- Silas Walton struggled to sell his watch as a student when he was strapped for cash.
- It gave him the idea for A Collected Man, which sells high-end watches on their owners’ behalf.
- The online reseller now has an eight-figure turnover and recently sold one watch for $7.6 million.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Silas Walton, a 34-year-old owner of a luxury watch reseller from London, about how he broke into the luxury retail market. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The idea for my company came to me at a time when I was strapped for cash as a student.
As part of my master’s degree in business strategy, I had to do an unpaid internship at a private-equity firm. This lasted five months from late 2013 to 2014. I had bought a watch the year prior from Harrods, a luxury department store in London, and needed to sell it to make cash to live on.
But the process of selling a secondhand luxury watch was painful. There were only two options: Try to flog it on eBay and navigate constant verifications of my documents to prove it was real or go to a brick-and-mortar watch seller and take a 60% profit reduction.
It sparked the idea of an online watch reseller that offered a smooth system for clients buying and selling via the platform.
At first, it was just half a sentence on paper, but it grew until I had done months of market research and had a fully fleshed-out business plan.
While working in deal origination during my internship, I had come into contact with so many people who wanted to take control of their industry and be innovative in that space. Being exposed to that initiative gave me the confidence to start my own business.
I was coming to the end of my master’s and had canceled any interviews for future jobs.
The model I was looking into was buying watches to auction online on a customer-friendly platform that was accessible to people all over the world.
Coincidentally, a friend of my family happened to sell watches. I wanted to pitch him my idea, but I decided to pitch it to an online watch forum first.
The forum completely tore my idea apart, but one user gave me specific and helpful advice. They recommended looking into consignment, as another popular watch seller had just removed this option.
Selling watches on consignment meant the owner could give their watch to me, a third party, who would sell it for them at the best price possible and receive a percentage of the profits, usually 15% on A Collected Man. It’s in both parties’ interest to get the best price.
I decided to pivot completely and took another month focusing my business plan on consignment before pitching it to my family friend.
The watch seller and one other entrepreneur, also a watch enthusiast, invested about 50,000 pounds ($67,500). This was my seed capital to launch A Collected Man, a consignment and resale platform for pre-owned watches. The watch seller, now an investor, also gave me around 10,000 pounds’ worth of watches he’d never been able to sell that were collecting dust.
He said whatever I made on top of that I could put toward his share capital.
I sold all of them within a month on eBay and made a relatively good profit. Then I persuaded a few people to consign pieces to us. This got the ball rolling.
When we started in late 2014, our objective was mid-market. I didn’t go straight into selling 100,000 pound watches, it was your Rolexes and your Omega Speedmasters. But because these were so popular and not overly rare, it was competitive and the margins were relatively slim.
About six months after officially starting the business, a client consigned to us a piece by an independent watchmaker that was worth around 60,000 pounds. When we sold it, our profit margins were almost seven times higher than our normal sales. And because it was on consignment, there was no cash risk.
The profit was clearly in consigning these rare, high-end watches by independent watchmakers. This was pretty much unheard of in the industry. Six years ago, if you bought independent watches, you were expected to lose money.
I had done my research and understood the risk, but because I wasn’t influenced by the industry’s outlook, I could also see a clear investment opportunity with large profit margins.
So we moved forward with this model, gaining trust within the independent watchmaking industry and selling these pieces on consignment, either from collectors or directly from the watchmakers themselves.
Our clients are confidentiality sensitive because we have captains of industries or people in the film and music industries. They are concerned about security risks or appearance. Trust has become a big part of our business, especially as we work with more notable clientele.
This model was profitable, and we invested everything back into the business, acquiring pieces and diversifying our product range.
There was definitely pushback from people within the trade: I was in my late 20s, English, and a complete outsider to the industry.
But the audience for online retailers for secondhand luxury items was undeniable. It was also a way to connect these independent watchmakers who lived in the Swiss Alps or the Isle of Man with collectors and fans who desperately wanted to invest.
About three years ago, we received 5 million pounds in private investment from a trusted client. Since then, we’ve snowballed. This investment meant we could start acquiring more strategic pieces.
We use our Instagram to draw sales and attention to recent releases. Our social media has a completely organic audience that we’ve been growing since the beginning. We can publish a new watch on Instagram that costs 50,000 pounds, and it can be sold within 20 minutes of posting.
We began doing more sales that were over 1 million pounds leading up to our record-breaking sale in August.
In August, a watch by Philippe Dufour, one of the independent watchmakers I established a relationship with early on, sold on our site for $7.63 million. This was the highest public sale of a watch by an independent watchmaker.
I’ve grown to love and appreciate watches and watchmaking. But ultimately, it was the market that attracted me. And I would never change that because it meant I didn’t shy away from causing disruption within the industry.
Taking these risks got us to the point where we are now, with a $21 million turnover in 2020 and 2021 after seven years in business.