The directions to Nixon are suspect–more turn-of-the-century wagon trail than 2002, when we drive vehicles hooked up to global-positioning satellites. Go past this stop sign. Turn by the brown building. Look for a red rail. There’s no huge blinking neon NIXON logo on the building–or any identifying marks, for that matter.

In fact, there’s no front door–I’m supposed to find the entrance around the back of a nondescript building, facing an alley and a wall. No address, either. “Just look for the double doors and the red rail,” I was told. I feel as if I’m using a pirate’s treasure map for directions as I peek around different buildings, looking for the rail that marks the spot. These are the offices of skateboarding’s premier watch company? Obviously they aren’t insecure about the size of their, um, watches, and feel that the size and design of their building must proportionately reflect their success.

Once I find the entrance, it’s like those spy movies where a complex secret operation is running like clockwork (whoa, bad pun) behind a bland facade. Twenty-five people man the 7,500-square-foot building (you don’t need a lot of space to store watches) with a ceiling that would be high enough for a small vert ramp. The interior is open–a patch of cubicles and the few offices have huge picture windows. Neither the offices nor the conference room have ceilings, just walls that end abruptly at around ten feet. Cramped or crowded are the last adjectives that come to mind. The style is a tidy combination of clean plain lines and a comfy just-moved-out-of-Ma’s-house feel. Wooden doors on filing cabinets act as desks, but instead of a grubby ghetto feel it creates more of an unpretentious remembering-our-roots atmosphere. Nixon was started just a few blocks away in one of the owners’ living rooms, after all. The Rocker And The Brain

At first glance, the two owners of Nixon couldn’t seem further apart. Andy Laats is a mechanical engineer and an alumnus of Stanford Business School. He’s a brainiac graduate who knows how to pronounce really big words and constantly rips witty jokes with layered meanings. Think Val Kilmer in the Real Genius movie. Chad DiNenna, with his choppy unkempt hair, big black leather watchband, and worn pants (really worn, not the 150-dollar off-the-rack Diesel ones) is like the student who would copy his homework off Laats. But his disarming smile and laissez-faire way of carrying himself offsets any biker/headbanger image. He’s the ear-to-the-street guy who follows his guts and doesn’t appear to spend too much time overanalyzing (I’m betting the doors-on-filing-cabinet idea was his). You get the sense that their goals are to make something cool, have some fun, keep tensions low, and contribute something back to the sports they dig. With the success of Nixon, they’re like kids in a candy store.

DiNenna and Laats’ ascent into success has been quick and straight up. Four years ago the company released seven models in their first catalog, its most recent one displayed 42. Anybody can make more models, but Nixon’s recent sales in 2001 were six times its 1998 numbers, and this past March the company shipped as many watches as it did the entire first year in business. DiNenna and Laats opened up a satellite office in France that acts as a European hub. Five people who like strong coffee and don’t use ice in their drinks tell Europe what time it is.

Laats and DiNenna openly credit part of Nixon’s success to their differences. When I ask if they ever argue or have opposing opinions, they both laugh and begin citing examples so quickly that they talk over each other. I can’t understand their tangled conversation. It seems that one of the reasons they work so well together is because they’re like bipolar brothers who get a weird kick out of how unalike they are. They have apples-and-oranges expertise and appear to want to disagree, because it forces them to see the arment from different angles. When they put these differences together it forms a more complete package.

Nixon Who?

Back in 1997, DiNenna was a successful sales executive at TransWorld SNOWboarding. He’d made some cash and decided to treat himself to a watch. But once he started looking, he found little that met his expectations. There were the expensive watches and cheap ones, but not ones that looked like what he wanted to wear. He mused over the idea of starting a watch company to meet his needs–something that fit into the snow and skate look. He says the fact that he knew nothing about the watch business or even how to design them never gave him pause.

He tossed the idea around and was pointed in the direction of Laats, whom he knew on a casual basis. Laats had quit working as the product manager at Burton and was studying business at Stanford. He dug the idea and both agreed–even though Laats also had zero watch experience–that they should start brainstorming. One of the positive aspects Laats attributes to matriculating at the big S is that he could bounce around the idea of a watch company like Nixon (one of the original names was “Clock”) off his classmates and professors. With the help of some investors, they huddled down and began designing watches, sketching ideas, and picking a skate and snowboard dream team in Laats’ living room.

