If you said in the early 2000s that tech icon Kevin Rose would one day leave Silicon Valley behind, it’s likely few would agree wth you.
But in 2015 the Digg cofounder and former Google Ventures partner packed his bags to join luxury wristwatch enthusiast website Hodinkee, in what was seen as a peculiar move for someone so embedded in the Valley.
But it’s only odd if you know Rose by reputation — or by his investments in companies like Shyp, Twitter, and Square — and not personally.
Talk to Rose and you quickly realise it was more than just moving coasts and becoming CEO of someone else’s startup. It was getting away from the tech scene and all it represents, and grounding himself with a new, more mindful approach to work and life — one centered on an outdated technology instead of one that’s constantly advancing.
“There’s something very anti-tech and hipster about mechanical timepieces, a rejection of technology,” Rose told me on a recent visit to Hodinkee’s headquarters in the trendy Manhattan district of Soho. “I love that actually.”
Rose has worked on plenty of websites before. The subject matter, however — completely analogue luxury wristwatches — represents a 180-degree shift from what he has been doing for the past decade.
Though during our chat he was wearing a baseball cap (reminiscent of the one he wore on the 2004 BusinessWeek magazine cover that infamously launched him to tech stardom) it’s clear much has changed since then.
A new passion
Rose is a watch collector in his own right, becoming interested after he inherited a Rolex after his father’s passing. Rose originally kept the Rolex tucked away in a drawer, but he was drawn to it as a way to feel connected to his father, and he began to wear it on a regular basis.
From there, Rose fell down the watch nerd rabbit hole, collecting vintage and modern models alike, including Rolex, Audemars Piguet, and rare Japanese market Seikos.
“[I] started reading about the history of various makes and models,” Rose said. “Like the [Omega] Speedmaster was worn on the moon. That’s the coolest story ever. They used it to time and calculate burn times.”
Rose even launched a watch news aggregation app called Watchville through his app development lab, North Technologies, which itself closed down upon Rose’s move to New York. After Rose launched Watchville, he noticed that there was a lot of interest in watch-related content.
“Our readers were opening the app like 8 to 10 times a day — it was just insane,” Rose said. “It was like thousands of them that were doing that. This is an engaged audience like I’ve never seen.”
Rose says that excitement rubbed off on him, and in June of 2015 Watchville and Hodinkee merged. Rose brought over a small engineering team to complement Hodinkee’s existing editorial staff. Rose is now overseeing the entire operation from his position as CEO, partnering with Hodinkee founder Ben Clymer, who is now overseeing the editorial side. Hodinkee’s staff now totals 15.
About 1 million people visit Hodinkee a month, from seasoned collectors to watch-collecting neophytes looking to get started.
Rose has been in this position for a year and has overseen a four-times increase in revenue year-over-year, most of which came from the ecommerce-based Hodinkee shop. Users can choose from a curated selection of vintage watches, collaborations with new watches, luxury leather watch straps, and other accessories that might appeal to watch collectors.
Rose said he plans to offer more luxury goods for sale, turning Hodinkee into a shopping destination selling “lifestyle objects that watch collectors appreciate but aren’t necessarily tied to watches.”
It will be nothing digital, however.
A new attitude
No one could accuse Rose of being a technology sceptic, but he’s definitely wary of how much time he spends with consumer tech.
“Digital devices in general [are] just consuming more of our lives,” Rose said. “I need to find ways to break away from technology. I think that I want to start treating technology as a tool and dipping in for work. But then when I’m done with work, distancing myself from it if possible. [Mechanical watches are] just a reminder.”
Rose said he has a rule that he turns his phone off at dinner to minimise distraction. Rose also said he has ideas for apps to “gamify” avoiding using your phone, which may seem counterintuitive for the CEO of a digital publishing and ecommerce company.
But it’s not counterintuitive to Rose, who says being constantly plugged in can create “a lot of stress in your life.”
“I think that as with anything you just need to pace yourself and really not go over the top. And that’s the way I was in the Valley,” Rose said. “I wast just like constantly plugged into technology, and it really burnt me out.”
For the same reason, Rose says, he doesn’t wear an Apple Watch. He does, however, wear a slim Fitbit to track his movement and sleep data on his right wrist, as well as a classic timepiece on his left wrist.
Rose does see wearables growing in popularity in the future as battery life times improve, but this renewed enthusiasm for classic watches isn’t a fad either, he says.
“I am excited, and I think it’s a very positive thing that a new generation is growing up with something on their wrist,” Rose said, explaining his theory that if one gets used to wearing a gadget on their wrist, they may branch out to luxury watches once they develop the interest and income.
In this way, Rose doesn’t believe that wearables are a threat to the luxury watch industry — though companies selling analogue watches for between $150 and $200 should be “very concerned” since they don’t have the collectability factor to fight a smart watch’s utility.
In other words: Rolex is fine, but Timex should be worried.
A new city
Hodinkee was a fresh start, a chance to press the reset button and do something new that was the “best of both worlds” for the still tech-entrenched Rose.
“This is a way for me to embrace something mechanical,” Rose said.
New York was also a sort of “reboot” for Rose, who admits that he always dreamed of living in the Big Apple.
“The nice thing about being in New York is that no one is trying to pitch you their startup,” Rose told me, adding that he doesn’t mind not being approached by founders in coffee shops on a regular basis. Rose, for now, mostly stays away from New York’s tech scene.
Does he miss anything about the West Coast? “San Francisco has better produce, better food,” Rose admitted. “It’s been an adjustment.”
Rose was moving apartments the day I visited him in the office on his one-year anniversary of moving to New York. To the credit of his new mindfulness philosophy, he exhibited no signs of the stress typical of moving day.