So much so that the company has managed to clinch an award at the 2019 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in Switzerland – akin to the Pulitzer Prize in journalism or the Oscars in movie making – just two years in. Its 17.06 Copper model was awarded the “Horological Revelation” Prize.
The win is no small feat for the start-up, the only Asian horologer to have gotten such a recognition.
Ming Thein, one of the six co-founders and after whom the brand is named, says it is early days yet for the company. But it has been a surreal journey thus far – from reading about watches online as a collector to being acknowledged onstage by the who’s who of the watch industry.
Ming’s interest in timepieces started in his student days. He graduated with a master’s degree in theoretical physics from the University of Oxford in 2003 at the age of 16. That interest grew into a collection and a lot of extensive research into luxury watches throughout his stint in the corporate world and then as a photographer.
“But then my knowledge of watches has now gone beyond what I can afford. Given the way luxury watches have gone over the past 10 years, there’s been a big explosion in terms of pricing, accessibility and awareness. The prices of interesting watches became very ridiculous.
“And we thought maybe there was a chance for collectors like us, who have been in it for 15-20 years, to come in and do something different that still interest us and, at the same time, bring back that sense of joy and discovery,” he shares.
Fellow watch enthusiast and co-founder Chan Kin-Meng describes the founding of the company as a “garage band that started 20-years-late”. But entrepreneurism is more than just an idea and the team took time to poke holes in the idea before giving it wings.
“We wanted to make products that we like, and hopefully others who are getting into this will also like. We don’t need to be selling millions, we just need to sell enough,” adds Ming.
They made 300 pieces of its first offering, MING 17.01, with much trepidation. If the pieces didn’t sell, the co-founders will all walk away with enough watches to give out at Christmas.
Luckily, the story did not stop at Christmas presents. The watches sold out online in minutes.
Their gut feeling validated, MING continued.
The Swiss have long upheld the tradition of making watches. But very little of what MING has been doing follows the convention of this industry.
For one, they don’t have the brand legacy cherished by established watchmakers.
“I like the fact that we can say we have no history, and therefore no baggage, no conventions and expectations that we need to adhere to. We can try to do new things,” Ming reveals.
All the watches under the brand are designed by Ming and manufactured and assembled in Switzerland.
Ming designs, first, for himself.
“If we try to guess what the market wants, nobody is going to be happy. Everybody in the market wants something different. There are so many products that already exist and try to guess what the market wants. And they end up falling into obscurity because it’s like everything else.
“We firstly design for ourselves. I need to be the most excited about the product, whether it’s an entry-level or a flagship product. I’ll need to be able to explain my choices and if we can’t do that, we have a problem,” he explains.
At any one time, he works on 30-40 ongoing designs. They have completed 13 models in two and a half years.
MING also spends quite a bit on research and development, about RM1mil-RM1.5mil last year.
Unlike most watches that are retailed in fancy outlets, MING’s products are sold entirely online. While this cuts out a lot of retail cost, it also enables him to communicate and engage directly with its customers.
“It helps that we make ourselves accessible. Consumers want to talk shop with someone who knows what they are talking about rather than just sales executives,” notes Chan.
Another change that MING has brought to the market is in the way it operates. Apart from the six co-founders, the company does not really have any other employees.
It works with a multitude of partners and suppliers from different parts of the world and the working team changes with every product.
“That’s also how we are different. Rather than employ full-time or just pure contracts, the ability to collaborate with different people at different times gets everyone more excited about the project they are working on. It also allows for diversity of ideas,” says Chan.
It operates more like a collective than an actual traditional model, to which Ming responds: We don’t need to be conventional.
“There’s no such thing as business as normal. We are not a traditional large brand or a micro-brand. We don’t fit into a model in a traditional business sense, but why do we have to? Here is the objective: we want to make interesting watches. Then, how do we get there with the most capital- and operational-efficient way,” Ming adds.
The fact that the company broke even in its first year is, perhaps, testament that a non-traditional business model can indeed work in such a time as this.
Of course, having the right partners is crucial for such an experiment.
He notes that the company’s recent win in Switzerland has given it better credibility as well as better access to suppliers.
“I’m seeing a lot of changes in the industry, in terms of how partners are being acknowledged, how contracts are drawn up. Maybe this is new to the industry. It hasn’t been known to be a progressive industry.”
Luxury watches continue to be seen as status symbols and Chan points out that consumers are increasingly interested in them. However, they are also becoming more discerning, and this gives non-conventional brands an open door.
He believes MING started at the right time, when consumers are more willing to give new brands a try and they are more open to buying timepieces online.
“If you see how people buy watches over the years, the market has become bigger because of accessibility, and it’s also becoming younger, which also widens the market,” he says.
The company often organises events where potential customers are able to interact with their products. This also increases brand awareness in the market.
At the moment, the bulk of its sales come from foreign markets.
Ming hopes to be able to participate in big industry shows in the coming years to reach out to more consumers once it has a full collection.
“It is something we will have to do because these shows are now open to the public. And if that’s where everyone is going to be, then it makes sense for us to be there,” says Ming.
Although MING has been getting a lot of attention on the international stage, local recognition for the brand is still lacking.
“We don’t get enough credit for it. And I think it discourages people from trying to start (a venture like this). There are people and other businesses who are competing at the international level but there’s no local recognition,” says Ming.
He hopes with more exposure, the local tide will turn in the coming days.
Another issue with being a Malaysian-based company, though, is the unfavourable business condition in the local market.
“GST was good for us, but SST is a disaster. Most of our watches are exported. We pay taxes on them. But there’s no consistent policy for when you ship things in and out for repair. We’ve paid duties on this and we have to pay it again.
“We also have other constraints like payment gateways. We have higher transaction costs here from the fees and the FX. All this adds to cost.
“Honestly, we want to stay here, but it costs you 12%-15% more to be here. That’s a huge chunk of margin. So we are hoping for more friendly policies for small businesses. And I’m hoping we won’t need to move.
“We are still here despite the fact that cost keeps rising, we still find a way to make it work. We are one of the few in the world doing this at this level. We are still in the game for now. But if we don’t say anything, nothing is going to change,” says Ming.
Moving forward, Ming hopes to produce fewer watches. This would mean moving up the value chain so that the company will grow in revenue but not output.
“There’s enough product made for the sake of making products,” he says.
“But winning the award doesn’t give you the licence to be lazy. We still want to be passionate about the brand 10 years from now,” adds Chan.