he story of Thomas Baillod and his BA111OD watch brand is a perfect example of rapid success made possible because one person spotted a malfunction in the system and put forward an alternative model that works.
His aim was never to create a watch brand, but to rethink the watch distribution model by inventing what he calls “we-commerce”, which gives a central role to the customer as both buyer and sales vector. In doing so, Thomas Baillod built a bridge between commerce and e-commerce.
- Thomas Baillod, founder of BA111OD
To prove that his system was not only viable but above all could pay, he created his brand in late 2019 with the launch of a model made in China and sold exclusively via LinkedIn. On 11 October 2021, he launched a tourbillon made entirely in Neuchâtel, powered by a movement designed by Olivier Mory (BCP Tourbillons), for the unthinkable launch price of CHF 3,920 excluding tax. On 11 October last, he launched sales of a chronograph equipped with a Valjoux 7750 movement, the Chapter 5.1 Chrono Magma, launch price CHF 975.
Thanks to his disruptive distribution model, Thomas Baillod has helped revive a flagging low and mid-end of the market. In three years, he has attained an accumulated turnover of more than four million francs. What began as a pure academic demonstration has turned into a success story. We met him.
His aim was never to create a watch brand, but to rethink the watch distribution model by inventing what he calls “we-commerce”.
Europa Star: You told me an anecdote before founding your company, but we were never able to publish it because it wouldn’t have been in good taste. Can we talk about it now?
Thomas Baillod: Quite coincidentally, when I was in the process of developing it before October 2019, I’d christened my business model “Community Viral Development” (CoViDe). That was before we’d even heard about the virus... I explained that it was enough to be 1.5 metres from someone for quarter of an hour before they noticed the watch. I talked about the maximum viral load for ten days, because anyone buying my model is “contagious” for about ten days: during that period, they show it to everybody – friends, colleagues, neighbours – which generates a desire to buy one.
- Chapitre 5.1 Chrono Magma
The new model, the BA111OD, is a chronograph. Why, after having launched a tourbillon, did you choose this complication? Because in my view the chronograph is a must in the watchmaking world. It’s the nec plus ultra that everyone wants to wear. The models I’ve made so far are very distinctive: Chapters 1 and 2 are typical double oscillators; Chapter 3 is more mainstream, but with its openworked dial it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. As for the tourbillon, it’s in a totally different ball court. Launching a chronograph means giving an audience with more conventional taste a chance to get a foothold in my brand.
But behind everything I do, I always have my sights set on demonstrating a business model. The advantage of the chronograph I’ve launched is that it’s a beautiful, racy watch fitted with a magnificent Valjoux 7750 movement like you find in many other watches, a ceramic bezel like in all serious brands, a box crystal sapphire to maintain reasonable case height and a four-level dial. This is not a cut-price chronograph. It’s a model that bears comparison with similar timepieces by the big brand names. In the watchmaking world, the tourbillon is the king of chess and the chronograph is the queen! I’m moving my queen, which enables me to demonstrate that at 975 francs, the launch price, I’m offering a major item that’s likely to interest far more people, and at half or even a quarter of the price of competitors.
“This is not a cut-price chronograph. It’s a model that bears comparison with similar timepieces by the big brand names.”
Have you sold the 111 models that were announced?
I’ve already sold more than half in three days.
How is it possible to sell a chronograph with a Valjoux movement at under CHF 1,000?
I source them from the same co-contractors as the other brands, so my cost-price is about the same. The main difference lies in the lower margins inherent to my business model, which allows for a factor of 2, whereas my competitors multiply by seven or even 10.
- Achille Rota, watchmaker at BA111OD
It’s the first time you’ve used your ‘family coat of arms’ to decorate a watch. Is it a tribute?
CIt’s actually the second time, because it was also engraved on the caseback of the tourbillon. I asked Liliane Murenzi, our senior designer, to design a chronograph with high value added. She suggested incorporating my logo very subtly. It’s a way of affirming a design. The trap I didn’t fall into was making copies of an existing model. The logo underscores the fact that we didn’t take the easy path. We went our own way, also symbolised by the fact that we moved to Villa Castellane and in our former offices set up a T2 workshop (incorporation of the dial and hands, encasing) & T3 workshop (adding the bracelet) workshop and an after-sales service. It’s a way of affirming our attachment to Neuchâtel and proving we’re a start-up that assembles its own watches.
