Kickstarter: The Road Not Taken

The other day I was speaking with Cullen about Kickstarter. It never occurred to us that we had no idea what happens to the campaigns that never get funded. A couple of days later, one of our early customers queried as to why we chose not to go that route, commending us for “going against microbrand norms,” which to be honest, is something we never even thought about. All we knew is that we did not want to go down the same road that many watch startups do.

As an avid consumer of entrepreneurial magazines, podcasts, and news, I am a big fan of crowdfunding. It changed the way people started companies and enabled them to move fast without VC funding. I believe that crowdfunding will explode in growth because people are learning to become customer-centric entrepreneurs, solving everyday problems with customizable solutions, and with the JOBS act in effect, investors are encouraged to put money into things they believe will impact the world and how society functions.

In the early days of crowdfunding, savvy entrepreneurs looked at crowdfunding as a way to finance their startup, especially when they lacked a network in Silicon Valley or VC circles. One company in particular turned a $300,000 USD campaign into a multimillion dollar company in 2013. Fast forward 3 years and an “Italian” company raised almost $5.5million USD on a watch that would be shunned by many watch enthusiasts. It quickly becomes obvious that watch crowdfunding campaigns are doing very well. Part of this growth is a reflection of the changing tastes. I personally know people who have watches from the 2013 campaign who decided it looked too “childish” so went ahead and funded the campaign from 2016, which had an automatic movement and a see-through caseback. Quite frankly, it’s a nice looking piece, but as a watch enthusiast, that is where the pros of this particular watch stop.

What these companies get right is that they know their market very well and know exactly how to access them. They aren’t pretending to be something they are not and are (very happily) ignoring the watch enthusiast community.

Facebook didn’t become a multi-billion dollar company because it was the first player in its space. Before them, there was Friendster and MySpace. What they did do better was they identified the pain points in the solutions that were available at the time, and executed with precision and speed.

 
Facebook, your personal "homepage," has a sleek UI/UX that is easy to learn and navigate

Facebook, your personal "homepage," has a sleek UI/UX that is easy to learn and navigate

 
 
Slow page-loads due to server overload started the downfall of Friendster

Slow page-loads due to server overload started the downfall of Friendster

 
 
MySpace suffered from obtrusive banner ads, and clunky UX, among other things

MySpace suffered from obtrusive banner ads, and clunky UX, among other things

 

Likewise, successful watch companies identify pain points and gaps in the solutions available, whether it is in the form of spotty QC, design trends, or customer service.

NTH, a brand that is known for their modern interpretations of classic and vintage watches, debuted with eight Submariner homage variations, with another five on the way. For a long time, Chris Vail of NTH resisted making “yet another sub homage” for the very reason that every time a new one comes out, the reaction is the same–”do we need another sub homage?” Yet, when the NTHs came out, they were mostly met with applause and hype.

NTH did something refreshingly different. They released subs that do in fact look different in a market that is saturated with sub homages. In my mind, they are not even competing with many of the incumbents such as Squale and Steinhart. You might love them, you might hate them, but I can guarantee you won’t find another watch that looks like an NTH sub.

Many entrepreneurs try to ride on the coattails of successful funding campaigns like the two mentioned above. Since then however, there has been an association between crowdfunded projects and cheap minimalist watches. So much so that a Reddit user put together a highly-scientific research paper on how to create a successful minimalist watch brand.

Everyday, a new campaign gets successfully funded, and everyday, more money gets pumped into these platforms. So why did we choose not to do it and instead take on the full financial responsibility of Nodus?

Oversaturation

The over-saturation of minimalist watch brands has crowded out all the real watch aficionados trying to start something real. Unless you already have a following or reputation on another platform such as WatchUSeek or Facebook, it becomes very hard to market a watch that non-watch enthusiasts would find “boring,” or “ugly,” or my personal favorite “looks like every other watch”. We learned that we had to have a product that was different enough to set us apart in the overly-crowded microbrand market but would still be widely accepted, perhaps even sought-after by watch enthusiasts.

Being watch enthusiasts ourselves, we were already familiar with the market we wanted to penetrate and realized that because of the overcrowding of watch brands, watch enthusiasts were not hanging out around Kickstarter but rather, watch forums and private Facebook groups. We saw that many of the watch enthusiasts that hung out around crowdfunding platforms got overwhelmed by the noise and as a result, shut it out altogether. And I can’t blame them. Every campaign claims to be “redefining luxury” by “reducing marketing costs,” “lowering their margins,” and “going direct-to-consumer”. Every. Single. One. The whole idea seemed contradictory. How many times does luxury have to be redefined?

As of June 2017, a whopping $3 billion USD has been pumped into Kickstarter

As of June 2017, a whopping $3 billion USD has been pumped into Kickstarter

Wrong Market

Many entrepreneurs use Kickstarter as a marketing platform, and rightly so, as there are TONS of people who go there to browse and end up making impulse decisions to back projects. However, this is not the market we wanted to capture, and to be honest, they probably wouldn’t place any value on our QC procedure, movement choices, build quality, or design. We probably could have made a killing if we went with a minimalist non-diver design with a quartz movement that lacks a soul, which is something that frankly, we are not interested in. To try to use crowdfunding platforms to market our watch would be like trying to sell a full rack of baby back ribs in a vegan restaurant.

Instead, we became obsessive about our market, figuring out how they behaved, which brands they followed, and what compelled them to turn over their hard-earned cash for the watches they loved. We figured out the things that our target market valued the most and dedicated 100% of our time and effort into them.

Pride and Passion

Many of the watch campaign founders may in fact have a deeply rooted passion for wristwatches. There are brands that started through crowdfunding that I have tremendous respect for. However, I also know that if we chose to go down the crowdfunding path, we would have to answer to our backers. While it is not necessarily a bad thing, we knew that we needed to focus on our product and QC, especially because it is our first one. Having backers to answer to during our prototyping, production and QC phases might have proven to be a distraction.

Perhaps most importantly, we wanted to fund this ourselves because we had a clear vision of what we wanted this to be. We didn’t want to have to bend to anyone else’s will or answer to any of our backers. Our focus had to be on the watches and once those were done, the customers were our priority. We knew that funding this company on our own backs would prove that we are serious and that we are personally invested in the long term success of Nodus. After all, if we weren’t willing to put money towards our watches, why should we expect anyone else to?

"Two roads diverged in a wood and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

-Robert Frost