Re-heated Leftovers – What David Epstein Could Teach the Watch Industry

07/01/2021 2:18 pm
Re-heated Leftovers – What David Epstein Could Teach the Watch Industry

This first ran around this time last year. And given the comings and goings in Watch Town it seems pretty valid today.  So pour yourself a coffee and get comfy –


What David Epstein Could Teach the Watch Industry

I first heard of David Epstein on Dave Chang’s 
podcast – The Dave Chang Show.  And the fact that I first got dialed into Mr. Epstein’s thoughts on the value of generalization over specialization.  I have dipped into his book – Range:  Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

Courtesy of Macmillan

And I feel it was particularly appropriate to learn about Mr. Epstein’s work on a podcast that is, ostensibly, about about food and food culture.

My main takeaway from the podcast and the bits I’ve been able to digest directly is that not unlike Bob Dylan’s message that the “the loser nowWill be later to win”, the times are indeed A- Changin’.


Now for my part, I probably really got my start on the periphery, as a fan, participating on a limited basis in discussion forums.  I then stumbled into a job at Tourneau in San Francisco, and later with DOXA. A blog led to a media business which led to a consulting concern that touches on sales, marketing, media, production, and on and on.  So it’s fair to say, this speaks to me.  

So gentle readers, allow me to share with you what the watch industry could learn from David Epstein –
“Overspecialization can lead to collective tragedy even when every individual separately takes the most reasonable course of action.”
David Epstein

I see this a lot in the watch business and saw it painfully so with two former darlings of the business who collapsed less than three years from their first products were delivered to the public. But it goes deeper than this and in fairness to the former Kronaby and Klokers, both of these brands were led by people with experience in consumer products. And in fact, you can see it in the brands that have been through some particularly rough waters.  GP, UN, Eterna are wonderful brands that in the past have suffered from “Silo Syndrome”.  Essentially that they were staffed with a bunch of specialists who were discouraged from collaborating.  While it is tempting to tell people to “stick to their lane” when they feel the sole of a foot on their toes, it might, in fact, be worth a listen to those colleagues with a different perspective.


“We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” 
David Epstein

What I’m about to say is going to sound mean, and it is not meant to.  It is easy to say that a leopard can’t change its spots, and I think that is a gross misunderstanding that people, particularly in the watch business have.  Some of the sharpest operators in the industry also keep the lowest profile. As mentioned here before, it’s inevitable to fail. The trick is not to make a habit of it.  And failure offers a wealth of lessons. Some of these lessons can be highly personal, where we need to examine how we handled various situations and how we might have done things differently. 

Put another way, words are great, mottos are great, and a good looking CV is just that.    Now, how then do we explain the serial recycling of executives, sales reps, PR firms from one brand to the next and back again?  It actually goes back to overspecialization.  What Moneyball referred to as the “look test”.  In essence, only “baseball people” could understand the game and how to work within it.  And what Bill James, Billy Beane and others proved is that just wasn’t so.  

And the watch business is unique in the short memories it instills in many of its gatekeepers.  People who entered the industry from others quickly forget that fact when they start running a brand.  Suddenly, only “watch people” (i.e. industry veterans) can possibly understand what it takes.  And as short-term history shows, some of these serial staffers are cycled through and spit out of the formal (read big brand) industry, and those who managed to remain in Watch Town had to create their own opportunities. Because what they forgot was that they were the exception, and now that they have had their wings clipped, they are officially no longer “true” citizens of Watch Town. This either proves their own misguided theories (and short-term personal memories), or shows that they were, perhaps, victims of over specialization.


“You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but they have no idea how to integrate it. We don’t train people in thinking or reasoning.”
David Epstein


I am actually pretty grateful for this, because otherwise I would not 

have clients ; )

This actually comes back to the “Silo Syndrome”. Being an expert is great, but unless you can see the bigger picture, it is increasingly harder to adapt to it. As brands continue to contract in size and need to become more nimble, the ability to think outside of your cubicle becomes more and more essential.


“Almost none of the students in any major showed a consistent understanding of how to apply methods of evaluating truth they had learned in their own discipline to other areas.” 
David Epstein


See above.

“The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization” 
David Epstein


So let’s talk about brand management. Typically, brand managers are promoted through the ranks of the sales department. It makes sense on a lot of levels, no sales means not brand. But even at a regional level, let’s say North America, you need to have the flexibility to weigh in on all aspects of the operation. I can’t tell you how many meetings I have been to where the brand manager will pass the buck by saying things like –

“Oh, that’s marketing. You’ll have to talk to…”.

This is not to say that you should not have department heads, and people with responsibilities. But really that conversation should go more like this –

“Oh, let’s (collaboratively) talk about this with the marketing team…”

What currently happens in a lot of brands is a fundamental disconnect from certain functions that they either feel uncomfortable with or are disinterested with. Say what you want about him, but Jean-Claude Biver was perhaps the first (and still one of the only) brand manager/brand leader/CEOs who made a point of involving himself beyond just sales. Towards the end of his tenure that trailed off, but there was a time where I suspect Hublot was an extension of his central nervous system.

“As each man amassed more information for his own view, each became more dogmatic, and the inadequacies in their models of the world more stark.” 
David Epstein


Too many examples to site.  


“In a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous.” 
David Epstein


It is important to have a centralized plan for a global brand.  But there needs to be an understanding of locality/reality.  Simple example – F1 is, by and large, not a thing in the US, no matter how much a brand would like it to be, it just isn’t.  Neither is rugby.  If we’re very honest, neither is sailing, neither is Chinese language cinema.  And yet, I keep getting press releases about partnerships like this.  

And an even starker example could be found at the SWATCH group and the ETA/COMCO fiasco. When you do not consider the possibility that things just might not go your way?  It can be fatal.

Rest assured, ETA is not going out of business, and I have no doubt that some agreement/accommodation will eventually be reached. But in the here and now, several of ETA’s more well-heeled customers are having to lump it, and if the word around the campfires in the Jura are to be believed, some loyalists might be looking for a new camp to call home.

Tempus Fugit

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