Chad DiNenna of Nixon — Dialed In Values
In a 400-year-old watch industry, Nixon is an anomaly. The brainchild of Chad DiNenna and Andy Laats, the watch brand is arguably the only to nail the surf, skateboard and snowboard market for timepieces. Along the way, it’s managed to weather several storms that came with expansive growth and acquisition. But how does a comparatively new kid on the block start at the corner surf shop and grow into a global brand worth close to $500 million USD? Chad shares the intangible values that have carried Nixon through it all.
Script and Narration by Eugene Kan
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Alex Maeland & Justin Ryan Kim
Text by Nathan Kan
A couple of decades back, a teenager named Chad patrolled the sales floor of his local surf and skate shop.
As much a fan of action sports as he was timepieces, he found the combination meant the latter—especially the strap—paid a hefty price for all the rough and tumble abuse one would put themselves through.
Chad’s interest in watches and an entrepreneurial mindset would eventually turn into one of action sports and the American watch world’s most compelling stories.
Although he has trouble pinpointing exactly when the idea became firmly planted in his head, he does trace it back to his high school years working retail at said surf and skate shop. As this line of work extended into college, he recalls the inevitable amounts of downtime when no one was in the store. So, Chad chose to spend some of that spare time through a simple side hustle.
“In our shop, we sold wetsuits, and when you buy a wetsuit it used to come with a large extra piece of neoprene that you would use to patch up the holes in your knees when you’d surf,” he explains. “So, when I had free time in the store I’d go down the wetsuit aisle and tear off those extra pieces of neoprene. I’d cut them up and staple the ends together, electric tape them.”
Taking a batch of his invention, he’d put the pieces in a bowl at the front of the store and sell them as replacement watch bands. This ad-hoc money maker meant Chad had a little extra cash for the weekends and that he remained focused on watches.
As life would have it, the idea of doing something watch-related didn’t immediately translate after school and so the idea was shelved but never forgotten.
He notes the various factors that inspired him to revisit the idea of starting a watch company. Having always been big into watches, his post-graduation internship at TransWorld turned into a permanent position where he had the opportunity to meet people who had started brands for shoes, clothing, and sunglasses.
“I was always focused on watches and I just kind of realized, ‘Wow, nobody’s focused on watches. Why is that?’”
The idea of Nixon didn’t immediately jump at Chad. But he watched friends start their own brands, and he possessed an entrepreneurial spirit from an early age.
“I had a passion for starting brands from 13 years old.” There’s something to be said about the innocence that comes with starting a brand at that age, and Chad certainly embodied that: “I was writing letters to Nike explaining to them why they were out of touch and they needed to hire a teenager that had a perspective that could enlighten them.”
As the idea germinated into serious plans of starting a brand, Chad began to assess the watch market before him. Action sports was something he lived and breathed, and that would be his first point of reference.
Wow, nobody's focused on watches. Why is that?
Chad explained how back in those days, the best of surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding remained separate elements that had yet to be brought together under a single brand. For Andy, he didn’t necessarily have a physical product in his hands, yet he still had a great vision for what he wanted to create.
Fellow Nixon Co-Founder Andy earned a mechanical engineering degree from Cornell and began working at G.E. Plastics. It was there that Jake Burton of Burton Snowboards walked in with the hopes of building a new product.
“And then soon after that, Andy had a job working at Burton Snowboards. While he was there for about 7 ½ years and I was at Transworld, that’s when we had originally met.”
This is the story of an American watch and accessories company rooted in action sports and music culture. Nixon, founded by Chad DiNenna and Andy Laats isn’t about two lifelong friends. It’s about the yin and the yang and how two different minds came together to help define action sports.
“It’s one kid from the West Coast and one kid from the East Coast that had a shared love for this industry of action sports and designing and creating.”
After Chad and Andy met, ideas would swirl, and the pieces would come together. For one, Chad would leverage some of his connections from working at Transworld Skateboarding to see if this idea would validate during the early stages. The two would approach sales reps, distributors, and pro riders to gather their opinions.
The time was right. Andy had left his job at Burton and was soon to attain an MBA from Stanford. The two agreed to commit to the venture and soon after graduating, Chad left his position at Transworld.
“We finished out our business plan, and neither one of us had money or parents that we could go to and borrow a bunch of money from. So we did it the old-fashioned way,” says Chad. They wrote a business plan, went out and talked to people to spread word of mouth. “That was in the winter of 1997 that we went out and raised money put it in the bank and put her head down and started going.”
