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When the first COVID lockdowns hit in 2020, Nico Leonard sold almost all of his watches just to put two months’ worth of payroll in the bank.
That was it. Two months of payroll for the employees who kept his beloved watch shop, Pride & Pinion, running at its then brand-new location in Belfast’s Merchant Hotel.
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“We were on the verge of bankruptcy,” Leonard tells Tubefilter. “That shop nearly cost everything I had.”
Opening Pride & Pinion was the culmination of a dream. The opportunity for Leonard to stop working jobs he hated and start a business doing what he truly loved–selling and repairing high-end watches. He’d been happy to invest all his savings (plus a business loan) into getting the shop going. But just after it opened, COVID brought foot traffic to a dead standstill. Suddenly there was no way to recoup his massive investment–and no way to keep Pride & Pinion afloat financially.
Or so he thought.
It was two “very clever guys” he knew who pushed him toward YouTube. They “basically nagged me for three months,” and “at a certain point, I didn’t have any option anymore,” he says. “Little did we know that one idea I didn’t believe in turned out to be the idea to save me and my company.”
Perhaps a big part of that success is Leonard’s content strategy. When he finally gave in and agreed to try YouTube, he stuck to what they knew best: watches. From his very first video, Leonard zeroed in on using his professional knowledge to make content. He reviewed watches, he commented on new innovations in the industry, and–this is crucial–he started reacting to celebrities’ watch collections.
It was his reaction videos that really propelled his channel, and within months, he says, he had long-established creators like Peter McKinnon reaching out to him. He began collaborating with them, and by this time had reached around 15,000 subscribers–a sizable enough number that he finally started to believe that YouTube could actually be a boon for his business. He decided to double down and try hitting 100,000 subscribers.
Now? He’s at over 1.2 million.
Even more importantly, though, he’s also been able to keep Pride & Pinion open. The revenue brought in by his digital presence was enough to float the shop until traffic returned to the Merchant Hotel.
These days, Leonard is balancing his time between running Pride & Pinion and making content–both full-time endeavours, and neither of which he’s willing to give up anytime soon.
Check out our chat with him below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tubefilter: I’d love to start with background for anybody maybe who’s reading this and hasn’t seen any of your content. Can you give me a little bit of background about you and where you’re from and how you got into watches?
Nico Leonard: Aye. From a very young age, I’ve always been obsessed with watches. At the start of basically around 13-14 years old, I was trying to take things apart, basically, despite my parents absolutely hating me for it. [laughs] Of course, their watches were my first projects.
Nico Leonard: Exactly! And of course, you can take something apart, that’s not really the difficult part. The difficult part is getting it back together, and definitely if there’s an expensive watch, it’s very nice. But no, it started at a young age, but never did I think that it would be possible for me to make a career out of it due to the fact it’s very, very capital-intensive, if you know what I mean. Basically, at a later age, at the age of say, 28, I started repairing watches for people, and it was a bit of a side hustle. At the age of 29, I started my business, Pride & Pinion, and we’re now the biggest retailer of watches on the island of Ireland, or one of the biggest in the U.K.
Tubefilter: That’s very cool. Congratulations.
Nico Leonard: Thank you.
Tubefilter: Tell me a little bit about starting that business. You said you were hesitant because it was capital-intensive. What was the process of committing to starting a business like?
Nico Leonard: To give you an idea, I don’t really come from a background where money was normal. If you want to sell watches like Rolex, etcetera, with the price of one Rolex, you can buy 100 Casios, for example. There’s a bit of a difference, if you know what I mean.
For me, starting my business was trying to find happiness again. I was at a dead-end sales job, life wasn’t really as I thought it would be, and I needed change. I needed to do what I love the most. I just looked at the things that I love the most and that was watches. I’ve already been in the industry prior to me starting my own business, prior to me quitting my dead-end sales job.
I got a small loan of €20,000 and I saved up a few, I think, about €6,000-€7,000. With €27,000, I started my business. I started an Instagram account and started selling watches out the boot of my car basically, and trying to talk about the industry via social media, via Instagram.
Tubefilter: When did Instagram expand to YouTube?
Nico Leonard: YouTube saved my life, to be honest. YouTube genuinely saved my life. That’s a quote for you. We were on the verge of bankruptcy and I’m not even joking. When COVID hit, I’d just opened my shop in a five-star hotel. That shop nearly cost everything I had. Then COVID hit and I had to sell approximately…It was about between 50% and 70% of the watches that I built up throughout the years. I needed to sell at a loss to get capital, so I could pay my staff for a couple of months.
