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Avantist might be a luxury microbrand but founder Keeran Janin has major ambitions

He may have designed watches for the Sultan of Brunei and a tennis champion, but Keeran is not resting on his horological laurels.

Keeran Janin has only worked a “real job” for three months in his life. It was 2005 and he’d just graduated from Coventry University with a bachelor’s degree in software engineering. He was minding his own business in his garden back home in Brunei when his neighbour popped by to say hello. “He heard I was looking for a job and, before I knew it, I was to report to his company the following Monday,” Keeran laughs. His neighbour owned a telecommunications firm.

That Monday, Keeran was thrown into the server room. While the job was monotonous, the role gave him the idea to start his first company. Part of his responsibilities involved trawling through bills. That’s when he noticed a pattern. “People were paying a few dollars for a simple wallpaper or a ringtone. It was a lot of money, especially for something I knew I could code over a weekend.”

He then spent the next three months studying before handing in his resignation letter to start a mobile ringtone and wallpaper company. It was a home run and Keeran made hay while the sun shone until the dawn of the iPhone. The 40-year-old tech entrepreneur then went on to various other ventures. He also co-founded Dart Brunei, a ride hailing service similar to Grab and Gojek. “Brunei only has 33 taxis, so everyone buys a car. But it is expensive. So, my co-founders and I thought creating Dart was a straightforward decision,” says Keeran. It is still the only player in town.

At the same time that he started Dart in 2016, Keeran also built another company in a totally different field – watchmaking. Growing up, he was always a fan of watches. His father was once a diplomat stationed in Geneva and he would occasionally visit him during his university days. They would walk down the streets, taking in the sights and sounds while admiring the watches. “I remembered joking with him that I would make him a watch one day.”

(Related: Discover the best of Watches & Wonders 2021)

A decade later, Avantist was born in Singapore. Keeran knew it would be hard for a new independent watchmaking brand to make its mark on the world, so he aimed for the stars: Bruneian royalty.
The year 2017 was Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s Golden Jubilee. Keeran knew the monarch loved watches. First, he convinced renowned watch designer Sebastien Perret to come on board for the project.

Then, Keeran adopted a data-driven approach to creating the perfect timepiece. He took every press photo and news clipping he could find of the sultan wearing a watch and plotted a graph documenting material, weight and dimension trends. From there, he arrived at the optimal watch.

After that, he brought in movement maker Concepto and convinced a group of Bruneian business executives to fund the project. With that the Avantist La Majeste Tourbillon was born.
During the same period, he had also made the acquaintance of American tennis icon Martina Navratilova. “I was watching a match with her and noticed that in between sets, the players would restring their rackets and throw the old strings away,” says Keeran. The light-bulb moment hit.

(Related: How the partnership between Rafael Nadal and Richard Mille has lasted for more than a decade)

The charismatic self-starter shared his idea – using her old racket strings in a timepiece – with Navratilova. The enigmatic celebrity, who usually shunned endorsements, agreed. In the same year he presented the Brunei Sultan with his timepiece, Keeran launched the Avantist Martina Navratilova Legend Series in the summer at Wimbledon.

Avantist has seen steady growth since its launch. Keeran aims to keep production to less than 100 watches annually. He notes that the problem with his business is scale. He has no retailers or distributors and relies instead on direct business and word of mouth. “It’s risky because a lot of the revenue comes from a small group of passionate customers.”

To increase diversification, Keeran is aiming to venture into the women’s market this year. He also tells me he’s working on something big.

“If you want to be taken seriously, you must innovate. I’ve had this idea for an innovation, which I’ve been working on for the past two years. No one has done it before. There might be a reason for that. It is impossible or the most pointless thing in the world!” Keeran chortles. If his past innovations are any kind of indicator, we expect him to shock the world.

(Related: Yogi Shum Shumei rediscovers her love for independent watchmaking)

The Peak is working with Money FM 89.3 to interview The Peak’s featured personalities on radio. Listen to Keeran’s segment below.