Derek Koss is the founder and president of Time After Time, a Philadelphia-based watch retail and repair company and franchise concept. Koss launched Time After Time in 1992 at age 19 and has since overseen the growth of the brand to 20 company-owned outlets that operate in shopping malls across Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Tell me about your early career.
There wasn’t one. I started Time After Time when I was 19 years old. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit working on my own throughout my high school years, so most people weren’t surprised when I went into business for myself.
How did the concept for Time After Time come about?
We were college kids looking to make a few quick bucks during the holiday season so we started selling $10 watches on a mall cart. It was a temporary business, just to get through the holidays, but we learned there was this huge need for watch repair services. Nearly every one of our customers asked if we did repairs (which at the time we didn’t offer), so we started thinking about expanding.
Not long after, we secured the rights to sell some of the most popular watch brands, which put a little more money in our pockets and allowed us to add more carts and eventually, a permanent kiosk. As soon as the kiosk was up and running, we started working on the highly successful repair business. About a year after, I opened my first in-line store, and we’ve never looked back. We’re now operating 20 corporate locations and recently launched a franchise program for qualified investors.
How was the first year in business?
The business went through a few stages during that first year, in part because of how young I was. Back then, there was much less pressure. If things didn’t work out, oh well, I had plenty to look forward to. Toward the end of that first year when we started adding more carts, adding a kiosk and eventually expanding into an in-line store, that’s when I really started to believe that this was my future. At that point, the pressure kicked in and we did what was necessary to make it successful. It’s turned out pretty well for us.
What was your marketing strategy?
In the beginning, when we had no marketing budget, the strategy was simple: Provide great service to every single customer and make yourself available, no matter what. Being that we are a mall-based operation, my motto back then was “Be the mayor of your mall,” basically make yourself known by everyone in the mall, employees, and customers alike.
Now that we have a significant marketing budget we’ve implemented all the traditional marketing routes from television to billboards to in-mall marketing and I’ve realized the “Be the mayor of your mall” is an irreplaceable strategy. I can spend $10 million in marketing to get people into the mall, but if you’re not a known entity it makes no difference. People need to know where to find you and know that you will provide the best service possible.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The first couple of years went pretty quickly with not much growth, in part because we were young and weren’t really seeking that big growth. Over the next 18-month period, in about year three of business, we went from the watchcart, to multiple carts, to a kiosk, to an in-line store, to eventually expanding to another outside location. We doubled in size. That growth strategy of perfecting our product line and our services, getting to know our customers, becoming the true experts that we are, then opening a few locations at a time has really worked for us.
How do you define success?
There are a variety of ways to define success, and a lot of different successes a person can experience in life. For instance, I have three kids and a beautiful family, that is a success to me. But, when it comes to my business, our ability to stay relevant and have longevity for 25-plus years makes me feel more successful than any amount of money could. That’s especially the case when I think about how we started this business and where it is today.
What is the key to success?
I don’t think it’s much different than how I define success, staying relevant and holding a place in your particular industry. But, I think another key to being and feeling successful is maintaining your passion for what you do. I’ve made money in business through real estate development and other business partnerships, but I feel the most successful to still be passionate about where I’ve taken Time After Time the last 25 years. That’s the key.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
There’s been 1,000s of them. I feel like I learn something new every day. The ones that stick are the lessons I learn about people. Between working in customer service and being the boss of hundreds of employees, there are really important lessons to learn about how people react to different scenarios. The key in understanding is listening. You can learn everything you need to know about a person by opening both ears and closing your mouth.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“If it’s important to you, you will find a way. If it’s not, you will find an excuse.”
You can make an excuse for anything and everything, and I really don’t like living that way. If something doesn’t get done, it’s easy to make an excuse and justify it to yourself, but if it’s important to you then you find a way to get it done.
What are some of your favorite books?
I’ve never really been a big reader. My inspiration doesn’t come from fictional people or self-help gurus. I’m inspired by the single mother who works two jobs to support her family; by the immigrant business owner who sweeps his stoop every morning, no matter what. Those are the things that inspire me.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
There’s not one day that sticks out because every day presents its own challenges. But the beauty of it all is that every day is a fresh start. The problem yesterday isn’t the problem today. Business is very much like life. Sometimes, you have good days and other times you face some challenges. It’s how you respond that determines your future success.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I’m driven forward by the motivation and passion that I have for this business. Just like anything in life, when you have a bad day, you find inspiration within yourself to keep moving forward. As long as you still have that drive, you’ll always find a way.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
While it’s not mine specifically, I think Nike’s slogan “Just Do It!” is a great piece of advice. Back when I was 30 and my employees were 20 and younger, I’d always say to them ‘now is the time for you to take chances.’ The same should be applied to young entrepreneurs.
Don’t be irresponsible and just dive into something, but don’t set limitations for yourself, either. When you’re young, you have the opportunity to try, fail, but still find a way out of it. Once you’re older and more established, it’s harder to make those mistakes. That’s what I love about the franchise system: I’ve already made the mistakes in my business so that you don’t have to.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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