Other than that, I was just there waiting for everything to open up again, and then it didn’t open up. Luckily, in the UK, furlough was announced. To be honest, I sold about– Like I said, between 50 and 70% of what I’ve built and I made that liquid, I sold the watches. A week later furlough was announced, which meant that I didn’t have to do that, because all of a sudden my staff was being paid by the government.
Tubefilter: That’s wild. How did YouTube help move you out of near bankruptcy?
Nico Leonard: I never really wanted to do YouTube in the beginning. I said no for three months at least, where I had two very clever YouTube guys that said, “No, you need to do this.” It was an agency, two young guys. “You need to do this.” Then whenever the doors were closing of the hotel…The hospitality was the first one to close. Because my premises was in a hotel, I didn’t get any other government support other than a furlough.
We had to, basically, due to COVID, close our doors. I was like, “How do I ever sell a watch again?” My website wasn’t good enough, and how do I even get people to the website? The two boys that started the channel with me basically nagged me for three months. At a certain point, I didn’t have any option anymore. Little do we know now is that, that one idea I didn’t believe in turned out to be the idea to take me and my company. That’s bizarre.
Tubefilter: But very fortunate.
Nico Leonard: Aye. Now YouTube is a company on its own, obviously, but the aim was always that it supports the business. We get more customers in to buy watches from us and people would know the name of my company. That’s why we started the channel with the name Pride & Pinion rather than Nico Leonard.
I actually have two YouTube plaques, one with Pride & Pinion, my company name, and one when we changed it at 110,000 subscribers to Nico Leonard. That’s funny. It was just to support the business and now, today, it still supports the business revenue-wise, obviously. It brought us into the position where we are now, one of the biggest watch trading companies in the U.K., the biggest on the island of Ireland by a mile. It allows us all, as well, to become authorized dealers of certain brands.
For me, becoming that person within the industry, it allowed me to become a personality, or a proper person with influence.
Tubefilter: You were not super sold on the whole YouTube thing. Once you joined, then you started making videos, was there a point where you were like, “Whoa, this could be a thing?” Was there a video that took off?
Nico Leonard: Yes. There was a video when all of a sudden big YouTubers, including Peter McKinnon, started reaching out like, “Well, I loved your stuff.” I’m like, “How is that even possible? How is that possible, someone like that reaches out to me?” You see what I mean?
Then, to be completely honest, reading the comments. My editor always says, “Never read the comments,” because sometimes there are nasty comments and stuff like that, which is part of the game, right? You put yourself out there. On the other hand, it gave me a lot of confidence because I saw so many cool comments and it’s like endorphins. You see something, people are nice or people saying cool stuff, and that gives you confidence, and then you want more of it.
When we hit, I think, 15,000 subscribers, I looked at the team and said, “Okay, can we actually hit 100,000 subscribers? Can we do that?” Then everyone independently said, “Yes, 100%.” The funny bit is, I went to Dubai when we just hit 100,000 subscribers, to do a video with a big, big content creator, right? Like on Facebook alone, they have 10 million. The fact that we were able to do a video with that person, that was unbelievable. Unfortunately, I was the one that pulled out and not them. I withdrew myself because some stuff happened and I didn’t feel like I want to be associated in any way, shape, or form.
Tubefilter: Yes. I think that’s very important, being able to say no to deals and to people you’re not sold on.
Nico Leonard: I am so grateful that I said no to FTX.
Tubefilter: Oh my god, yes.
Nico Leonard: Have look at Graham Stephan, or–what do you call your man? Kevin O’Leary. They offered us insane money, I’m not even joking, but I don’t want to carry any responsibility like that.
Tubefilter: Yes. FTX, you missed a very big bullet. A very very large bullet.
Nico Leonard: Yes. That was like, “Well, what are we doing here? We’re following our feelings.” We were just in a room together with my team, my right-hand man, and my main editor. We were just sitting in a room. It’s like, “Forget about the money. Is this good? Yes or no?” It was like, “No, we don’t want that, so that’s why we’re not going to do it.”
That was the hard decision, but you know what? You can only connect the dots looking backwards. That’s how we go through life. Now, I’m very fortunate and very grateful that I have the opportunity to share my passion with the world, and to create watch enthusiasts around the world from the craziest, smallest countries to the biggest places in the world, to the biggest superstars in the world. I just want to stay the same person.
Tubefilter: Yes. How are things balanced for you? I know you still have that location in the Merchant Hotel, and then obviously, you’re doing YouTube basically full-time. Are things even balanced for you?
Nico Leonard: No. [laughs] It’s just not. Pride & Pinion is opening another shop. We have a full ecommerce team inside. We have a big, big, big office with a studio. Next to that, I bought a football club recently, which we’re going to build all the YouTube theme around it and stuff like that. It’s going to be actually, really unique, but long story short, there is no balance. I am very grateful that I’m in this position. That’s why you basically work several jobs.
