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Watch company skates through cultural boundaries

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One of the most recognizable brands in the action sports industry began in 1997 with $50,000, a business plan and an idea to showcase a product the surf/skate/snow industry hadn’t really focused on before: watches.

Chad DiNenna and Andy Laats, the founders of Encinitas-based Nixon, spoke to business students at California State University, San Marcos on Wednesday in its “In the Executive’s Chair” class.

DiNenna was looking for a watch that fit his lifestyle: outdoorsy -- but not the type a hiker would wear; and sophisticated -- but not a timepiece you’d expect to see on your grandfather. The problem was that it didn’t seem like anyone was making what he was looking for.

It was then he had the idea: Why not make his own?

DiNenna, a communications major from California State University, Long Beach, did not know a lot about how to start a business, let alone how to make a watch. So, he contacted Laats, a mechanical engineer with a bachelor's degree from Cornell University who had worked at Burton, a snowboard company, and who was getting his MBA from Stanford.

After raising the initial $50,000 to refine their business plan, Laats and DiNenna raised an additional $950,000 to start up their company: Nixon.

According to Laats, the name was picked because “all the other good ones were already chosen.”

It had nothing to do with the 37th president of the United States, though Laats has said it didn’t hurt that older people didn’t like it.

Laats and DiNenna simply liked the way it sounded. Not to mention, Laats said, it was easy to pronounce in other languages.

Breaking cultural barriers has been something Laats and DiNenna have learned to do during their time at Nixon.

Aside from having to work with international manufacturers since its earlier stages, Billabong, an Australian action sports company, purchased Nixon in 2006 for $72 million.

Laats shared one anecdote about how important it is to understand cultural differences.

Once while working with a manufacturer in Hong Kong, Laats became confused after he approved a sample of a product and the manufacturer told him it hadn’t been approved. Laats insisted he was certain he approved it.

“The guy’s like ‘Oh, we didn’t approve it. … You said it was "sick." So we had to fix it; it was ill. It was not right,'" Laats said.

He added it is not a good idea to use slang when working with people from all over the world.

Despite the cultural differences between Nixon and companies it works with, DiNenna said the Nixon brand has kept its “mojo” even after Billabong acquired it. The only difference now is Nixon has a “big brother” to help when necessary.

When Professor Rajnandini "Raj" Pillai asked Mike, a five-year Nixon employee who visited the class, how he liked his job, he said: “Nixon is a great place to work. They’re not lying,” referring to Laats and DiNenna.

Laats and DiNenna attributed the success of the company to finding the right people.

“The people who are generally successful at Nixon are people who can come in and have fun, have a good time and at the same time know when to put their heads down, focus on the task at hand and work hard to get that job done,” DiNenna said.

When the job is done, however, the team celebrates with company outings to the racetrack or ballpark, surf days and snowboard and ski trips.

Related Video:

Interview with Chad DiNenna, Andy Laats of Nixon

Nixon co-founders talk action sports

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