For The People By The People

Nixon was started as a company that made watches for skaters. There had been watch companies that tried to market to skaters before, but never one aimed solely at skaters and snowboarders. This confused many people, and a haze of mystery clouded the company before any watches were released. All anybody knew was that they had a tight team with Danny Way, Kareem Campbell, and Caine Gayle. Four months later they added Colin McKay, Bob Burnquist, and Rick McCrank. Did the skaters design the watches? Were they part owners? Were they just paid buckets to be mannequins? Forget the team, how was a company to survive making only watches? You needed skate shoes. You needed skate clothes. Did you really need a skate watch?

Laats agrees: “We’re parsley on a plate of meat and potatoes compared to shoes and apparel.” But this is where Nixon seems comfortable. They realize that they aren’t going to be industry leaders by selling watches and appear comfortable being the low-key, niche guys who stoke people out with an ‘accessory.’ They purposely didn’t jump into the mainstream watch waters because they were both familiar with skateboarding and snowboarding, and it felt safer to stay there. “The textbook answer is that you always want to reduce as much risk as you possible can,” says Laats.

Even with the combination of DiNenna’s street smarts and Laats’ business-school experience at the wheel, Nixon hit some potholes early on. Once they got into a few stores, they realized their first mistake with packaging. “The box had a little flexible plastic window that was intended to let you clearly see the watch inside the box,” Laats recalls. “The idea was to have a box that could be used for both shipping and merchandising and go from one to the other in a single step. The clear flexible plastic ended up not so clear or flexible, and it was tough to see the watches inside the box. Plus, the watches bounced around a little inside the boxes during shipping so they were crooked when merchandised.”

Nixon listened to the retailers and immediately redesigned their watch boxes. “We started from scratch with custom tooled cuffs, information cards, and hefty boxes,” Laats says. “We noticed an immediate improvement in sell-through when we finally got the watches out of the box and more in your face.” Even with the minor misstep at the start, shops loved them because if you’re talking profit per square inch, it’s tough to beat a watch. Not to mention that skate rats love almost anything that distinguishes them from non-skaters, and Nixon watches, which are difficult to find outside of skate/surf/snowboarding shops, looked unlike most watches. Laats and DiNenna have turned down requests by chain watch shops to carry Nixon but will sell in certain boutiques.

They learned a lot from making their first run of watches look different. “How new is new?” Laats asks. “People are going to say, ‘I’d rock that because it’s new.’ But then you might be, ‘Aw, that thing’s lame because it’s so new. It’s so different.’ These (Rover) were too different.” He points to a picture in Nixon’s first catalog of the first Rover with an odd yellow knob on the side. But the glass is half full at Nixon, or as we’ll get to later, the can of Bud is half full, and they learned from the misstep. Laats says they sometimes think, “We’ve never done this before, let’s try it. Some make sense for a little bit of time, some for a long time. Like the Don (model).”‘

I get a slightly hippie answer when I ask them what triggers inspiration for designs. “(We) pick a mood and go from there,” Laats replies. “The Powerslave is the perfect example. It seemed like the watch we’d wear if we had normal jobs. The guy who says ‘Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir.’ It was a fun one.”

They also occasionally add hidden treats. “Some watches were engraved with different messages,” DiNenna says. “You didn’t know until you bought it.”

Another major influence on design is the team. For a company that started four years ago, its pro skate team has changed very little (it hasn’t added any pro after McCrank but flow a ton of ams around the country). Nixon’s picky about its team because it relies on them for input. The company encourages all riders to drop by and throw their two bits in. Says DiNenna, “The benefit of those guys (the team) giving a shit about us, about the brand, is that they can come in and change something.”

“Their (the team) individual personalities and characters are a huge influence on Nixon,” Laats is quoted on Nixon’s Web site. “We build products specifically for them, instead of relying on outside trends and fashion.”

Business Comfort

Laats and DiNenna appear cautious about letting Nixon out of the skate/surf/snow bag, and you get the sense from how they talk about it that certain boutique deals (Spiegel, for example) were mulled over for more than a few minutes. We’ve all seen companies try to go mainstream and explode, and these two seem wary of that. Their office and attitudes don’t stink of corporate greed, and for businessmen they seem oddly satisfied. Nobody’s reading The Art Of War at Nixon. They still want to make better watches, but that focus hasn’t changed from their original idea. “We’re pretty much doing the same thing now that we did back then,” says Laats. “We were lucky that what we decided to do back then was good enough to sustain what we’re doing now.”

