Shinola was founded on what chief executive officer Tom Lewand described as “one big crazy idea.”
That idea — which came from Tom Kartsotis, who founded the company in 2011 — was that watch manufacturing could be brought back to the U.S.
Lewand, who joined company in 2016 after being president of the Detroit Lions, said Kartsotis was asked repeatedly why he didn’t just embrace changes in the industry and why would he try to bring build an analogue brand in a digital age.
“The questions all revolved around one answer,” Lewand said. “It’s the old Bobby Kennedy answer, it’s: Why not? Don’t ask why, ask why not?”
Now, it falls to Lewand to ask why not and to push the crazy idea of Shinola forward.
It’s a job that requires a deep understanding of the past — including Shinola’s founding and the deeper history of Detroit as a manufacturing powerhouse.
The original concept was for Shinola to be a third-party watch manufacturer for brands such as Tiffany. But to chase that business, Shinola made what the ceo described as a “proof of concept” watch, built in a factory inside the old GM facility where the Corvette was invented. (The site now also has a design high school and college that has seen some Shinola employees move from school to work without leaving the building).
To promote that first watch, the company took an ad out in the Detroit Free Press announcing that the proud history of Detroit watchmaking had just begun, but that the watches wouldn’t ship for four months.
Shinola sold 2,500 watches at $550 within a week and the business took a new direction — one that led it to launch everything from leather goods to bicycles to audio gear, all focused on homegrown manufacturing talent.
“We’re trying to look at things in a new way,” the ceo said. “By starting from a less conventional route, but actually building out products first, it opened up our aperture into what was possible. We proved to ourselves it wasn’t about aptitude, it was about opportunity.”
The skill and desire to do what Shinola wanted was there in Detroit, the people just needed to be trained and the designs needed to be top-notch to sell.
The manufacturing machine — and the Detroit buzz machine — clearly work at Shinola, which now has more than 600 employees and 29 stores from Hawaii to London.
But there’s been plenty to learn along the way and Lewand is working on getting the balance right.
“We’ve expanded pretty quickly into other categories [beyond watches], some might say to quickly, I might be one of those on same days,” said Lewand, who is still struggling to find just the right descriptor to tag to Shinola’s brand. “I hate the idea of a lifestyle brand, but I haven’t been able to come up with a better one, so we’re going to keep using it.”
Shinola is very much a work in progress and some of the paths taken have led to unexpected places. That was the case when the brand jumped into the audio business.
“What we quickly found out was there was an application in a limited way, not at scale,” Lewand said. “People aren’t buying headphones to be heirlooms.”
But working in audio, including turntables, led Shinola to think more deeply about its more-promising potential in the home space, for instance.
There’s also more potential in leather goods, where the brand clicks with men’s, but has yet to really connect in women’s.
“We’re feeling our way forward in the leather space,” Lewand said.
That has been the case in retail as well.
Asked, with the benefit of hindsight, what he would have done differently as Shinola launched, he pointed to the approach to store rollouts.
“I’d probably be a little bit more patient,” Lewand said.
“We went very, very quickly and I think for us, as we built the brand and built awareness around the brand, we could have allowed that awareness to seep in a little more in certain markets,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Shinola, which also has now has a hotel that it describes as “Detroit’s living room,” is going to go back to anything like the standard branding playbook.