Marking The Hour With Ming Thein, Founder Of Ming Watches

Marking The Hour With Ming Thein, Founder Of Ming Watches: The Secret Recipe For A Successful Microbrand

20 Dec 2023 |
clock icon5 min read
like image
comment icon image
like image
SUMMARIZEarrow down

Imagine the number of people who think that their passion for watches naturally translates into skillful watchmaking. Now consider the sheer reality that exists within this group - how few genuinely possess the craftsmanship and expertise to bring this imaginative aspiration to fruition.

For an industry where time is both a measure and a masterpiece, the journey of a microbrand, from humble beginnings to the zenith of success is a narrative of challenges, resilience and the relentless pursuit of craftsmanship.

For the determined and pretty sharpish Malaysian photographer Ming Thein, with a love for capturing timepieces, crafting his own watches certainly didn’t seem like an anticipated progression. Ming Thien resolved not only to embark on a personal venture but also successfully convinced five others to join him on this exhilarating roller coaster of an endeavor in 2017 with the launch of his eponymous brand.


We caught up with Ming Thein at Dubai Watch Week 2023 where he delved into the captivating story of his microbrand's evolution in a very conservative industry. Within the words that pen down this beautiful conservation, every expression stands as a testament to Ming’s undying passion.

THM: Tell us about Ming Watches - the inception and the evolution. 

Ming : We launched the brand in 2017. At that time, none of the conventional retailers wanted to showcase our watches. So, we called in favors worldwide from all our older friends in the media, from the days of internet forms, like the early 2000s. This way we got enough coverage to launch. I think we were fortunate in that it was also at the time when people were getting more comfortable with e-commerce and buying things online. So, we used that and we were able to sell more interesting, more expensive products as I guess the people’s comfort levels rose.


THM: What were the significant initial experiences and insights gained by you during the development and sales of the inaugural Ming watches?

Ming: We started off with a very affordable piece that tried to tick a lot of boxes for us in terms of everyday wear. It suited us in the horological context that we would like as well as the attention to detail that we would like. What we didn’t realize is that running this as a business is very difficult. There were a lot of things we didn’t take into account. At that point it was just about getting the watches made and then seeing where they fell. We didn’t realize that the QC issues, wastage, after-sales service, customer handling and logistics and many other things were basically not factored in the pricing of the original watch. Not to mention, in the 6 years that followed, even the cost of the base movements has more than doubled. So, everything has kind of exploded, both because of general interest and because of just the general inflation and cost of operations and all that kind of stuff.


THM: What was the core product placement strategy or philosophy for Ming?

Ming: We started off making watches because we thought there was a gap in the market. It was not in terms of a direct product but rather in terms of an idea. I think when the groups started collecting in the early 2000s or earlier, there was a sense of joy and sense of discovery that has been a little bit absent since. We wanted to try and bring that back.

So, when we wanted to bring that sense of surprise back, it's not something that you achieve by making the world’s most complicated watch. Of course, there’s a wow factor to it and we’d love to do that. Practically, not that many people can appreciate it and I think that sometimes that does feel a little bit isolationist for a lot of people.

We wanted to bring back things that I would say were at reasonable price points, for which at least the starting point was reasonable and that represented good value. But, value and pricing are independent, right? If somebody said we’ll legitimately sell you the Mona Lisa at $100 million, it’s probably good value, but it’s not cheap. Conversely, if somebody said I’m going to sell you this coarse thing out of China for $200, it’s cheap, but it’s not good value, because you never wear it and it’s probably not a particularly nice watch. So, we try to err on the side of value.


THM: How do you keep up with its obsession with product quality and value at the same time at Ming?

Ming: We do that in a couple of ways. We focus on using unconventional construction and design. So, sometimes that helps in terms of value because it allows us to do things a bit more efficiently. Sometimes it works against us, because it’s unconventional and the industry is quite conventional. So, they’ll come back to us and go, “you can’t do that”, or we’ll have to find a technical solution to do that. We also try to do a lot of development of new technology. So, for instance ceramic luminous material is something that we worked on a lot. It’s trickled down from our flagship pieces into our entry-level pieces. I think what we also want to try and do most importantly is, we need to make watches that we still like and that we are still happy with.

THM: In terms of the design, how do you keep your timepieces and designs relevant yet distinctive?

Ming: The whole thing is so subjective. You buy a watch to feel good and if you don’t feel good about it, then don’t buy it. If we’re going to make a watch, we better feel really good about it, because ultimately, it’s ok if you don’t like something we make. That’s fine, it’s personal. But if we’re trying to make something to make you happy and you don’t like it and we don’t really like it, that’s a bad product and an unsustainable business.

So, we recognise this whole thing is really quite egotistical. We’re not saying we’re the best, we’re not saying we are the most anything, but we do say we like our product. We make products that speak to us and I guess that has created a sort of very unique aesthetic both as a consequence of the design choices we make and as a consequence of the engineering choices we make.

