By Shane Snider
Thawil, Switzerland — Kyle Schut’s introduction into the watch business didn’t come from years of industry exposure — his horological sales prowess was born in a most unusual place: A video game arcade in South Africa.
The 32-year-old owner of Straton Watch Company was only 15 when he managed to outsmart an arcade claw machine, grabbing his first stock of watches. At his boarding school, he’d sell his wares to cooks and other staff.
“I figured out that about every eighth turn, the claw would tighten and you could actually get what you were aiming for. I was pulling out 5-10 watches per week and selling them. After a while, the arcade manager would get quite upset and I’d have to find a new machine. But I had a decent business going at 15,” Schut said with a laugh.
Schut has come a long way from the business practices of his youth. He now creates crowdfunded blockbuster watch releases that combine 70s nostalgia with race car themes. His most recent release, the Speciale — a square-cased chronograph offered with both mechanical and quartz movements — has already blown past it’s $150,000 Kickstarter goal. His two previous releases smashed Kickstarter goals by more than 1,000 percent.
“I’ve always wanted to start my own brand,” Schut said. “I started thinking about it in 2010, but the capital versus risk was too much of a factor. In 2014, I discovered Kickstarter as a viable funding option.”
With crowdfunding opening up for the micro brand watch world, Schut managed to get in early on the now-flooded micro brand Kickstarter market.
But even Schut was shocked by the success of the first release. “I set a goal of $15,000 and we hit that within the first hour,” he said. “If I hit Kickstarter six months later, I’m not sure the same thing would have happened. It was just good timing.”
Hitting the gas on a racing theme
Schut has always been an avid fan of racing. His father was a rally racer in South Africa and the younger Schut watched from a distance, enamored with the colorful cars speeding past. “That’s really where Straton was born; out of my personal love for racing and 70s chronographs.”
Schut has a particular fondness for vintage Alfa Romeo cars. His first release, the Vintage Driver Chrono, paid homage to the 1977 Alfa Romeo’s instrument panel. The second release, the Curve Chrono, continued the race theme and saw Schut and his design team delve further into 70s case design. After that, another love note to the bell bottom era also made a splash on Kickstarter: The Synchro chronograph.
“The boldness of 70s design just speaks to me,” Schut said. “It always has. I’m not doing anything groundbreaking. I’m taking design cues from watches I love and making it my own.”
Proudly made in China
Schut said because he lives in Switzerland, people assume the watches are manufactured there. But the expense of Swiss manufacturing would have made the project too costly for a crowd-sourced project. So Schut developed a relationship with a Chinese watch manufacturer. He doesn’t shy away from mentioning the manufacturing origins. In fact, he embraces it. With each new release, Schut flies to China to oversee quality control, packaging and mailing of each watch – working 20-hour days for 7 days.
“It has my name attached to it, so it’s important for me to be there for the final steps in the process. No watch gets sent to a customer without being handled by me,” he said. “If I’m inspecting a watch and I find a problem, it can be handled right then and there.”
Workers at the facility have become accustomed to Schut’s visits. The workweek usually ends with drinks and a few turns at Karaoke. “They are great people, and I really enjoy working with them,” he said.
Oh so Speciale
With preorders nearing the close on Kickstarter for the Speciale, Schut will once again travel to China to complete orders. He said he’s come to enjoy the trip, despite the long hours.
The Speciale comes with several dial color combinations and range in price from $499 for the meca-quartz movement and $1199 for the ETA 7750 version. Straton is offering a 10 percent discount until Feb. 28.
Schut offered a sneak preview of this next watch releases: one will be a bullhead-style chronograph at 42mm; the other watch will be 44mm and feature the same dial but with the crown in the standard 3 o’clock position.
Schut considers himself lucky with the success of Straton, especially since he seems to have lost his touch with the arcade claw machines. “I try sometimes when I’m out with my kids, but they set those machines now so nobody wins. Technology has moved on.”
You can learn more about Straton at the website: Straton Watch Co.
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