Tubefilter: Yes. This seems to suit you, being busy.
Nico Leonard: Aye, exactly. I just became a dad as well. [chuckles]
Tubefilter: Oh, so insanely busy. Congrats.
Nico Leonard: Thank you. Listen, it’s not easy, but if you want to achieve something, I’m like, “You bloody work for it.”
Tubefilter: You probably don’t have an average day, but what things are you addressing on a daily and weekly basis in order to keep all this running? What’s an average week for you?
Nico Leonard: There’s not really the same week. An average week. The week’s never the same. I travel a lot across the world. In January, I’m in Dubai, and in U.K. mainland, then I’m in America. I’m at three places in America, and then I’m back home for a few days. Then I’m off to Norway.
It’s very, very difficult to really pinpoint that, but an average week for me is, you wake up bloody early, and every Monday, for example, we have a weekly P&L at the company. I go through everything with my right-hand man, and decisions are being made on a Monday. Then I speak with certain clients, and then we’re filming. That is hard because sometimes you don’t always have a good day, right? It wouldn’t be any good days if there weren’t any bad ones, to be fair, but it’s sometimes really, really tough. Then you need to be on camera and maybe while you don’t want to be on camera. It’s tough, but I’ve a great group of people around me that have done this YouTube game for so long, and where I can just look, and just call and say, “Listen, I’m struggling with this.” It was like, “Nico, you need to get your shit together and wise up. If you want this, you’re going to work for it.”
It’s really important who you surround yourself with, and I’m very grateful for all the help and the support I get from fellow creators, including, for example, KSI, even Peter McKinnon. I’ve just great people around me.
Tubefilter: That’s huge, that collaboration.
Nico Leonard: Aye. For me, because listen, I didn’t really know much about YouTube, right? To be honest, I didn’t even know you could make money with it. I only realized that after we got 5,000 or 6,000 subscribers.
Tubefilter: A lot of people still don’t know that!
Nico Leonard: It was as if there was a door opened with a helping hand that was like, “Here you go. You have another chance with your company. Here you go. You can make yourself into a watch person.” I always wanted to make an impact. Now, you’re going to make a good impact if you make the right choices. I think that is where we are now.
Our past choices in the last two years–changing the channel name from a business to me, personally, being able to add value, speaking with brands, being honest, and just saying no to things you’re not behind or you don’t believe in–that brought us really where we are now. It’s authenticity, it’s being real. It’s being fucking real and not being scared. I am a “Sue me, try me?” kind of person. Do you see what I mean?
Tubefilter: I do.
Nico Leonard: It’s being real.
To give you an idea, most of my life, I chase money, right? I failed miserably. I failed in literally everything when I chased money. The moment I started chasing passion, that changed my life. From that moment, I realized I should be chasing passion, chasing love, chasing hobbies.
Tubefilter: How do things work behind the scenes in terms of coming up with video ideas?
Nico Leonard: I can’t take that credit. I have an incredible team of people. There’s a board there. [points behind him] I don’t know if you can see it. Every idea, everything that we want to do, we write up, and then we then figure out what is the best title. We just write 10 titles and then figure out, “Okay, that could work,” and then the boys make a presentation. I don’t look at the presentation. I don’t know nothing. It’s like 12 hours a day. The boys work around the clock and do their thing, and they have complete creative freedom. That’s the most important thing because you need to work as a team, and they actually cut stuff out because–If anyone thinks that my videos are bad with language and stuff like that, don’t worry. It’s already cut out, mate. You need to be a bit crazy, I think, if you want to be a–well, looking at YouTube, I can now, after two years, say that, “Yes, I’m a YouTuber” or “I’m a creator,” right?
Before that, I don’t really think I could, but I was like, “You need to be a bit crazy to do this.” The funny bit is because I had a long conversation with Alex. He’s a U.K. creator and a really, really good guy. He says, “A lot of YouTubers start with YouTube and then have a business around it,” right? The difference with me is, I had the business and was an absolute lunatic prior to me being on YouTube. They just wanted to capture my madness.
Tubefilter: People who are able to make YouTube work and people who are able to make interesting businesses work with YouTube have like the magic formula.
Nico Leonard: Aye, and to be honest, you know what I’m always afraid of, sometimes when a video doesn’t perform or several videos don’t perform, I’m like, I get this anxiety like, “It’s all over. I’ll never work again. It’s over, your YouTube career is done.” This is YouTube because it’s mentally, ugh, I think YouTube is more difficult than running a company in any way, shape, or form. Because you’re mentally not prepared for what’s coming for you, absolutely not. This is why I actually genuinely–I don’t know if I should say this, but I think that a lot of YouTubers struggle with depression.