When I ask how they stay relaxed and still listen to their team, resisting the temptations of making decisions based on building the bank account, DiNenna walks over to the mini fridge and jokingly takes out a Budweiser: “This is how we relax.”

Their attitudes seem more geared toward being comfortable and running a successful company. In that order. Nixon has moved to larger warehouses three different times, but hasn’t ventured out of an area roughly one square mile. “There’re twenty different places to have lunch,” says DiNenna. “You want to go skate? There’s a bowl up the street. One of the things that was important to us was to create an environment that we’d be happy with, as well as everybody else here with us.”

It does appear to be a happy environment. Once you find it, that is. I do have a suggestion, though, for a future Nixon watch–one with a compass, or a GPS, even if it’s just a novelty knockoff that they give to people visiting the office for the first time. Nixon watches, which are difficult to find outside of skate/surf/snowboarding shops, looked unlike most watches. Laats and DiNenna have turned down requests by chain watch shops to carry Nixon but will sell in certain boutiques.

They learned a lot from making their first run of watches look different. “How new is new?” Laats asks. “People are going to say, ‘I’d rock that because it’s new.’ But then you might be, ‘Aw, that thing’s lame because it’s so new. It’s so different.’ These (Rover) were too different.” He points to a picture in Nixon’s first catalog of the first Rover with an odd yellow knob on the side. But the glass is half full at Nixon, or as we’ll get to later, the can of Bud is half full, and they learned from the misstep. Laats says they sometimes think, “We’ve never done this before, let’s try it. Some make sense for a little bit of time, some for a long time. Like the Don (model).”‘

I get a slightly hippie answer when I ask them what triggers inspiration for designs. “(We) pick a mood and go from there,” Laats replies. “The Powerslave is the perfect example. It seemed like the watch we’d wear if we had normal jobs. The guy who says ‘Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir.’ It was a fun one.”

They also occasionally add hidden treats. “Some watches were engraved with different messages,” DiNenna says. “You didn’t know until you bought it.”

Another major influence on design is the team. For a company that started four years ago, its pro skate team has changed very little (it hasn’t added any pro after McCrank but flow a ton of ams around the country). Nixon’s picky about its team because it relies on them for input. The company encourages all riders to drop by and throw their two bits in. Says DiNenna, “The benefit of those guys (the team) giving a shit about us, about the brand, is that they can come in and change something.”

“Their (the team) individual personalities and characters are a huge influence on Nixon,” Laats is quoted on Nixon’s Web site. “We build products specifically for them, instead of relying on outside trends and fashion.”

Business Comfort

Laats and DiNenna appear cautious about letting Nixon out of the skate/surf/snow bag, and you get the sense from how they talk about it that certain boutique deals (Spiegel, for example) were mulled over for more than a few minutes. We’ve all seen companies try to go mainstream and explode, and these two seem wary of that. Their office and attitudes don’t stink of corporate greed, and for businessmen they seem oddly satisfied. Nobody’s reading The Art Of War at Nixon. They still want to make better watches, but that focus hasn’t changed from their original idea. “We’re pretty much doing the same thing now that we did back then,” says Laats. “We were lucky that what we decided to do back then was good enough to sustain what we’re doing now.”

When I ask how they stay relaxed and still listen to their team, resisting the temptations of making decisions based on building the bank account, DiNenna walks over to the mini fridge and jokingly takes out a Budweiser: “This is how we relax.”

Their attitudes seem more geared toward being comfortable and running a successful company. In that order. Nixon has moved to larger warehouses three different times, but hasn’t ventured out of an area roughly one square mile. “There’re twenty different places to have lunch,” says DiNenna. “You want to go skate? There’s a bowl up the street. One of the things that was important to us was to create an environment that we’d be happy with, as well as everybody else here with us.”

It does appear to be a happy environment. Once you find it, that is. I do have a suggestion, though, for a future Nixon watch–one with a compass, or a GPS, even if it’s just a novelty knockoff that they give to people visiting the office for the first time.