HODINKEE Knows The Way.
How a Tumblr blog-turned-eCommerce business became the darling of Linear Commerce.
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The High Priest of Horology
I wonder what Ben Clymer was thinking when he pressed send on his first blog post.
It was 2008. He was crammed in a Manhattan cubicle, working as an analyst for a large bank. During a financial crisis (remember that?). With nothing to do in the office, he remembers his boss telling him…
“You can work on whatever you want.”
So, he did. He created blog, talking about something he loved dearly: W A T C H E S.
Given how we’re inundated with noise all over the internet, it feels strangely wholesome to think, at one point, there was someone who thought, “hey, I’m gonna start a blog and talk about watches!”
Turns out, other people like watches too. A LOT of people.
So, here we are 12 years later. HODINKEE just raised $40 million (a valuation over $100MM) from heavy hitters like LVMH, Tom Brady, The Chernin Group, and John Mayer.
Ben is the founder of HODINKEE, the destination for talking about, discovering, and copping coveted watchware. What started out as a simple Tumblr account has now cemented Ben’s place as the High Priest of Horology online.
HODINKEE averages 2.5-3 million site visitors per month, an 8-figure eCommerce business that sells out of watch releases like the Supreme store on Lafayette St., and a series of long-term investments that will only diversify the power HODINKEE possesses in the world of luxury goods.
Coming Full Circle
We’re still in the infancy stages of discovering where the internet can take us.
That said, we’re also witnessing the fruits of an entire era of online communities, blogs, and media outlets that started with humble beginnings, grew organically, and leveraged their audiences to launch products.
HODINKEE owns this game.
For all their success, though, it’s come with plenty of bumps and criticisms from the community it serves. Let’s dive deeper into their story and how they’ve managed to scale so well.
Blogs Becoming Businesses
Think about this…
Glossier was a vlog about makeup before it became a cosmetics brand.
Goop started as Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal newsletter, where she talked about her life.
Food52 began as a recipe blog before it ever sold dutch ovens.
And HODINKEE was once a Tumblr account. See what I mean?
Every great media brand that launched online began with a focus on something specific, only to scale and launch (wildly) successful with products later. It’s a natural progression.
Web Smith (from 2pm Inc) talks a lot about this topic. Web knows his stuff, so if you want a deeper education on Linear Commerce, smash that link above. But for now, here’s an illustration Web made that adds context to how brands come to launch products.
HODINKEE (and the others I listed above) falls into Version 5.
How They Built a Cult Following
HODINKEE is an OG in the world of blogs. Many wonder how they ever scaled their operation.
Here are a few things to consider:
Focus- They FOCUSED on ONE thing. Watches. And they did it really, really well. They didn’t get distracted and write about vintage cars, European architecture, or old wine.
Audience- Ben’s knowing for saying it was always about “…hitting the right people, not the most people.” For HODINKEE, that’s code for: rich people. Their average reader has ~$250k in household income, and lives in metropolitan areas. These are high-earning folks with disposable income.
Timing- Think about when they launched. There were few outlets to learn about quality timepieces in 2008. They paved the way for what an internet blog about watches could be. Couple that with the rise of social platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter, where discovery was at a premium in the early 2010s, and you get a much wider reach to more of those right people.
Messaging & Content- Two things here. First, they explain nuance of timepieces in simple ways. Whether you’re hobbiest or a connoisseur, there’s something for everyone who wants to learn more about watches. Second, they cultivated an aesthetic around watches. Every post, collab, and new release is strategic (more on this later). The HODINKEE vibe is real.
These factors enabled them to grow their business quick, eventually generating ad revenue from site traffic.
But in reality, when your high-intent-to-purchase audience is buying the very watches you write about in DROVES—while you’re making pennies—it ain’t a great business to scale.
Content —> Commerce
So in 2012, HODINKEE launched its first online store (using Shopify). And by 2016, they really went all in with a brand new, face-lifted online store.
What started as them selling wrist straps evolved into them becoming a licensed dealer, selling limited run timepieces, having a section for rare-finds from world travels, selling accessories for your timepieces, and even HODINKEE insurance for your personal collections.
It’s the right iteration on their original business model.
By 2018, things were booming for HODINKEE. It was the year of H10, their 10th anniversary. At that point, it felt like they could do no wrong.
And 65% of their revenue was coming from eCommerce.
Sixty. Five. Percent.
But again, the key for Ben was to always focus on “…hitting the right people, not the most people.”
They’ve done just that.
Taste-making & Partnerships.
Two more strengths worth pointing out:
The beauty of HODINKEE is that they’re not just a commentator, they’re a tastemaker. They’re not the PR News Wire for watches.
HODINKEE’s magic lies in being a tastemaker. They’ve groomed their audience to engage with this world they’ve built around watches.
They leverage the right partnerships.
Native branded content with Tudor
Designing with Monte Blanc and the monopusher
A limited run collab with John Mayer on the Casio G-Shock 6900
A pop-up with Omega…
HODINKEE knows how to leverage partnerships.
Bumps in the road.
HODINKEE’s meteoric rise to the top is impressive, but it hasn’t come without criticism.
They write about the very products they sell on their store.
So, naturally, you see negative feedback arise, which is inevitable with anything that scales.
You have your OG followers who accuse you of selling out. Streetwear legend, Bobby Hundreds, talks about this in his bestselling book, This is Not a T-Shirt.
The idea is that when you grow anything, you always disappoint someone.
You sold out. You don’t make things like you used to.
On and on.
Anonymous IG accounts have even bubbled up, like Hodonkee and Brodinkee, airing grievances and distaste in the form of memes and GIFs.
Some even find it hard to respect HODINKEE’s editorial credibility anymore.
Is a blog post really a blog post, or a (not-so) sneaky way of selling the latest release?
Just last summer, their COO (Eneuri Acosta) penned an “open letter” to the HODINKEE community, acknowledging loads of negative feedback they received after the release of their Travel Clock.
All of which raises an obvious question: when will we see the eCommerce team release a watch that the editorial team just ROASTS?
It’s a fine line to navigate, the need to both maintain editorial credibility by talking about watches as a thought-leader, while also needing to drive sales with the same time pieces you report about.
It comes with the territory. For any grievances or mishaps along the way, what HODINKEE has built for the world of luxury in 12 years is remarkable.
It’s a textbook example of how to do linear commerce the right way. As the internet evolves, we’ll see more media brands emulate this playbook.
Until then, the HODINKEE empire reigns supreme, with Ben as its High Priest.