Have you ever wondered how the world decided that the clock should move from left to right? How was this direction decided as clock-wise?
Izham Fitri Ismail is the proud CEO of MEM watches (pronounced meem). Starting with a diploma in accountancy, and then a Bachelor‘s in Economics, it’s quite surprising to learn how he went delved into product design, running a business in the anti-clockwise clock and watches market.
“I started dabbling in business since 19. I started to sell USBs that can connect your computer to TV channels all around the world. I used to supply them from India and sell it through Ali Baba. I would make up to $RM 50,000 per shipment.”
The headquarters of MEM is tucked away in Sri Kembangan, an industrial park in Selangor, Malaysia. With a t-shirt and jeans on, wearing an Ocean MEM on his right wrist, Zilzar Life team sat down to ask him about his business.
Anti-Clockwise Is The Natural Way
It started with a discussion with Izham’s friends at university regarding the movement of time and clocks. They asked simple questions but itstirred his young mind- who decided that time moved that way- from left to right? Who decided that left to right is the way clocks are supposed to move?
Leaving the discussion, he did more research into the movement of time and the movement of the earth and found out that in nature, things moved from right to left.
He found out that many things in nature moved this way- our blood circulation, the earth’s movement. He reasoned out that this is why the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), does good things, like eating, with his right hand.
Reverse Time From History
Up till today, even the Jews and Bolivians wear their clocks counter-clockwise. In Prague’s former Jewish ghetto, the Jewish Town Hall clock tower made in 1764 by Sebastian Landesberger, clockmaker to the royal court, has Hebrew letters and its hands move counterclockwise. (Read Counterclockwise by Rabbi Harlan J. Wechsler)
In a anti-colonialist move, Bolivia’s congress has altered its clocks to turn anti-clockwise. Bolivian’s foreign minister David Choquehuanca told the BBC that the change was made to get Bolivians to treasure their heritage and show them that they could question established norms, think creatively, and live consciously. It was an especially significant move expressing a “de-cololonization of the people” under President Evo Morales, who became the country’s first indigenous president when he won office in 2005.
We dug deeper and found that even Russia, with its conservative Soviet watch industry produced anti-watches—clocks and watches with reverse motion like this Raketa watch.
Inspired by nature and history, Izham chose to delve into the anti-clockwise watches. However it took some years before he found the right formula.
His first foray into anti-clockwise was D.U.C.T.- in 2009. However problems started appearing because of lack of marketing experience, and lack of Standard of Procedures. Due to these issues, he jumped to another company with different partners- Hijra Timepiece in 2012. Everything was good at the beginning until he had a strong disagreement with the founding people in terms of marketing. His idea was to go global and sell the watches not only to the Muslim market but also to the non-Muslims because watches and time are not related exclusively to Islam. Hijra Timepiece’s brand was on ‘The Tawaf Movement’ and wanted to focus its target market only to Muslims.
“I had ideas but in order to present them, I need a designer, which is why I called Khairul Aqmal, because I know I’m not good in design. So he came up with a unified concept which lead to the design of the logo, the brand, and the marketing on social media.”
“Everyone wears watches, it does not represent a religion,” he said. Marketing such anti-clockwise watches that way would only appeal to Muslims who identify with such values. Even among Muslims, there are not many who will like to display those kind of values so obviously so it is limits the market potential of the watch.
Although Hijra Timepiece was successful, having made RM $1.2 million in sales, because of a difference in opinions, Izham left to start his own brand of anti-clockwise watches calling it MEM targeting those who dare to be different, who question the way things work. The MEM brand focuses on embracing new ideas and not being afraid of change. Further proof that his brand hits a chord with consumers who shares this value? Since the day MEM started, they have made RM$42 million in sales.
MEM is for those willing to question the norm.
MEM is Izham personified. His values are built into each watch that is produced so that each MEM watch reflects and reminds the wearer to be brave and question the norm.
“I keep telling people that the counter-clockwise watch market is new, and it has a bright future. I want people to take more risks. Those from the developed world are willing to take risks, that is why they are able to innovate and be richer and richer. Those from less developed countries are afraid to do that and comfortable with their station in life.”
We had a quick chat to learn more about Izham as a founder of the MEM watches.
The MEM logo is the Arabic letter م and looks like the hand for the clock. Is there a story behind the logo?
It was designed by one of the co-founders. He is the designer of the logo. The logo is the alphabet of meem, we go for a minimal look, representing class, executive look, that’s what we choose that design.
Why did you choose to make the Arabic numerals?
We read the Arabic language from right to left, so it fits the counter-clockwise movement. But we have designs in the metric numbers too.
