WoodWatch: The Road to Forbes 30 Under 30

The good news just keeps on coming for WoodWatch! A spot in the Financial Times Top 1000 of Europe’s fastest growing companies last month, and the founders now also made it to the Forbes list of 30 under 30 this year. So what’s their secret to success? Co-founder Daniël Salimian shares the highlights, the challenges and future plans for the rapidly growing company.

WoodWatch was founded back in 2013, by three students from Groningen: Daniël Salimian, Kevin van der Veer and Jeroen Westerbeek. Aside from handcrafted wooden watches, the company also sells sunglasses and bracelets through their webshop. In 2017, they were already in the top 10 of fastest growing webshops in the Netherlands and recently made it to 535th place of fastest growing European countries. To top things off, the founders are now also featured on Forbes’ prestigious list of leading young change makers and innovators under the age of 30.

First off, congrats are in order! 

“Thanks! It’s amazing and just insane when you think about it. When we started, it was a spontaneous idea, really. We always wanted to start a business together and back then wooden sunglasses were very popular. We thought it would be really cool to start selling wooden watches. We boxed them up ourselves in a garage and delivered them to the post office by bike. So when you look at where we are today… it’s just incredible.” 

So what’s your secret?

“I think it was around 2017 when the three of us got our Master’s degrees, so that’s when we decided to really focus on WoodWatch fulltime and take steps to focus on growth. We had the freedom to make that decision, because we were already doing well enough as a company to pay ourselves a decent wage if we wanted to.”

“Another key factor was our decision to hire a lot more people last year, or two years ago. That may sound obvious, but we did it in a pretty unique way, by hiring international people with expertise. Like a lot of other companies, when you’re in that phase where you’re still small, but with big ambitions, you need to hire specialists. We have our warehouse in Groningen, where we finalize and customize our products before sending them out. But if you want to grow, you’re going to need specialists in things like design and marketing too, for example.”

“But hiring them full time is too expensive at that stage. So we decided to hire freelance specialists from around the world and we work remotely, as an international team. We can pay them more than their normal freelance rates, which are not as high as in the Netherlands, so that allowed us to take some pretty big steps in terms of growth.” 

Success goes hand in hand with failure of course. So what’s your biggest fuckup? 

“Haha, making mistakes is definitely inherent to growth. You can try to plan things in detail all you want. but things can and will always happen. But it’s about admitting that mistakes will be made and that’s fine, because it allows you to learn and improve. Our biggest one happened early on with one of our first batches of watches. They were customer pre-orders, because we didn’t have a lot of money back then. That shipment got delayed and delayed and we were constantly apologizing to our customers, asking them to be patient and keeping them updated about the delays.”

“So when that shipment of watches finally arrived, it turned out about half of them were of really poor quality. We were like, oh man… this is it… We’ve kept people waiting for months and now everyone is going to want a refund. But fortunately, only one of them wanted a refund, I think. Being transparent and proactive in our communication really helped, so that was both a big sigh of relief and our most valuable lesson.”

Biggest challenge so far as a scale-up?

“We started with WoodWatch at the age of 19. Looking back, the inexperience has certainly caused us to scale less rapidly. Sooner, we had to hire talented people. Sooner, we had to determine what to focus on and what to say no to. Now, we try to educate ourselves more by reading and listening.” 

A lot of startups and scale-ups will look for an investor at a certain point. Was it a conscious choice to remain self funded?

“We never really thought it was necessary, not for the capital at least. We did toy with the idea a couple of times, thinking what if an investor could bring more to the table? What would be the added value of that? Things like a network and professional experience would be relevant for us, but we’re trying to find ways to do that ourselves.”

“We recently hired someone to help us with retail, who has a big professional network. Sure, it’s expensive to hire someone like that, but it’s not going to cost us equity or a seat on the board, and that just feels better for us. But I do get the general appeal for startups though. It’s really cool to be able to say you just landed a big multimillion dollar investment. But it’s a choice, not always a necessity.”

You’re active worldwide. How do you target specific countries?

“The three of us have a background in data, so basing decisions on metrics has always been second nature. Kevin studied Business Intelligence and Jeroen and I both have a degree in Econometrics. And we’re an online company, so that means it’s a lot easier to do business worldwide and you can measure pretty much anything with online marketing. So what we do, is target a certain region with a digital ad campaign as a test, and just see if we get some traction, like people visiting our website. You can start with a wide net, with ads in English, to see if there’s interest from a certain country in that region. And it’s just a matter of localizing your campaigns from there on out.”

Sustainability is very important to you guys. Is it more challenging when you’re growing that fast?

“It’s easier, actually. We’ve worked with Trees for All since the beginning to make our parcel deliveries CO2 neutral and with Trees for the Future, we plant 3 trees for every watch sold. So the more we grow as a company, the more we donate in that sense. But what really makes things easier, is that we’re now big enough to start making sustainability demands to all of our suppliers. When you’re a small company, you don’t really have the leverage to do that.”

Last year was still a good year for you guys. Was that in spite of, or because of the pandemic?

“A little bit of both I think. Some of the factories we work with are based in China, so in the first few months, when global trade was pretty much on hold, we had delays of course. But fortunately for us, we decided to offer a bigger range of products the year before that. So that meant that, despite the delays and some of the most popular products being out of stock, we never ran out completely.”

“Online sales in general went up big time of course, but another thing we were initially a little worried about, is that if countries are in lockdown and people are unable to spend time together during the holidays, will they still buy each other presents, as in, our products? We did notice that effect in certain countries, but on the whole, things fortunately turned out pretty well.”

What about future plans?

“We have a couple of new things we’re working on actually. We’re considering constructing a new warehouse, rather than renting, very likely still in Groningen. Which is cool, but also tricky, because we’re growing fast, so that means size becomes an important factor. Can’t be too small of course and there’s always the risk you end up constructing something too big, So that’s something we’re currently researching. Another thing for this year is we really want to start focusing more on retail, so selling our products in brick and mortar stores. Might sound strange in these COVID times, but we think it’s the right time to take those first steps.”

“It would also really be awesome to have our very own brick and mortar store, so that’s something we’re also considering. Aside from those things, we also want to add more products. We added bracelets and sunglasses, but we want to look into other things too, built on the same pillars we’ve always had, so cool design, sustainability and wood of course.”