Ming Thein is one of the founders of MING, an independent horological brand based out of Kuala Lumpur. As well as its chief designer, he is also a commercial photographer and led another life in the corporate world.
1. Describe briefly your childhood?
It might sound strange, but it took me a large number of years to figure out where home was. I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; my parents emigrated to Australia before I was two; my father was an accountant, and mother a midwife – both are retired now. We moved around a bit because of my dad’s job – Melbourne, Wellington, then London. That’s the brief part – the more complex part is the childhood bit.
I was a handful and a problem child whose solution landed up being acceleration and academics; long story short, I finished high school at 12, started university at 13, and graduated from Oxford with a physics degree by the time I was 16. Most of it went in a blur and none of it was particularly fun. It was during the university period though that I got much more interested in design, engineering and watches in general – and as we all know, once you start doing a little research there before you spend your student allowance, you fall down the rabbit hole very, very quickly.
Before I knew it I was involved in a number of the early online fora, attending gatherings in people’s basements and drooling over watches I had no hope of (and still don’t have) affording. These people however were the start of something else – I was allowed to photograph the watches, and in a sort of way make them my own. The story branches out from there: on one hand, I took apart everything I could find and tried to design my own; on the other hand, I photographed everything that passed my way.
2. As a child did you have any driving ambition? What did you want to be?
Oddly enough, not really. (At this point my mother would probably remind me and everybody else in the room I wanted to be a truck driver.) I liked mechanical objects, figuring out how things worked, and I suppose too young to realize at the time – design. But nothing really took root until post-university-early-career when I realized corporate was absolutely not what it was cracked up to be. The front running candidates were either horology (at the time, nigh on impossible for me) or photography (not much easier, but at least still feasible).
My life has since come around in a large circle: physics/ engineering, photography and watches, corporate, photography of watches, photography of other things, making cameras, making watches, designing stuff…
3. What is your first significant memory as a child?
A brief flash of our old home in Kuala Lumpur; I must have been no more than 18 months. Oddly enough the next one doesn’t come until much, much later at about 3 or so, digging in a sandpit in kindergarten.
4. Have you ever had another profession? What did you do?
Several, actually. I started off in audit/accounting with one of the big four firms, because they’re the only people who would hire me out of university; I was too young to immediately join the sexy and lucrative options of banking and consulting like all of my classmates, though I did next land up in consulting back in Malaysia of all places. I made a lot of slides, discovered Malaysia still felt the most like home though I’d never lived there, and met my wife.
I then moved on through a series of finance and private equity jobs over the next few years, stopping every so often out of frustration and attempting professional photography – and failing. But after working for a really…strict MNC, I had to do something and eventually managed to make photography work.
Oddly enough I started out shooting watches for a lot of the big and small Swiss brands (and Speake-Marin at one point, too) – after calling in all of the contacts and favors I’d made in the early days of collecting and being involved in forums. This slowly transitioned to photographing other things – mainly now telling ‘the story of’ a company, project or product – as I’d found it was slowly killing my love of watches. It had always been clear to me that this was another transitional phase though – the professional photographic market is still going through a period of consolidation and change, and I’m simply based in the wrong country to be one of the long term survivors.
Six years after I moved to photography full time, I joined the advisory boards of Hasselblad and DJI, which is a role I still hold, in addition to a reduced amount of photography and a whole load more watch-related stuff. And I’m sure there will be other projects in the future – creativity works best when allowed to breathe, and you never know what falls out of there business-wise.
My collector friends and I started MING after a long discussion on a plane back from a watch fair in 2014; by that point access to suppliers and customers had become much more open thanks to the internet and in a way, the larger brands being a bit too ambitious with pricing. It has evolved through many forms, though fundamentally it boils down to this: we want to make watches that we’re enthusiastic about, and that we feel represent good value at their price point.
5. Who have you worked for in the past? What made you decide to go in the direction you are currently in.
In the watch industry, I consulted on design for a couple of brands (still under NDA) and photographed for a large number of others – but I’ve never worked as a watchmaker, or received any formal watchmaking or design training. In a way this liberates me from the weight of tradition, but also means that we make a lot of mistakes or do things the hard way; I suppose these are the ‘tuition fees’.