Tell us how do you decide when to start a new collection and how does the process go from design to production to finding the materials?
The first thing we need to know is the current trends in fashion. Right now it’s minimal. Other features are something like Daniel Washington classic style. We track and follow the trends. So our first priority is focusing our message of being different, second priority is being up-to-date on the fashion trends.
You are going against the grain in making this product, how was your struggle like introducing the product to the market?
Everything was difficult in the beginning. We started selling at pasar malam (night markets), to spread awareness to the market. It was very hard to find the materials, the machinations, and a factory that would accept to assemble this kind of low demand watches.
So, where is it assembled?
It’s assembled in Shenzhen and the movement is from Citizen. We have a minimum order quantity from the factory and we need to sell them at the current demand. In the past we couldn’t even sell 500 watches in a month, we only sold 3 per day.
Since the pasar malam days, there are more demand. We have 104 distributors around Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. So these followers know the hardship we faced wince 2009. They are loyal not to the brand but to the team itself.
The distributors buy the watches in bulks and may have their own stores or they supply to other stores. These people have spent their time working hard on the marketing for this brand because they believed in the idea of clocks being clock-wise following the natural order of the world.
Did you face any other challenges?
Yes, on the production side, it takes 60 days to make one batch of 500 watches. If we do not calculate and plan the process properly, then we will suffer from two months of loss in sales.
It is a challenge for almost all entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs need support in the early stages. And the people who support you end up to be your family and friends. But they would want your help sometime down the road, so being professional at that point can be very hard.
How many people are behind MEM?
MEM started in 2014 with only three people, me, Khairul the designer, and the administrator Nazmi. Since then, we have 15 staff in different departments- operations, tracking, accountant and marketing.
What is the culture of MEM like?
Almost everyone in the office is from generation Y. I myself am 26 years old (We gasped at this point of time not believing how young Izham was). The people we hire are all friends of friends. We are all like friends and buddies but when it comes to work, it’s business and professionality first. This took some time to get used to, but they do look to me as a leader.
How do you choose the people who are working with you?
I have a difficult time choosing staff. The main quality they should have is loyalty. Other skills can be taught, but not loyalty.
Loyalty is not an obvious quality, how do you assess for it then?
80% of the directors are my friends. The higher management has six directors who are friends, the others are their friends. The lower staff I give responsibility to the directors to hire.
To deal with them in a professional way by keeping the friendship aside, while working with them, you need to learn some politics. You need to learn how to shut your mouth, and listen first to every argument and complain and you need to be patient. You should not point a figure at someone if that person is right or wrong, you just need to find a way to analyze and solve the issue and work together. Blaming doesn’t lead to anywhere. As a team leader, they expect you to solve their problems.
So over time you grow as a person, learning how to handle personalities. Where do you go when you need help?
Normally I ask professionals in the market for some advice. Mentorship is very important to guide you throughout your business, I never knew how to run or manage a business but I have to learn all that. I have to ask how to run a proper meeting, and my mentors teach me not to have so much tension during one, but have more comedy.
I have been working part time with my mentor since the time he started with nothing and now he became very rich businessman. He used to sell kueh (malay cakes) at Pasa Malam, then he worked in a factory and then the government with a salary of only 900 and then he started a business, gold trading business. I worked with him as a runner, to go buy the gold from the customers. The trading skills my mentor had was very good because every time he invest in something, there must be a return. And that is what I have learned from him.
Where do you go to find inspiration?
By travelling. There are two places I would like to go to- Japan because of the culture, India because of the nature and New York because of the different culture.
I do not have much time to travel around and that is why I want to open my stores in different cities around the world so I can travel everywhere. I was working throughout my university life to pay for my fees, if it’s not for my business I would not be able to finish my study.
What are your future hopes for MEM?
I want the brand to go worldwide. Next year, we plan to open a store in UK and Europe. We also want to open in Japan, New Zealand, US, UK and Canada. Currently, we are undergoing a discussion with a Swiss movement company who wants to produce watches for us using our brand.
What advice you would like to give those new youth who are starting their own business?
I have tried to develop a person who can be like me, but I failed because the new generation get tired very fast, get frustrated and they are not strong because they are afraid to make changes, afraid to take risks. If someoene want to be an entrepreneur then that person must know that its not always a straight line, there are the ups and downs, minor accidents could happen and other things. Therefore, they need to be mentally tough to handle such situations.
Allright, that’s a wrap! Thank you so much for your time Izham. May your business continue to be successful!
For more understanding of how colonialism and post-colonialism ideologies are embedded into time, watch this interesting video below.