industry.
Also, having an environment where people feel comfortable “in the trust tree” to share ideas that might only be half-baked and collaborate to a solution is something I value.
How is Nixon today different than it was in the beginning?
Andy Laats: Actually, it’s frighteningly similar at this point, particularly in focus. Just like in the beginning, we are back to being purely focused on making watches that you’ve always wanted but have never seen before. Pieces that are team designed and custom built.
There are differences, sure: a good many of our current employees don’t remember a world without Nixon, whereas in the beginning we all were working on a brand that nobody had ever heard of.
Chad DiNenna: Mindset is huge. Early on, we had a steep learning curve in watchmaking 101 and in these 25 years, we have a lot more we can draw upon in what and how we make watches.
I appreciate the connection created by social media with fans, customers, and friends of the brand, which is incredible. Seeing the mashup of action sports and watch enthusiasts is awesome.
What are some of the biggest business lessons you guys have learned over the years?
Andy Laats: All the clichés are true. Work with the best people you can find. You become what you tolerate. And, there’s a big difference between teammates who are truly engaged and those who are only compliant.
Chad DiNenna: Stop and ask questions when things are not clear. Also, it’s not about “I” or “me,” it’s all about “us” and “we.”
What would you do differently if you could?
Andy Laats: I wouldn’t have tried to compete with Apple, and I would have followed my gut more in hiring.
Chad DiNenna: Made different hiring decisions.
What are some of the smartest things you did when starting out?
Andy Laats: Chad and I took our time and challenged each other pretty intensely about being really honest about our goals for starting the business. We made sure that our goals were authentically aligned and our vision for where Nixon was headed was clear to everybody. Next, we listened to anybody who would talk to us but mostly to our team riders.
Chad DiNenna: Our communication in connecting the team of employees, best-in-class reps, athletes, and distributors into a tight unit that worked and played together – we created friendships that are still intact today.
Also, building a global mindset and strategy meant we’d make the investments to host global sales meetings in far-off locations to better understand the challenges and nuances of the brand and celebrate the local culture, including in Ireland, France, Italy, Australia, Alaska, Costa Rica, Tokyo, and Switzerland.
Any advice on what to look for in a financial partner?
Andy Laats: I love this question. We’ve had every shape and form of financial partner over the years. The best attributes of financial partners that I’ve seen are clarity of expectation, consistency in thinking, and clear definition of roles. So, in other words, the financial partner saying, “Here’s the return we want in this time horizon, our investment thesis is X, and when making decisions we are going to view situations through that lens. You run the company and we provide the capital.”
Chad DiNenna: Does the financial partner understand the brand and connect to it beyond the investment criteria?
The brand has had some big highs, and some big lows. Did either of you ever consider leaving Nixon and doing something new?
Andy Laats: I can’t speak for Chad, but the biggest highs and lows in my life have occurred outside of my professional life, so the business ones don’t look too gnarly in comparison.
I do have an orientation towards working on new things. I once said that if Nixon was the same in six months as it is now, then I’m out of here. I think that’s still true: my biggest nightmare is to be in a job that’s never evolving or teaching me something. Nixon has always delivered.
Chad DiNenna: The goal has always been for the brand to be around longer than us. New for me now often comes in the form of helping a friend shape a new business idea of their own or advising another company that’s on their path looking for advice.
I’ve enjoyed leaning in on a lot of the personal projects our team riders take on and I like to use the Nixon platform to help support them outside of our brand.
A great thing about our action sports industry is the opportunities around us continue to evolve in the products, services, experiences, and media being created, so new is always around the corner.
Lastly, why has your partnership worked for 25 years? What makes an ideal business partner?
Andy Laats: We are very different people. We see things differently, our brains process things differently, and we don’t enjoy working on the same sides of the business. Yet we both work to a high standard and have the same desire to make Nixon meaningful to people.
Chad DiNenna: I appreciate after all these years the partnership we’ve created. Selfishly, I still love getting into a room with Andy and challenging him (or usually he challenges me) on a point of view or idea.
Having a partner that you trust who recognizes your different perspectives and points of view and can make you feel your ideas are valued even in time of disagreement is special.
Having that connection and trust in each other gives us a strong foundation that we bring to the team and can build upon for these next 25 years.