Challenges of making the ultra-light watch
Challenges of making the ultra-light watch

All of that has evolved through, lets see we are near 62 or 63 different references. So, all of that has evolved and iterated. Now we're at a point where, yes, we have something quite distinctive and quite identifiable. We also run the risk of being too identifiable and too constrained. So, this is a challenge that I always have to balance. I don’t want to make something that you don’t know what you’re looking at. I also don’t want to make something that’s so unfamiliar and so new that you feel uncomfortable with it. And I don’t want to make something that’s so formulaic that you go like, it looks like the same thing again which you’ve done 20 times before. It gets harder. The more watches we do, the harder it gets.

THM: Now coming to the Swiss Watch Industry. Was it a challenge for you and did you ever consider even changing the name of the brand in that sense?

Ming: That’s very polite (laughs), it’s very polite. Well, I didn’t want it to be my name. But we tried a whole bunch of other stuff. I mean, they were either generic sounding or didn’t really resonate with anything. There’s no good reason for it. You know, we could have bought a defunct name and revived it. But that would have been, I think, a bit dishonest. And then the investors basically said, at the end of the day, you have to take responsibility for your children because you’re doing all the design work. Take responsibility for your children and that’s it. It turned out that we could get the trademarks, the domain names and all that kind of stuff without a struggle.

The mechanism behind MING Watches
The mechanism behind MING Watches

THM: So, was there a challenge to get into the industry with the name Ming? Also, was it challenging for you to convince people to work with you?

Ming: I think the name was more of a challenge to the buying public initially, not the industry. I think we were able to start participating in a time where they needed the business. It was a little bit quiet, like in 2014 and 2015, the industry was a little bit quiet. So, in that sense it wasn’t easy to convince people to work with us, because; (a) this had no track record, (b) it was like we don’t make any sense compared to the conventional way of launching a watch company, and (c) we were asking them to do stuff that they didn’t normally do or didn’t really want to do. Moreover, it was going to be expensive to figure out how to do it, so why should they do it.

I think that’s changed a little bit in the sense that now people realize that if we ask for something, usually there’s a good reason. The product comes out quite nice and it helps their business as well. They can showcase that they’ve done this before and they can have this as a product offering.


Are we in the industry? I don’t know, to be honest with you. It feels like there’s still very much a wall that we don’t see through. I’ll put it this way, if I was Swiss, I think it would be different. It would feel different. I mean whether I’m based here or based elsewhere, it's different. Because, from a business point of view, we are unconventional, right. We’re based in Malaysia, we have a Swiss operating entity, and next year we’re actually going to have a Swiss facility as well.

We’re starting a Swiss facility next year. We’re internalizing a lot more of the engineering as the final mile engineering and construction has to be done in Switzerland for that Swiss-made label. I’m currently doing that in Kuala Lumpur so we can’t actually have the Swiss Made label on our watches.

MING Watch Caseback

Marking The Hour With Ming Thein, Founder Of Ming WatchesTHM: You also saw lots of ups and downs like there were some alignment issues with one of the watches that came out. What can you tell us about that?

Ming: That was actually because we tried to develop our own movement modification. There was a very specific component that was slightly out of tolerance and also it turns out that shipping is not as careful as you would like them to be. Yeah, so some watches had issues and we rectified all of them. We found a solution and rectified all of that. We brought all of the defective watches back in full service. We covered the costs and extended the warranty as well.

I think these things happen to every brand but the question is how do you handle that going forward? You know, we just say, if it was our watch, what would you do or what would you want as a solution, right? Acknowledge it happens, find a solution that’s reliable and fixes it, and take care of everything as much as you can to the degree that we can. We also gave some sort of compensation like we offered everybody free straps and extended warranties. It’s like we think it’s fine, you know, if there’s any issues, we will take care of it.

THM: Social media is very ruthless in general and it was the same platform that helped you grow and also turned right against you. Your thoughts on digital media?

Ming: I think there are a lot of people passing judgment without having seen our products. This is one of the reasons why we’re trying to do more shows and everything. We wanted to do it early on but then Covid struck and we couldn’t travel. So, now we are belatedly starting that. I think people need to see the products and they need to meet us in person. I mean there is a degree of personal interaction that needs to happen.

I also think that social media in general has become more negative. It’s become more judgmental and more sensationalist. Unfortunately, whatever algorithms are powering post-promotion, I usually think the more sensationalist it is, the more it raises and people want something to go and bang their fists on and then it just keeps going. So, you know, it's tricky and stressful. But in reality, it is like we try to solve everything we can solve and some things are just out of our control.

In an extraordinary triumph, Ming Thein has overcome formidable odds. While the brand may not be poised to rival Rolex in the immediate future, Ming Thein has undeniably realized his vision of crafting a timepiece tailored for enthusiasts by enthusiasts.

It encapsulates every aspect he cherishes about the watchmaking passion, presenting it in a nuanced, invigorating manner and even exceeding expectations. Perhaps therein lies the secret for a successful microbrand.