“8 Questions with Playfair” ft. Philipp Man @ Chronext
This is the fourth in our interview series “8 Questions” — in which we catch up with founders in the Playfair portfolio to share their entrepreneurial journey.
We first invested in Philipp and his co-founder Ludwig back in 2015. When we meet two entrepreneurs with the level of hustle and energy they both had coming straight out of university, we see the potential for a company that can really grow beyond two people and an idea. When those two people also happen to have found a product for a simultaneously underserved and large market, it becomes a no-brainer.
Fast forward to 2019 and Chronext now operates in over 130 countries across Europe, Canada, Australia and China, bringing together over 10,000 unique products on their platform.
Today, we sit down with co-founder and CEO, Philipp to hear his story from deciding to take the plunge as an entrepreneur, to building Chronext to where it is today. We hope this can help other founders and aspirational entrepreneurs in their own ventures, from day one to wherever they are today.
1. What inspired you to be an entrepreneur?
Honestly, I never thought I would be an entrepreneur straight out of university. I had this sensible vision of starting with a standard professional career in banking or trading and then starting a company in the nebulous “one day”.
Having said that, I grew up with a father who was an entrepreneur, so I was used to and enjoyed the ups and downs that come with the profession. However, it was only when I met my co-founder Ludwig and we started bouncing ideas off each other in our student kitchen at KCL in London that the practical intrigue of entrepreneurship started and hasn’t stopped since.
2. Can you take us back to the beginnings of Chronext?
Ludwig and I went through a few different ideas: from a bakery to a fashion business. We started to get really interested by the idea of how to create a stock market for something that isn’t stocks — essentially, a marketplace.
Being students, our first port of call was university textbooks, which while successful, were undermined by low basket size, the difficulty of standardisation and high churn.
We then turned to our natural passion for watches and asked ourselves, “What do watch buyers look for? — Authenticity, value preservation, range of products and price.” These were all the central tenets of any liquidity platform, so we set about creating a stock exchange-esque platform for luxury watches.
To start with, we only wanted to aggregate data already out there, but we quickly realised that very few people actually had this data and that there was a much greater opportunity in creating and owning the marketplace itself. That was when the Chronext of today was born.
3. What is the hardest lesson learned since day 1?
Lesson one: there’s never just one hard lesson learned.
1. Decisions should be backed up by data. There is no excuse for making a decision not validated by data; “gut feelings” are often lazy if not validated. There is always a way of finding a proxy if directly validating data can’t be found.
2. The difference between good and excellent hiring is life changing. Hiring the right person can be a religious moment: you see problems you couldn’t fix for years disappear like magic. However, like the approach taken by many VCs, “hire/invest for strength not lack of weakness”. Practically speaking, I would personally hire a killer Head of Talent from very early on, because they are the person who will help you build the best company you can through the best people you can find.
4. What has been your strangest day as a founder?
A few years ago, I was having a lunch meeting and got an unexpected call. It was one of our London boutique managers literally shaking down the phone as he told me that a group of masked men with a machete, axe and samurai sword had come in and smashed up his shop.
Obviously I flew straight to London to support him and help get the shop back up and running and thankfully no one was physically hurt. A large lesson was learned that there can never be enough security, but I still never thought as a tech CEO, one of my challenges would be a robbery with a physical weapon!
5. What have you learned from your investors since you first fundraised?
In my experience, there are two groups of investors.
- Those that are always throwing around new ideas. This is helpful and pushes you to a degree, but is much easier to do.
- Those that preach focus. It took me a long time to appreciate that there is no such thing as too much focus. That said, exceptions prove every good rule, so essentially say no to anything that doesn’t directly drive the business forward other than the occasional favour (I’m a massive believer in karma!)
That is why we haven’t moved into other product verticals yet, despite clear overlap with areas like jewellery or handbags, because we’re growing 100% every year and the luxury watch market is still worth €80–100bn pa.
6. As a founder, what is your proudest achievement to date?
I am incredibly proud of creating a company that is bigger than the sum of its parts. More importantly though, I’m proud that this company has developed a culture where people are confident to make decisions they aren’t explicitly allowed to make. At Chronext, people are always encouraged to move fast, even if that means making mistakes, because micromanaging is not scalable and because it builds learning and trust throughout the team. When you come to our offices, you feel this energy in our team: it makes me proud to have been a part of building this.
7. Crystal Ball: What are your plans for the future?
We want to become #1 globally for both new and pre-owned luxury watches. The industry is still very analogue and the retail experience is only becoming more digital. This is something we will continue to push beyond our core UK and European markets, into Northern America and Asia.
We’re still near the start of our story, so always feel free to reach out if you want to join us for our journey — we are getting faster day by day.
8. #1 piece of advice to an aspirational founder?
Many people in this world are scared of driving change and cannot fathom why other people would want to — and that’s okay. These are the people that don’t understand the entrepreneurial journey. They will often tell you something cannot be done, already exists or is not feasible.
The line between staying resilient in the face of repeated defeat and failure, and maintaining conviction that you should continue is very difficult. When do you really know your idea is bad? Or have you just not tried hard enough? Are you giving up too early or are you chasing something that genuinely doesn’t work? That is why when you start a business it shouldn’t be because it makes sense to others — people generally validating the concept or VCs willing to fund it — but because you have your own strong conviction. Only then will you push through when it makes no sense to everyone around you, but it does to you — because you have this strong belief and understanding of the underlying issue you are solving.
Have a very strong conviction in what you do, and make the times you’re right count without being delusional.