Within a year, Nixon was in surf, skate and snowboard shops with no looking back. What’s more, there was a bit of luck to help lock in that early success: as they prepared for their inaugural launch into retail in 1998, one of the leading European watch brands selling in North America closed its doors.
“So there was a business here that was selling watches to boardsport retailers that just diminished overnight. And two months before we’re launching,” he says. “So there were retailers that wanted product, that needed product, that we got to walk right into and fill that demand. Nobody can control that.”
It was evident early on that the working dynamic of Chad and Andy were important factors in Nixon’s ability to define and grow itself. You had the smooth-talking Chad juxtaposed against the hard-nosed business acumen of Andy, who Chad is quick to praise as such: “The benefit of having a business partner like Andy he brings a lot of balance to that where we might not have gotten it right.”
You make the rules every day and you can decide what you want to do and what you and your team can work towards, the goals that you determine, and not someone else's preset goals or ideas of what success should look like.
Chad reflects on the old days and how they respectively held it down, in their unique way. The magic of their partnership involved specific skill sets or desires in certain areas not shared by the other counterpart.
The idea of “everyone does what they’re good at” makes sense, but for another reason not necessarily related to the distribution of work. It has to do with overlapping affinities and the ego that can poison the dynamic.
He shares how he’s seen brands that have made it big and become “white hot,” becoming the talk of cities around the world. “But what tends to happen when there’s a lot of overlap is as the brands become more successful, ego gets introduced, and then there’s a challenge at that level,” he warns. “And then you tend to see partnerships break up.”
Chad draws a frank comparison between business partnerships and marriage. Although he jokes that he occasionally spends more time with Andy than his own wife, it certainly does reflect the amount of respect he has for Andy and their relationship, a respect Chad says is essential.
“But for those partners that have a lot of overlap, it’s difficult I think. I often see them being stifled by one another and wanting to break out and be their own person and have their own persona.”
And so, with a healthy work dynamic—and separation—firmly in place, the natural outcome of Chad and Andy’s solid foundation was the accelerated growth of the brand. The initial start-up energy was ultimately very necessary for the early growth of Nixon as a brand, though it soon went from identifying what you felt was cool or interesting to entrusting a team of individuals to make these decisions collectively.
“It’s not your parent’s company. These aren’t someone else’s rules that you have to abide by. You make the rules every day. And you can decide what you want to do and what you and your team can work towards, the goals that you determine. It’s not someone else’s preset goals or ideas of what success should look like.”
With standards and goals identified, members of the team trusted one another, which pushed ideas forward. Developing this trust with your team unlocks the next level for any company. You can’t touch or feel it, but it has massive implications.
Chad refers to one instance in the brand’s product development history where trusting the opinions of certain team members led to otherwise unexpected success.
“Well I mean when we first started developing women’s watches at the beginning, here’s two guys starting a watch brand in the board sports marketplace,” he begins. “So what did we do when we focused on our women at the very beginning? We just wanted to shrink it and pink it. And ‘there you go.'”
Suffice it to say, the idea wasn’t welcomed: The women on our team very early on held us accountable and said, ‘that’s bullshit. You can’t just do that.’ So as we started to listen to their needs and wants, and develop products, there was one watch that came out. It was called The Grace, and I thought it was a grandma’s watch. It was like ‘I wouldn’t even give it to my mom.’”
Despite his personal misgivings, however, the trust he put in his team members would provide a significant return on investment. “That watch was the bestselling women’s watch for 4+ years, and it did really well for us.”
The diversity of the team brought together multiple ways of looking at different problems, and with a growing team of people challenging one another, Nixon’s product continued to iterate and advance steadily.
However, as the team grew, so did the magnitude of the responsibility Chad and Andy carried.
It doesn't matter if you've been here 10 minutes or 10 years. The best idea's the one that's going to win.
It required him to rethink how he viewed his decisions made at the company. At the outset, a start-up team of two guys with a dream means that win or lose, the impact is confined to only those two guys. “If I blow it, if I fail, I’ll get a job at a coffee shop, figure out what I want to do next and follow that. And what you realize is when you start that, that mentality is “Great! Kick ass, work hard every day, follow through on what your point of view is,” Chad says. He realized that with each new hire was a responsibility to not only employ that person but to ensure their livelihood and that of their family. Suddenly, the stakes were raised to the point that they balanced the ambitiousness of certain decisions. More importantly, they strengthened the outward respect he held for his employees, and their ideas. In addition to building an environment where they would enjoy the work they did, he sought to foster a space where the best ideas could exceed ego and benefit the brand. “What you realize is that it can’t always be about ‘me, me, me’ and what I want. We have to be more open to the other creative people who are here because it very much is a collaboration of ideas,” he explains. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here 10 minutes or 10 years. The best idea’s the one that’s going to win.”
