My outlook has always been to work in an area that you enjoy, and in doing that, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. The notion of getting up and leaving your home to go to a job you hate just baffles me. I studied Economics at SOAS and then the LSE because I enjoyed it and knew it would provide a good basis for my future, but it wasn’t part of a grand plan to work as an economist. I started my first business in my second year of my undergraduate degree, and following a short stint as a junior oil trader in the City, I threw 100% of my time into my aquarium consultancy mainly because I loved aquariums and the notion of having them within the home. After 10 years designing and installing aquaria into houses of the rich and famous, I sold my controlling share to the management and started The Watch House. I still own a real estate company called Verum Domus and operate it with a partner in my spare time, mainly because who doesn’t like playing monopoly in real time! All of these things grind my gears, and as a result every morning I am up and raring to get out of the front door – whether I’ll have such advice for my son/daughter who knows. Starting The Watch House wasn’t just about coffee, it never has been, but it plays a central and up-front role for our company. However, combining my love for design, food innovation, customer service experience and an ability to develop projects, ticked all the boxes and as such The Watch House was born.
You know that feeling you get when you walk into a house when you’re looking to buy or let, and you just know that’s it’s right? That, in addition to our study of the local data of wealth, footfall and rent lets us decide whether we are in the right spot. The story behind our choice of sites is quite simply that we want to offer something different to our customers, not the usual they find everywhere, and something they can buy into. We started in a tiny 25sqm Grade II Listed space which whilst challenging, proved to us that with the right attention to detail and love, anything is possible. This building was a former watch house, hence our name.
The UK market is still a little bit behind on this front as conceptually people ask ‘how can a coffee bar be ‘cool’ enough to transition into an evening trade?’ There are some notable success stories in the UK, and the trend is certainly maturing throughout the market and not just in London. The cross over in appreciation of notes and tastes for coffee is directly applicable with coffee, wine and certain spirits – the taste profile, the age, the location, the makers, etc. – and as such, having the ability to combine our espresso with some amazing liquors is a really cool and engaging concept for customers to adopt. The key is to make the place accessible and tailored – after all, nobody really likes chains.
As the old saying goes, never run before you have walked and as such, our plan for 2018 is to consolidate our positions, mature the brand and open our roastery. The ability for us to roast our own green beans and develop our own profiles in-house both adds value to the brand and further identifies The Watch House with our customer base. Following this establishment, we will be opening up two sites per annum and are in discussions with a large 4,000 sq.ft. duplex space in London’s Liverpool Street. Watch this space. Further to this, we are provisionally exploring our EIS 1st equity round going to the crowd. Many of our customers have asked to join our journey, and what better way than having a number of customers as part-owners of our business?
Any serious business owner would tell you that this kind of time frame would see an equity sale position to either a Private Equity firm or a larger likeminded business in the industry. I take the view that yes, whilst it would be great to sell part of a successful business and have that pay day, actually the exciting part of this is being able to take in professional expertise positioned in a way that can take the business global – which is our ultimate aim. Whilst others in our industry want to go to the national provider of speciality coffee (the usual Chain-Names+ if you will), we don’t have a desire to be the biggest in terms of number of sites, but rather the best in terms of the quality chosen of specific locations – rather like high end fashion retail. Brands such as Aesop and Les Lobos really stand out for us as geniuses in their respective fields and we see coffee as being able to operate in that same bespoke yet mass scale.
What you don’t realise is that coffee isn’t really something the Italians started (contrary to all of those big stickers you see on those café windows!) and particularly in Asia, they have coffee experience far exceeding that of Europeans. They deal with coffee in an altogether different way, and whilst it may not be to my particular taste – things like egg white in coffee in northern Vietnam, or coffee which has passed through the digestion of a small rodent in the Philippines – it does promote the notion that things can be different, and coffee has significant range. Japanese drip coffee for example, is now mainstream in Europe and North America. Finally of course, there is roast profiling and origin differences which become quite stark when comparing single origin yields in South America to those of sub-Saharan Africa, and that’s without even going anywhere near Indian coffee which I can tell you is an altogether different experience(!)
In our industry it is not about the revenue you pull through the books, but the gross margin you can make on your product. That sounds very simple and obvious, but many food and beverage operators get excited about revenue, or a nice product that their chef/bartender has dreamt up, but if a customer has to pay £10 for a special sandwich, this just simply isn’t going to happen. In addition, the management systems for wastage are absolutely key if you are going to be successful in what you do. I would say this game-changing moment of analysing our business to reflect this outlook was a big moment for us.
One of the pieces of advice that I often see from well-known entrepreneurs that I want to echo is the need for a mentor – someone who has the toolkit and can advise you how and when you should deploy it. Specialist industry mentors are absolutely key but of course hard to find, and general business ones are also important. I recall a time around seven years ago when my business mentor at the time said ‘would you rather have a 100% owned business generating £1m a year profit or would you rather own 80% of a £2m business?’ Again it sounds simple, but how often do we see small business owners hold on for dear life to their equity to the detriment of their own growth? Nobody wants to be the smallest fish in the pond (or aquarium) forever.
To love being wrong. I often bombastically take a position on discussion points with my senior team, and I just love it when they call me out on something for being wrong. You HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR if you are going to be successful. Sure, be single-minded and without doubt strong, but do not be pig-headed and ignore the advice of your trusted team and close family members. Whilst we are on the subject of family about family: find someone in your family who isn’t scared of giving you some home truths – rely on them because they will listen to you when you’ve had a hard day, and give you the advice that perhaps others wouldn’t take the time to give, or wouldn’t be as well-positioned to generate an opinion. Family at work and home is key.
App – Waze – to get me from A to B with a close second behind for Spotify. Getting to sites is so important through London traffic, and of course consistently looking to develop a great soundtrack for our business is key to our overall look and feel.
Book – The Other Hand – it’s quite dark but I enjoyed it (followed closely by The Great Gatsby). I’m reading ‘Pregnancy For Men: The Whole 9 Months’ at the moment, for those of you (male and female) expecting, get it, it’s great.
Holiday – I like to go places that challenge my thought process and whilst clichéd, there is nowhere in the world that does that more than New York. Sure walking about Tokyo is alien, and I often take time out in West Wales, but what’s important for me is to take inspiration from my surroundings and take home something new. I don’t do ‘non-working holidays’ really it has to be said, I’m always on the look for a little bit of inspo and walking the street of New York City does that ten-fold over.