Tubefilter: No, you should absolutely say that. That is absolutely true.
Nico Leonard: James, I’ve been there, through hell and back in my life. I’ve seen it all right, and let me tell you, one thing for sure, YouTube gave me everything I have today, but if you are not prepared in any way, shape, or form, or you don’t have a good set of people around you, it can absolutely mentally bring you down.
I am very fortunate, like I said. I’ve walked the walk, I’ve done it, been there, I’ve done that, got the T-shirt, and then I have a great set of people around me, and I’m so unbelievably grateful for that. If you’re doing YouTube well for so many years, and if you’ve been through the same things as YouTubers, you are one of the cleverest or strongest people around, 100%.
Tubefilter: Yes. This industry is rough, and I feel when I first started covering it, people felt like it was more taboo to talk about the fact that everybody gets burnt out and everybody struggles with mental health, but now it’s a lot less taboo to talk about it. A lot more people are advocating for like, “Hey, we need to talk about the fact that this can suck.”
Nico Leonard: Thank you. I’m not going to name any names, but a guy I know who does YouTube, he has about 5 million subscribers, he was crying on the phone to me, nearly wanted to do himself in. I’m like, “That is dark shit sometimes.” And he’s brilliant now, we were talking about a year ago, right? He’s brilliant now, he’s doing unbelievable, and he’s back at it. Sometimes you need to have that. Sometimes, like I said before, you wouldn’t have any good days if there weren’t any bad ones. The same applies for a week, same applies for years or months. For him, he has never publicly talked about it, but he spoke to me and some other friends, and we got him out of it. YouTube is a tough game.
It actually makes sense if you think about it, because YouTube gives you these positive endorphins and stuff like that, and then all of a sudden it’s gone. It’s a drug to get a constant validation. If you’re in any way, shape, or form, a little bit insecure or as insecure as me, then that’s what you want. You want more, you want more, you want more. That’s it.
Tubefilter: I worry a lot. A lot of the creators that I’ve interviewed in the past couple of years are people who went viral on TikTok or YouTube almost by mistake during the pandemic, and they’re not ready for this industry. They don’t have any support. The amount of people who are like, “I don’t know any other creators. I don’t speak to anybody. I don’t have an editor. I don’t have anybody who knows what I do. My family doesn’t understand YouTube.” I’m worried for them.
Nico Leonard: Aye. Exactly. I’m one of those that blew up during lockdown. Didn’t know how to handle it, so collected the people around me and I asked for help. Moral of the story is ask for bloody help from people that walked the walk. I’m pretty darn sure that there’s many people out there that would reach out and would give you that hand.
I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt, and don’t get me wrong, it’s still not easy to be sometimes on camera. Yesterday I struggled, but there are days I am just like, “Fuck it, let her have it. Let’s go.” Then there’s days that are absolutely not a hope in hell. Listen, it’s that drug, it’s that brilliance. It gave me financial freedom, which I’m grateful for. It gave me a bit of confidence and it made me an authority today. I’m the biggest authority in my industry today. There’s not a single person in the watch world that doesn’t know my name. Without YouTube, my company would’ve failed.
Sometimes it’s hard if you call yourself an entrepreneur and the one idea you didn’t believe in turn out to be the idea that saved your company.
Tubefilter: I get it.
Nico Leonard: What big entrepreneur is that? You see what I mean? It’s a bit weird, but at the end of the day, at the end of the year, at the end of everything, when everything is counted, doing YouTube has so far been a plus. It’s so much more plus than minus. If you have those strong people around you…I have really good friends. I made really good friends. Joshua Weissman, genuinely, that guy, he got me out a bad spot, genuinely. That is special.
Tubefilter: We have a lot of aspiring creators and a lot of new creators who read these features, and I think that’s going to be a huge takeaway from this one, your perspective on all this. I think it’ll be really helpful for people.
Nico Leonard: It’s not sunshine, it’s not. It’s only sunshine when you make it that way, but making that way is the difficult bit. It’s brilliant and I don’t want to be without it. I’ll work as hard as I can and we’ll make it work.
Tubefilter: The last thing I wanted to ask is, do you have any plans or goals to continue to keep growing your channel? Do you have anything you want to do? Anything you’re looking forward to?
Nico Leonard: Yes, we’re going to do something really unique. Something other people have not been able to do, because they don’t own a football club, a professional club. That’s my big ambition–showing the love of fashion not just in the watch world but in other fields. Football and watches are two things that kept me alive at dark times, and now I’m going to make it work as well on YouTube. It’s funny how everything comes together.
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