Article

"These are difficult times, but there’s always a way…"

Mark Bentley
April 2020

Jonathan Barker started his business with nothing but an idea and a Prince’s Trust-backed loan. Over the years he built luxury watch repair business The WATCH Lab into a nationwide chain, with branches from Southampton to Glasgow, before selling via BCMS in 2016. Since then, he has been an active member of the BCMS Fellows group – offering advice and guidance to other entrepreneurs. He’s even found time to establish a new online company, watchstrapstyle.com, which is obviously seriously impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, in terms of product supply and customer demand.

Here, he shares his thoughts on how to get through this difficult period. In his words: "In times of challenge, we have to do what we have to do. If we need to adapt, we adapt…"

Q: This must be the hardest time you’ve ever experienced in business. How are you coping?

It’s incredibly bizarre and new territory for everyone.  Not being able to do the normal things, I’m doing the stuff I tend to put off. I’m working on the website, including improving descriptions of all products. This is a mammoth task in itself. I’m also doing admin (yawn!) and brainstorming with my colleague Martyn about how we can do things better. When your head is free of the normal day-to-day stuff, you can think more laterally.

Q: Adversity is nothing new, though. Are you drawing on learnings from previous tough times?

This tough time is different to the rest. We’re in new territory and it will take years for the world to heal economically. That said, the world will bounce back. People will spend, improve their homes, go on holiday, move house etc. Humanity will fight to bring back normality as soon as possible.

There were dark times in my previous business, like in every business. We had two major challenges to deal with. Firstly when the company was five years old, our confidence to grow and expand was bigger than our experience to do so. We took out leases on shops and kiosks that were either in the wrong position or were too expensive. These did not work, and dragged the rest of the company down. 

We dealt with the problems by cutting out middle management, drastically dropping our earnings, extending bank loans, and marketing ourselves harder and smarter. We managed to negotiate in every way we could to get out of those bad shop leases. This took over two years and stopped us expanding further for a further year. We didn't open any branches for three years and closed two branches down. 

Most importantly we licked our wounds and learnt from our mistakes. Never again!

The other challenge was the crash of 2008/9. Put simply, the non-life-essential need for watch repairs dried up overnight, as the public lost confidence in their own work situations. Fortunately - and again with additional spend on smart marketing - we managed to pull it back.

Q: Your current business is experiencing some pain – what’s your strategy to deal with that?

Our products come from China mostly, so there will be supply issues. To deal with it we must be honest with our customers then promote what we can supply and what is available. In times of challenge we have to do what we have to do. If we need to adapt, we adapt. 

With regards to watchstrapstyle.com, we are working with our suppliers. They have the same attitude as we do. If you can’t get x y or z product from where you normally get them, where can you get them from? My personal attitude is, 'If you think there's always a way, then there is always a way!’ 

We all go through challenging times and this current world situation is certainly one, for sure. We may all have to do our business differently for a while. But with hard work, networking and thinking outside the box, good businesses will survive and prosper – provided they can get access to the support they need.

Q: Entrepreneurs are born ‘doers’ – and you’re using this time productively. What other initiatives are you putting in place?

I’m doing a lot of research into my marketplace. I’m looking at the best of the competition and trying to work out which bits we should ‘borrow’ and which bits we can do much better.

Q: It feels like communication is more important than ever, and just speaking with others in the same boat can be helpful…

I’m happy to speak to other business owners, hear their thoughts and share mine too, if relevant. I always think a problem shared is a problem halved. Sometimes we all need to run our thoughts by someone else, if for no other reason than to get confirmation we’re heading in the right way!

Q: What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs at this time?

Keep working, never give up and maybe consider different ways of doing what you do. These are difficult times but there’s always a way.

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