Innovation complications: the watchmaker’s dilemma.

time, clock, wire, innovation, watchmaker


My dad broke his back in a motorcycle crash. It was a time when spinal injuries weren’t well understood and he didn’t walk again. He was nineteen.

In those post-war years, being a paraplegic put some pressure on your job prospects. It took three years to get my dad into a wheelchair and then home. For most of that time, he lay on his back and had few visitors.

Cause and effect.

One person who did visit was the chap who was riding pillion at the time of the crash. He came to see if my dad’s insurance would cover the cost of a new suit (the suit he was wearing had been torn when my dad broke his back). No-one seemed to think it remarkable that this guy had been the pillion rider in previous bike crashes. Unrecognised cause and effect?

Being from a farming family, when Dad was lying in hospital it relieved the family of the need to feed him. When he went home, he was a burden. He got a disabled carriage: one of those small, single-seater, single-cylinder cars with handlebars instead of a steering wheel, and started selling different grades of oil to farmers, displayed in Kilner Jars so they could see the colour difference and know which oil was better for their tractor or rotovator. Not a common job these days.

You can’t buy more time.

Eventually, Dad trained as a watchmaker and found his groove. For over sixty years, he repaired watches. He fixed clocks too, and old clocks became his speciality. Those rickety old timepieces that were never really destined to keep good time, but which did a better job when he’d replaced their steel bearings with brass or jewels. Engineering that did a good enough job when timekeeping was more of an approximation than a science.

When man made it to the moon, watches became electronic, so Dad learnt to fix them as far as he could. When quartz watches launched, he decided he was not going to try: the technology is disposable, and the chips too small and cheap to try and fix. Even in the old days, there were companies that only made movements, and they supplied the same workings to all brands.

My dad made a good living from watches and clocks. He sold some, he fixed some, and he got paid what the service was worth. Because everyone knew what an alarm clock, or a Timex or a Rolex, cost, there was a limit to what he could charge for these repairs. But because no-one could put a price on an antique grandfather clock, or a Fusée movement, he charged what the customer would pay: value-based pricing in the service sector.

Over time, my dad became the only watchmaker in town. He outlived the others, or just kept working when they retired. Being in a wheelchair meant he couldn’t take up golf or sailing, so he did what he did. We never played football together, but we did go fishing. There were pastimes that he could apply some logic to – use his engineer’s mind.

To be in an industry that’s showing signs of changing in ways that you can’t see is not unusual.

As time went on, though, the price Dad could charge for repairing a clock became a matter of intense negotiation on every job. Whether the clock’s timekeeping was accurate was usually not a question: it was its status as a heritage piece, with an emotional value for the customer, that dictated what they’d pay to see it working again.

Gradually, the value of his work dropped. The quality was still as high – sixty years of knowledge and practice was hard learnt. But, whether you pay £5 or £50,000 for a watch, you can’t buy more time and can’t buy accuracy that makes that much difference. Watches and clocks now hold a different place in our value eco-system. Phones, screens and cars tell us what we need to know.
The old master made enough to live off by being good at what he did, but the market moved on. We all forgot about watchmakers – most of us are unlikely ever to need one.

This story is one that you can track through time and industry sectors right across the consumer product and medical landscape. Things that mattered to our parents and their parents simply don’t matter to us. Technologies that have come and gone are easy to list as far back as you can remember. My dad didn’t have a strategy: he had a skill that fell out of favour. Everything does eventually.

To be in an industry that’s showing signs of changing in ways that you can’t see is not unusual. Your time will come: that’s why we do what we do.

We help you to see how the trends developing around you will impact on your revenue line, and we work with you to develop a plan that underpins your continued business success.

Innovation isn’t an option.

Innovation isn’t an option, it’s an imperative. Unless you are planning to play golf or go fishing, and that isn’t really much of a plan.

Seeing it differently. Future-proofing. It’s what we do.