As Nixon began to expand globally, Chad and Andy eventually hit a patch where strategically, the path of the past was no longer an ideal approach. The momentum had propelled them into a place they’d never been before. They took note of what was before them and came to a stern realization.
“A big eye-opener for us was watching some of our other friends who had started their businesses before us who’d grown it to levels that were much larger than ours and then completely fail and close their business,” he remembers. “That was pretty shocking and seeing that definitely drove the need to be more responsible in your thinking and be more thoughtful about who you are impacting. It’s not just you and yourself or the person that’s answering the phones.”
As a now global brand, the weight on Chad’s conscience was amplified: “What about the guy who’s running the team in Europe or the person who’s packing boxes in Japan, you know? What about the rep that’s in San Sebastián, Spain as well as the rep that’s over in Cincinnati, Ohio? How are my actions here going to affect them?”
From these concerns, you quickly get a sense that anybody welcomed into the Nixon team is part of the family, and it’s for the company to take care of them. The collective efforts of the team led Nixon to one of the company’s most significant milestones, a sale to Australian surf company Billabong in 2006.
That previous sense of unadulterated freedom that Nixon once possessed in its infancy had in some ways returned, and Chad looks back on the relief he felt when the brand was sold to Billabong in 2006. “I was no longer nervous thinking, ‘if I blow this all these people are going to lose their jobs.’ Now I thought to myself, ‘Wow if I blow this they’re just going to fire me.’”
With the deal taking a lot of pressure away, it freed his conscience to return to the ideals that got him started and he believed would ultimately benefit the company, what he describes as going back to “being crazy and creative in doing things I’ve never done before.”
There’s often wonder if large corporations will come in and have a destructive effect on a company’s culture. These were initially unfounded with Billabong. Chad details the two parties’ mutual respect. Billabong allowed Nixon a sense of freedom based on an unprecedented level of success they had achieved in their product category.
This early honeymoon period, however, would come to an end as Billabong’s deteriorating financial health started to put pressure on those around them, and eventually Nixon changed hands in 2012.
Nixon has remained distinguished as a platform for innovation, such that both employee and ambassador alike remain drawn to the brand as a place to lend their professional insight and make their mark.
In addition to Tony Hawk, he prides himself many supporters who were connected and enamored with what the brand stood for and set out to do including a late member of the Beastie Boys: “I have a 10-page handwritten letter from Adam Yauch describing to me the perfect headphone.”
The brand’s innovation has without a doubt propelled it to mainstream popularity in serving its original boardsports-centric product market. But although Nixon, in the grand scheme of the 400-year-old watch industry and accessories world, is still a teenager, it’s wise beyond its years.
It’s already figured out its approach to sustaining itself while making truly meaningful dents in watch craft’s long history, thousands of miles away from the heart of Horology in Switzerland. Chad cites the example of their patented locking looper. It was based on the horse and buggy connection with a male and female part that snapped together on the band to prevent the watch from flying loose while surfing.
With the idea now patented, Nixon derives a small royalty from other watch brands that use the technology. But for Chad and Andy, it’s more than just the kickback. It goes back to humble origins where two kids from America can take pride in earning recognition for influencing such a large, old and lethargic industry. “We take some pride in that,” he says with humility.
Although Nixon might not get the nod from some of the older players in the watchmaking industry anytime soon, Chad leaves us with one of his favorite moments that brings him back to a familiar time:
“I remember being inside a surf shop down in San Diego when I saw someone for the first time buy a Nixon watch. It was a 13-year-old kid. He was in there with his mom to look at watches that had just been delivered that week. He went straight to the watch display and pointed out the watch he wanted. It was the Full Nelson which was a digital watch for us at the time. I was surprised he even knew the name of the product. He took out his money—a pile of crumpled up bills and put them up on the counter. His mom said that he had been working all summer mowing lawns to raise money so he could buy this watch. And now I’ll never forget that. That was amazing. I was all excited and just to see that happen right before your eyes. Never gets old.”