There are a few fundamental tenets to MING: design uniqueness but in a cohesive way, and not just for the sake of being different; horological integrity, as in prioritizing timekeeping, legibility and choosing the best technical solution; and lastly, value. Something might be cheap and useless and therefore poor value, or expensive but irreplaceable, and therefore good value. It is independent of price.
Everything is designed by me here in Kuala Lumpur, but manufactured for us to our specifications by our partners in Switzerland using the best technical solutions at our price point – with enough Swiss content to qualify for ‘Swiss Made’.
As a new brand, we have it doubly hard: more scrutiny, unknown brand equity and none of the experience or access the more established players have. We must therefore be 100% convicted and invested in our watches; integrity matters (which is one reason limited editions remain limited even if demand says otherwise) and we do not seek external (or crowd) funding.
6. What’s the worst job you’ve had to do?
I can’t answer this without getting myself into trouble or making some public enemies…let’s just say it’s a tie between something that was the complete opposite of creativity, and something ethically questionable.
7. What’s been the hardest moment in your life so far, and how did you overcome it?
Unquestionably, becoming a father. Still working on it; I’m open to suggestions and advice…
8. Who has had the strongest influence on you? What are your greatest inspirations?
My wife, Nadiah. We don’t pull punches and lucky enough to each be able to say what we really think, but know that whatever decision will be supported. She has a keen eye for design and materials, and the bonus magical ability of picking the most expensive object without needing to see the price tag.
As far as creative inspirations go – I’d say they can and do come from anywhere; design is a composition in three dimensions and something that’s often forgotten when addressing the challenge of watch. I think I probably pick up bits and pieces everywhere – painting, cinema, music, cars, architecture…but not much from watches or photography. I try not to look too much at the industry I’m in to avoid being constrained by its existing biases.
9. What are you most proud of?
It changes at any given point in time, but right now – the fact that we’ve survived the first year in business, broken even, made several watches that people really want, and have managed to make an impact in an incredibly (and increasingly so) competitive segment of the market.
On top of that, the fact that I’ve got an incredible operational team and investors that trust me; industry partners we know go the extra mile to make the watches are made to our expectations, and of course – a very enthusiastic customer base.
10. What advice would you give to a 20 something someone thinking of taking a similar path as you?
I actually have to ask myself that every day as there’s somebody on my team in precisely that position I’m training to be my successor! I don’t feel we ever have the answers ourselves; which makes the advice a moving target. Off the top of my head:
1. Don’t be afraid to ask the difficult questions, even if nobody else is.
2. Don’t be afraid to take risks, so long as you’re being objective about the probabilities and rewards.
3. Plan for the best, prepare for the worst.
4. Take everything you do and either double or halve it in the direction of conservativeness – and if the numbers still work, then go ahead.
5. Do not expect doing the same thing as everybody else will give you a significantly different outcome.
6. Perhaps the hardest bit: you can’t take it personally, but you have to take it personally to motivate yourself to go the extra mile. It’s therefore probably best if you ignore public opinion, or have somebody else to filter it for you.
11. Name three things on your bucket list.
1. Be able to put my name on a new complication, and have it commercially available.
2. Feel that the work-life scales are balanced.
3. Understand the hype about yellow gold and two tone watches…
12.Where do you think the industry is going to be in 10 years time.
I’m not sure anybody can predict where it’ll be in two or even five years; for instance, nobody saw Swatch Group pulling out of BaselWorld next year. A brave new world is opening up: as traditional brands go higher end, there’s this big space in the middle and low end that’s now ripe for the picking. But the consumers are information-rich (if perhaps still developing the wisdom of experience), media-savvy and not horological traditionalists. The main competition will undoubtedly be online, but the challenge lies in differentiating the experience for the buyer – nobody is deluding themselves anymore that a watch is anything other than a luxurious and self-indulgent purchase. We see the virtual land-grab already happening; but what’s missing is that the big players see this as a them-or-us type competition: it isn’t. Collectors buy many things; that’s the nature of collecting. It’s complimentary, not competitive, and that’s the bit that will keep the independents and smaller players in business and thriving. MT
To learn more about Ming www.ming.watch