Talking tech with Silas Walton, founder and CEO of A Collected Man
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From discovering a bargain pocket watch at a French flea market to selling his first Cartier, Silas Walton has a passion for collectable watches. We spoke to the founder and CEO of A Collected Man, the curated consignment platform for rare watches, about how the company has grown.
Silas talks us through the first 7 years of business, including how he makes key decisions about tech and investment, and hints at future plans for A Collected Man.
What is A Collected Man?
We're an online, digital-first rare watch business. Our clients are all over the world, of all ages and from all professional and demographic backgrounds. One day we could be selling a vintage 1980s Patek Philippe to a successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and the next day we could be talking to a CFO in New York or London who wants something modern but very unique. We combine our watch collection with original digital content such as articles, interviews and video.
About A Collected Man
Founder and CEO: Silas Walton
Established in: 2014
HQ: Clerkenwell, London
Biggest market: North America
Projected 2021 turnover: $20 million (£14.6m)
How did the company come into being?
I’ve always loved watches, but when I was 15, I bought a broken pocket watch for €1 at a flea market in France. Once I figured out how to get it going again, I then sold it for £250 and the spark was lit. Back then, it was just for fun. I decided to start A Collected Man seven years ago when I was interning at a PE fund in London, after finishing a Law Degree and a Business Masters. I needed to sell a watch that I'd bought with my first paycheck at a previous job, and I found the experience terrible. As someone with a business strategy background who loves watches and is digitally minded, started to come together from there.
How has digital acceleration helped with business?
When I started A Collected Man, no one was remotely interested in selling online – with a few exceptions like Watchfinder. All the traditional operators in Burlington Arcade or Bond Street in London, for example, were convinced that people would only buy something expensive if they could handle it first. It turns out that wasn't the case.
"These changes were accelerated by social media, specifically Instagram, and platforms like Shopify that made eCommerce much more of a viable option. "
How has the pandemic affected the business?
Unexpectedly, our business has boomed since COVID-19. We were in a good position inventory-wise and were able to continue photographing the products under carefully managed conditions. We decided to spread out our stock to last as long as possible and focused on remaining front-of-mind for our clients by producing regular quality content. Shipments were still going out with DHL and other couriers. We were very lucky.
It also helped that we’ve always been independently run with no institutional investment. We are very well-capitalised because we've been profitable since day one and have reinvested 100% of everything back into the business, and there are no shareholder dividends.
What role has funding played in the growth of A Collected Man?
Although we had no institutional investment, I had private investment from a handful of key people that I knew and trusted: collectors, people in finance and my ex-boss. Then, 2-3 years ago, one of our biggest clients made a significant private investment but we haven’t really needed anything further, because we’ve always operated a lean business model. We focused on leveraging every possible advantage that existed for a startup in terms of out-of-the-box solutions that minimised cost and risk and allowed us to punch above our weight from a public perception point of view. And then we ploughed everything we made into inventory from day one so that we were constantly growing our financial clout and independence.
We’ve been in conversations with various funds over the years and I suspect we'll take strategic investment this year from a VC fund. But the truth is we don't need to, so it's more a question of ‘fit’ and whether there are reasons beyond financial need to partner up with an external partner.
What do you look for in a potential investment partner?
When you start a company on your own, you'll have a couple of things that you're naturally good at, that, hopefully you can leverage in your particular market. But you do get to a point very quickly where you realise that you lack a range of skills, connections and knowledge. There are so many things that you never think about because they're not initially crucial to survival, viability or early-stage growth. You get to a point where, especially if it's a founder-led business, you realise that there's value in being able to trust someone and use their knowledge to make decisions outside of your comfort zone. These are strategic decisions that could have long-term implications and you don't want to get wrong. I really value good partnerships and I put that above anything else, whether with colleagues, clients or in business.
What advice would you give other founders about taking investment?
You may think it's important from a viability and legitimacy point of view to have partnerships in place with a fund that has high profile, or high-net-worth investors. But the truth is, you want to delay making those decisions and taking those investments for as long as possible. As long as your market is expanding and your businesses is growing, it can only be to your benefit to hold off until your maximum leverageable value exists.
"At that point you can turn-around and ideally, have multiple people interested in talking to you and vying for your attention, and so you can end-up getting the best possible deal."
However, don’t talk to investors from a position of weakness. Don't wait until you need to do it to have a conversation. Get prepared in advance by thinking practically about what you need, the type of partnership you want, and the things that you’ve struggled with. Think about who you would like to be working with according to their market expertise and who they've worked with before, so you're both ready when the time comes to have a productive conversation.
What advice would you give other founders about choosing the right tech?
We're a hybrid business in that we combine the best of the old-world in terms of being highly relationship-centric and customer service-focused, with being a digital business that sells and displays its wares online and engages heavily through social media. However, we only sell things like accessories through the website directly – the vast majority of transactions happen offline after the initial interaction online.
My advice to other founders is that when you’re building a website, the majority of the work happens before, not during, the build. So before you approach a developer you need to know your customer journey, the apps you want to integrate and what the key real estate on your website will be. Really try to understand what tools will help you the most and what mediums and channels your customers are looking for.
With our customer journey, for example, people typically see a watch they want and transact offline by bank transfer within 1-2 hours of seeing it. There's nothing wrong with not having transactions online as long as your website appeals to a very particular client. So we make sure that A Collected Man is as close as possible to the premium experience of buying a watch in a boutique on a prestigious road in London, Paris or New York.
How did you decide that Instagram was the right platform to use?
I spent six months working on my business plan before I started A Collected Man. I spent hundreds of hours reading every piece of literature on my market, pulling every bit of data into a spreadsheet, then building models. One of the obvious conclusions from my research was that Instagram was the direction of travel.
When it comes to social media, you need you understand what your key channels are and how people are engaging with you. Once you decide on a platform you need to go in 110%. It may be a long slog before it pays off, but now, sometimes, we can put a watch on Instagram, and it’s sold within 30 minutes. Instagram is a great platform and if you're a luxury brand it's fantastically valuable.
What’s been your biggest challenge as a founder?
Recruiting good people is the hardest thing. I was so scared about recurring costs that I made sure I always ran a really tight ship and was always on top of cash flow. But, the truth is, your biggest asset by far is the people you work with, their quality and how much you trust them.
I wish I’d been a bit more confident in recruiting a little bit sooner than needed, because today we’re a bit spread thin and will have to go through a recruitment drive over the next six months to make up for it. But we’re really looking forward to our next stage of growth.
In search of more inspiration or looking for some advice on scaling your own business? Email us at [email protected].
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