How many employees does your company have today?
Eleven. A football team already!
The first models were touted as “made in China”. Today, you’ve switched to Swiss-made. Why wasn’t that possible at the outset? Did you need to convince the Swiss manufacturers, contractors and watchmakers?
At the outset, the origin of the product was of absolutely secondary importance. What I wanted to demonstrate was all about distribution. I was aiming for the greatest possible delta in perceived value, and the movement I chose achieved the anticipated results. Just like my father taught me when I was little and we went into the woods. If I didn’t manage to light a fire, I had to eat my sausage raw. To light a fire, you take small twigs and you start with things that burn quickly. My aim was to provide an enormous amount of added value at less than CHF 400, and I couldn’t do that with a Swiss-made watch. Once the demonstration exercise had succeeded, I didn’t forget my origins. I called the Neuchâtel suppliers about launching a 100% Neuchâtel-produced tourbillon. Starting from that, I created jobs in the canton: we have two sites and we assemble the watches in Neuchâtel.
“Once the demonstration exercise had succeeded, I didn’t forget my origins. I called the Neuchâtel suppliers about launching a 100% Neuchâtel-produced tourbillon.”
- The brand recently moved into Villa Castellane in Neuchâtel.
How do you define this concept of “we-commerce” that you’ve developed?
Like the natural evolution of e-commerce, which itself evolved from commerce, the traditional model we all know. The advent of digital technology gave rise to digital marketing, and its distribution version is e-commerce, a “direct-to-the-consumer” model which has the huge advantage of clawing back the distribution-related margins but lacks the kind of experience you get with in-store purchasing. My starting point was an academic idea: I wanted to reconcile the physical and the digital, commerce and e-commerce But I went further by adding a community element that I called “we-commerce”, which lets you switch to a digital paradigm while at the same time adding emotion and physical contact.
My model is based on “social selling”, where the customer occupies a central place. They’re not the ones stuck at the end of the table watching everybody else – the brands, the intermediaries, the influencers – stuff their faces without getting anything to eat themselves, the ones nobody says a word to, who get up at the end of the evening, pay the bill for everybody and whom nobody thanks. Behind all this thinking is the reality that we live in an economic model where the real heroes of industry, those who produce the watches, are called “subcontractors” and are hidden, and where the real bosses, those who pay the bill, the end customers, are not considered at all A model that doesn’t acknowledge those who produce and those who buy is a bad model, in my view. In my model, the co-contractors and end customers are seated in the middle of the table, and everyone talks to them and thanks them.
In three years, thanks to this model, you’ve already attained an accumulated turnover of more than four million francs.
I slowed down a bit this summer to review the model, recruit new people and make the transition that will enable us to really spread our wings. The first year we posted sales of CHF 500,000, the second CHF 1.5 million; this year we’re going to double our turnover, or in any case achieve 100% growth and sales of between CHF 3 and 4 million.
Had you ever, even in your wildest dreams, imagined such a result?
No, because I never imagined creating a brand. For me it was just a matter of validating a theoretical concept that I taught. And I’m glad, because it’s not my success, it’s that of the customer, who’s being respected, and the success of the low and mid-range of the market which everybody had written off as obsolete. Restoring value to that declining segment is what Nicolas Hayek did in the 1980s, but starting at the other end. He rethought the way you produce a watch, it was an industrial feat. I’m rethinking the way you sell, which is enabling me to reinject value into the segment.
What would you say today to the brands who did not believe in your model when you suggested it to them?
That I understand. Many of them did not understand what I was saying and those who did couldn’t do anything about it. If you’re totally implicated in retail and a traditional business model, it’s difficult to extricate yourself. Disruption can only come when a model fails: an oyster without a grain of sand will never produce a pearl.
“Many brands did not understand what I was saying and those who did couldn’t do anything about it. If you’re totally implicated in retail and a traditional business model, it’s difficult to extricate yourself.”