You might have learnt of Ming Thein for his eponymous brand Ming Watch that sells out entire collections within hours or for his achievement in garnering home a Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève Prize for Horological Revelation in 2019.
Ming as he is better known, however, wasn’t born a watch designer or watchmaker. Far from it.
A former child prodigy, Ming graduated with a masters’ degree in theoretical physics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 2003 at 16 years old, an age most are fluttering in secondary schools and readily rebelling at their parents.
For Ming’s own accomplishment toiling away at Oxford at the expense of a carefree childhood, he was given an A. Lange & Söhne 1815 by his parents. They evidently know what a connoisseur timepiece is. The Glashütte-made watch further cultivated Ming’s burgeoning interest in watchmaking. He was an avid member of an authoritative, fraternal forum populated by watch buffs. Many of whom would soon learn that this penchant of his would not be confined to just doodles on a piece of tracing paper.
Ming recalls his entrepreneurial journey, the similarities between his biggest passions and he dishes out advice to those who seek to turn passion into business.
Do your co-founders have a say in the design process? What roles do they play?
Design isn’t something you can do by committee if you want to have consistency throughout the product. It isn’t possible for multiple people to share the same vision to the level that ideas can be made seamless. Moreover, it’s necessary to have experience with the production process itself to know what’s feasible and what isn’t.
I design everything, but inevitably there will be several options to which I am equally inclined – at this point the founding group weigh in on their preferences before we iterate or go to production.
In addition to being a sounding board for the final product, the founding group each has his own specific strength and role even if there is a lot of overlap with Ming being a small organisation. There are a lot of moving pieces to keeping a watch company in the wrong part of the world running – production, operations and fulfilment, marketing and customer engagement, financial and legal, etc, leaving plenty of work to go around!
Looking back, could have you started this journey earlier?
As early as 2005, I’d already received offers from collectors to produce some of the watches I was designing at that point. Had I accepted I don’t think it would have resulted in the rounded company we have today, but at best – perhaps a one-man show on a lathe somewhere making everything himself. There is no way Ming in its present form could have existed back then, or even more than five years ago – the industry was a very different place in terms of access to suppliers, control of retailers over the consumer etc. The consumers themselves were not ready to buy watches online; it was seen as a place for discounts and risks if you felt a bit daring.
The microbrands really paved the way for it to be acceptable not only to go direct to consumer, but for it to be a preferable experience to traditional retail as the experience could be a lot better and more consistent – not to mention having access directly to the founders. It is ironic that all of the big brands are now trying to do the same thing, but not really executing it very well…
Were there moments of self-doubt when you started this journey? How did you overcome it?
So long as you’re an entrepreneur taking a risk doing something different, there’s going to be self-doubt all the time – every day. When you don’t have that you are at risk of letting your arrogance blind you into missing something critical. There’s no time to overcome it, you just don’t think about it or file it away to deal with later. The pressure only abates a little after a successful launch, but by that point you’re already worrying about production, delivery, and the next launch. Having a team to share it with helps, but it never really goes away.
What was some encouragement you received?
The biggest encouragement is always when you’ve got satisfied repeat customers. Everything else is merely platitudes, and won’t keep you in business. But perhaps it’s a little more complex than that, as we started making watches with ourselves as the ideal customer archetype first, and only then letting the audience find us; we still need to look at our wrists and be happy with what we’ve produced. Of course there is always some degree of wondering “what if” and thinking we can do something better, which leads to the next product.
You grew your photography website to a large following without marketing spend. How much of this strategy filtered down to the way you grow the audience on your watches?
A lot of people think that there is interchangeability between industries and “marketing strategy” – when in fact there isn’t even interchangeability within the same industry. You can’t do the same thing twice and expect to have the same impact; the follower is simply seen as a copycat. How, then, can you translate actions between very different industries and business concepts?
Firstly, the photography website wasn’t just a content platform. It was an exercise to build credibility to support a diversified push into international commercial photography, education and consumer hardware. I identified what most of the audience was looking for and provided that, eventually diversifying into offering other things directly and indirectly. The critical mass of readership gave me both direct access to a large consumer audience for education products and services, as well as a deep understanding of what people wanted and needed – which in turn allowed me to offer insight and consultancy services to the camera companies. But all of that credibility was built on being able to consistently deliver interesting images – which in turn underpinned the commercial photography side of the business.
At best, a couple of things at a very high level might translate to the watch business: expanding your market beyond your immediate locality; delivering a consistently high level of customer service and personal interaction through actually understanding or better yet, being your target customer; and having a level of integrity in the products you make, sell and support.
Would it be more advantageous to you if you were based in Switzerland where the ecosystem exists?
Yes and no – our staff and operating costs would be higher, but that would be offset against the ease of accessing a much larger customer base and a lot of other local factors such as currency exposure, non-refundable SST we have to eat on every product, logistics costs and shipment risks etc. On top of that, we have all sorts of other systemic problems that arise from being in Malaysia such as being unable to get visas for our staff, risk of customs damaging watches on inspection – we had to write off an entire shipment because it wasn’t repacked properly and every watch was damaged and unsellable. On the whole, we’ve estimated operating out of Malaysia costs us somewhere between 12% and 15% of our top line. But until that number is enough to pay for an operation in Switzerland, it’s still overall cheaper to stay here.
Between photography and watchmaking, which is the bigger passion?
I started photographing watches I couldn’t afford because that was the only way I could get to put my own slant on the experience of ownership. It turned into a career because the opportunity presented itself and the barriers to entry were lower – but in the end I guess I’ve come full circle, even if it took the better part of 20 years.
What advice can you give to people who want to turn their passion into business but also to ensure it doesn’t become a money-losing passion project but a sustainable business? Does your background in the corporate world and finance help in this regard?
Understanding cash flow, budgeting and contingencies are the financial nuts and bolts that anybody can learn quite easily. Understanding your target customer and being able to create a product that addresses what they want is harder, but still doable if you are really passionate about your subject – inherently you should understand what’s going on in the industry and where the gaps are since you probably want the same solutions yourself. Having said that, I’ve met far too many people these days who confuse a burning desire for acquisition of consumer goods with the intellectual curiosity required for understanding.
The bigger question – and one nobody really talks about – is that even if you succeed in making it a business, how do you ensure you don’t get overwhelmed by the business part? If you can’t maintain the passion, it’s very difficult to have that curiosity or do the extra step which will differentiate your product from everybody else’s. For this reason, I think it’s necessary to have more than one interest, and not let all of them turn into work – because then you have nothing to turn to when you need to take a step back to regain objectivity. It isn’t possible to do the same thing all the time and not get fatigued and remain inspired.
This story is adapted from an exclusive interview first published in 2020 in Prestige Malaysia’s Cachet magazine.