Life (and business) lessons from Jean-Claude Biver.

Having successfully breathed new life into Blancpain, Omega, Hublot,i Tag Heuer, and most recently Zenith, Luxembourg-born Jean-Claude Biver is a living legend and 45-year veteran of the Swiss watch industry.ii With passion and vision, he has shaped much of the industry’s present-day success, not least of which was reinforcing the identity and long-term value of traditional mechanical watchmaking throughout the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s and 80s.iii As a master of business strategy and marketing, he’s also incredibly engaging as a speaker.

Not too good to fall under his spell, after digesting and absorbing every available interview and article featuring JCB, I’ve herebelowiv compiled a few of the best take-home messages from this enigmatic entrepreneurv :

  • If you’re an entrepreneur, your products need three things : to be first, different, and unique.
  • You still need to work hard.vi
  • You need to be lucky, but the harder you work, the luckier you get.
  • You need love.vii
  • Have humility.viii
  • Make mistakes!ix
  • Surround yourself with people who ask good questions. None of you knows all the answers.
  • Encourage creativity in your organisation.
  • When the overall market is down, spend more on marketing and more on R&D.x
  • Learn from history.
  • Even when you have reached the top of the mountain, keep climbing.
  • Only a dead fish swims with the current. Don’t be a dead fish.
  • Priviledge is a duty.
  • Sharing is key, whether knowledge, money, successes, failures, or doubts.
  • Passion will set you free. If you never want to work another day in your life, make your passion your job.
  • If you haven’t found your passion yet, it’s because you’re not being curious enough. Ask more questions!
  • Luxury is linked with eternity, which is linked with love.xi

If your fancy has been at all piqued by this list, I can’t recommend enough seeing the man in action on YouTube, especially his longer lectures to students. Even though he’s been fighting cancer for the last year or so, JCB’s energy is utterly infectious.
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  1. Hublot gets absolutely no love from watch aficionados/snobs but it’s starting to grow on me. It does a hell of lot of what Richard Mille does, just at a more accessibly price point. Too many limited editions ? Tu quoque RMistas! []
  2. While there are other manufacturers from other “states” competing against the Swiss, most notably the Japanese and German, it’s nothing short of remarkable how concentrated the high-end watch industry really is. Can you think of another global manufacturing industry so geographically concentrated ? Perhaps bitcoin mining in China… []
  3. Biver saw quite clearly and quite early on that the Swiss watchmaking industry had no choice but to pivot from its centuries-old obsession from rational timekeeping accuracy towards a new irrational form of art. []
  4. Y’know in case you want to hear advice from one of the many, many successful people in the world more qualified than yours truly. []
  5. Not that JCB is just an entrepreneur. He’s also a collector of fairly staggering and almost astounding accomplishment. Be sure to check out his Hodinkee Talking Watches episode. Only a true industry insider – and a massively successful one at that – could amass so many unique pieces of the most prestigious brand (Patek Philippe).  []
  6. Wake up earlier. Go to bed later. Take shorter lunches. Put in more hours than the competition. But don’t ask your people to work as hard as you can, only as hard as they can. Some of us can put in 20 hours days in perpetuity, others have the constitution for only 12. So by asking your people how much they’re able to give, you give them the respect they need to thrive creatively. []
  7. Find a grounded life partner who balances and supports you. Find business partners you trust unfailingly. If you can receive love, give love, and enjoy good health, you’re in paradise. []
  8. You will fail one day. Don’t be too egotistical not to learn from these mistakes. []
  9. Make a new mistake everyday, but never the same mistake twice. Even go so far as to reward mistakes in your organisation – with perhaps a few hundred dollars per mistake. Mistakes are the only way to grow. It’s impossible to succeed without failure. []
  10. The only way to get people to buy things counter-cyclically is to innovate and tell your story well. R&D and marketing are often the first budget lines to be trimmed in a recession, but these are the last that should actually be trimmed. Instead, hire fewer new people and have your current staff work more hours to compensate. []
  11. Good watches are high art, they connect us to the eternal. This fight against obsolescence – against death – is something that electronics cannot provide. Electronics cannot last as long as Big Ben. They are not indefinitely repairable. []