Building a Successful Business by Being Different

Mike France, co-founder of luxury watch brand Christopher Ward, blogs for is4profit on why small businesses don't need to follow the leader

Building a Successful Business by Being Different

Establishing and operating a business, in any sector, is a journey, defined by hard work, humility and learning – as myself and the other co-founders of Christopher Ward have discovered. It is often the things you didn’t expect or initially appreciate that end up becoming the most important to your brand.

The importance of maintaining an attitude that is driven and focused yet open to new ideas cannot be underestimated. In my 30 years in the retail industry, I have seen numerous businesses that, in somewhat closed-minded fashion, base their business model directly on that of an already established, successful company.

The reality is that small businesses don’t need to follow the model of bigger, more established brands, and that doing so potentially risks the ability to be flexible and ‘think outside the box’. Experimenting and trial and error has been a hugely important part of growing our business, and following a template too closely can scupper the ability to innovate. I would argue that doing something different can still mean success, whilst also helping you develop a more unique position within the market.

In no area of business is this truer than when smaller businesses feel they need to make as much ‘noise’ as their more established competitors. We however have found that it is savviness that will really help your venture get off the ground – not salesmanship, clamorous announcements, over-exuberant sponsorship or bloated marketing projects.

Here are my top tips on how businesses can do something a little bit different:

Challenge conventional business models

When starting a new venture do not assume the conventional business model is the right one for you and your business – challenge the status quo to find the right setup for you.

For many young companies, especially in the early stages of growth, an online-only direct distribution model can have a wide range of advantages. It means no percentage of sales will be lost to middlemen, greater control over your brand, and a more personal relationship with your customers. Your staff will also establish better technical knowledge, company loyalty and focus, and will be able to communicate with your customers more quickly.

Of course, every business is different and will have different needs. But an online only model will further reduce overheads, while still opening up international markets and permitting a 24/7 retail operation. In Christopher Ward’s case, an online-only direct sales model has enabled us to have a close relationship with our customers and grow quickly in to international markets.

Celebrity endorsements and big name backing are often seen as the most effective means of building brand equity. Yet the often exorbitant costs of ‘brand ambassadors’ (George Clooney reportedly earnt $40m from his deal with Nespresso) vastly increases overheads.

The result is that these costs are ultimately passed onto the consumer; we have learnt that in the watch industry, many brands will charge anywhere between seven to twelve times the cost of manufacture for the product. Removing these ambassadors and their associated costs will help keep the costs down making the product more attractive to the consumer.

The reality is that consumers are increasingly seeing these endorsements for the marketing ploy that they are, and failing to see the value in these deals, additionally it is often that the star far overshadows the brand. Ultimately, it could be argued that if the product is good enough, it will speak for itself.

At Christopher Ward we made a decision to only support up-and-coming talent through our Challengers Programme, with Team GB Olympians skeet shooter Amber Hill and British rower Will Satch both involved. We chose to do this because we like to support grass root British sports mend and women that need support to achieve their dreams. These stars are inspirations in their own right, and having them wear our watches is an honour.

In addition, this programme allowed us to have a connection with extremely talented inspirational stars, without paying vast amounts of money, which would ultimately be transferred onto our customers

Work together and harness up-and-coming talent

As a business develops it is important to make sure all team members and areas of the business are communicating and working together. A silos mentality, where certain departments or team members do not share information with one another, can damage the overall business growth and product development.

Many companies will also look to poach top talent from direct rivals, creating industry headlines in the process. Apple, for example, has previously sought to poach a number of employees from industries they are moving into, such as from the likes of Hublot and Tesla.

Yet growing ventures, irrespective of the sector they operate in, could alternatively turn their attention towards ambitious, upcoming talent that can be nurtured into the leading industry innovators of tomorrow. Seeking young talent as opposed to established talent will help develop a new generation of pioneers, whose creativity may otherwise be hindered at a larger organisation, all the while keeping costs down.

Keep your friends close

Many brands will wrongly assume that to raise their profile and maximise sales they need to be engaging with as many audiences and consumer groups as possible.

The reality is that unless your core, grassroots fan base is satisfied with your product, those less acquainted with your brand or sector are unlikely to be enthused; ultimately a positive brand reputation will originate from those customers and fans who are aficionados of your product type. It is towards this core group of fans and customers therefore that brands need to really focus their efforts, which is one reason Christopher Wards maintains a strong connection with its customers and one of the ways we do this is through our quarterly magazine Loupe.

All too often this ‘core support’ can be overlooked and alienated by scale-up brands overly focused on non-traditional audiences. These businesses would be wise to remember not to take this customer base for granted.

Never forget the product

Businesses start with a product, idea or service – as ventures develop, business leaders can get too distracted with keeping up with the growth and building a brand, that they forget the product at the core.

You can have a great business model, but if your product isn’t up-to-scratch, your business is unlikely to flourish. It is therefore vital that businesses keep their product or service at the heart of everything they do, making sure that it is the best it possible can be.

Think boldly

Any major players in an established industry will be stubborn and either look to discredit the up-and-coming challenger brands, or integrate their ideas themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the luxury watch industry, and it is something Christopher Ward experienced when we first entered the market.

Don’t be deterred – and don’t believe making noise simply for the sake of it will provide you with an industry footing. To truly create waves, consider going back to square one and challenging an absolute industry basic, the heart of the status quo. This is what Christopher Ward did in 2014 with the launch of our own in-house watch movement, Calibre SH21. The industry establishment said it would never work, but its proved to be a resounding success.

Mike France is co-founder of Christopher Ward

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