Jake Kassan, 26, likes to play a little game: ask other 20-somethings for the time, and see if they glance at their wrists or their phones. "More often than not, they reach for their phone," he said. This might seem like a problem, given that Kassan and his business partner, Kramer LaPlante, also 26, run Mvmt, a watch company that targets millennials.
But Kassan could care less. "Watches have evolved," he said. "Our audience cares more about the style of a watch than its function."
Millennials are often thought to be the lost generation when it comes to watches, since they were raised with cellphones and, according to cliché anyway, are often too busy struggling to carve out careers in an uncertain economy to fritter away money on their yuppie parents' status symbols.
Funny, then, that a Los Angeles-based watch startup founded by a couple of college dropouts in 2013 has become an industry player (the company says its revenues were $78.3 million last year) by selling old-school timepieces – dumb watches, if you will – to people too young to remember rotary phones.
All about image
The business is built on a simple, if implicit, premise: Young adults, with their do-everything smartphones and tablets, may not need another device to help them navigate their daily existence. But they care deeply about any image enhancer that helps them pop on Instagram.
It seems to have worked. Company research shows that 88 per cent of its customers are under 34 years old, and 45 per cent are under 24.
"The belief that traditional watches are relics of the past is false," Kassan said. "Our consumers may not be the most formal in their attire, but they are very intentional. They think about what they wear, about what is on trend and up-to-date. That may be ripped jeans and a T-shirt, but it's not a baggy T-shirt with stains on it."
"A watch," he said, "is their statement piece."
Bringing style back in fashion
The partners, who met in Santa Barbara, California, after leaving college, each had tried his hand at e-commerce and crowdfunding ventures, with middling success. While neither was what you would call a watch obsessive, both considered them important fashion accessories, but had a hard time finding a brand to fit both their style sensibility and budget.
"You had Nixon, which is very action-sports oriented – skater, surfer," Kassan said. "You had Michael Kors, which was too blingy." Many entry-level brands were priced at $500 or $700, a stretch "when you're barely able to make rent."
They sought to create the kind of watch that they would want to buy. In an era of H&M-style fast fashion, they sought to produce watches that were head-turning, but also inexpensive enough that you could buy four or five. The strategy was to keep costs under $260 by selling directly to consumers online, eliminating the standard retail markup, and relying on social media for marketing.
As the company has grown, however, it has begun selling in stores, like Nordstrom, advertising on radio and television, and has also expanded into sunglasses.
Form over function
The original Mvmt line, which was introduced on the Indiegogo crowdfunding platform, was tastefully designed. Watch geeks will draw obvious parallels to minimalist Swiss classics like the Movado Museum Dial series and the IWC Portofino, which are far more expensive.
The Mvmt watches delivered sleek, hyper-minimalist design for prices that were roughly in line with the average monthly cellphone bill, and had, as they say, great branding. (Prices range from $125 to $235.)
Timekeeping, clearly, was not the point. Mvmt watches largely did away with traditional functional design elements, like numerals for hour markers, or luminescent hands.
Time with intent
To set itself apart in the sea of under-$260 fashion watches, Mvmt positioned itself as an Instagram-first watch company. Its Instagram feed for its men's line, for example, which has more than 855,000 followers, is a cornucopia of stylish young people cavorting in exotic locales wearing cool watches.
And while the company experimented with celebrity endorsements, including Kylie Jenner and Klay Thompson, it seemed to find its footing with a social media star known largely to other millennials: Sam Kolder, a globe-trotting young videographer and thrill-seeker with more than 590,000 Instagram followers and great abs.
"Our whole thing is, 'Dress with intent, live with purpose,'" Kassan said. "He scales buildings and scuba-dives with sharks. But he's not going to five-star resorts. He's just doing something everyone can do."
And wearing a watch that everyone can wear.