Stylish and functional:  Backers of a crowd-funding campaign that ends on Sunday will receive a Syncro chronograph, a leather duffel bag, or both. Picture: SUPPLIED
Stylish and functional: Backers of a crowd-funding campaign that ends on Sunday will receive a Syncro chronograph, a leather duffel bag, or both. Picture: SUPPLIED

Thanks to the crowd-funding website Kickstarter, Kyle Schut has been able to combine his entrepreneurial nous with a lifelong passion for classic cars and classy watches to create his own luxury racing-inspired watch brand, Straton Watch Co.

Schut’s third crowd-funding campaign ends on Sunday evening. Depending on their largesse (and preference), the campaign’s backers will receive a Syncro chronograph, a leather duffel bag – or both. About R3m has already been pledged – more than 1,500% of the R192,257 campaign target.

"Cars have always been a part of my life – especially Italian cars such as Alfa Romeo and Lancia," says Schut, whose father did racing and rally driving in the 1980s and early 1990s. "I would spend weekends at the track growing up and it was a lot of fun," he said.

He bought his first Alfa Romeo – a 1976 Alfetta GT I – at the age of 20, with money he’d saved from working in the UK. In 2010, he had to leave the car behind when he relocated from his home town of Cape Town to Zurich to be closer to his two-year-old son.

"Not a day would go by that I didn’t think about driving it," he recalls. "I missed my car so much so that after working hard for one-and-a-half years in Switzerland, I managed to purchase the same model, but in great condition."

Although he’s a business development manager for a relocation company by day, with a background in manufacturing and installation, he has always had an "entrepreneurial drive".

As he mulled over ideas for low-cost business start-ups, he would keep reading in entrepreneurship publications "that if you start a business it must be something you are passionate about.

"The more I read this, the more I thought about what my passions are and how could I turn this into a business. Cars and watches go hand in hand, and the inspiration for my brand was right in front of me: my Alfa Romeo. "That’s when the Straton idea was born – the watch dial would represent the tachometer [rev counter] of the car, accompanied with racing-inspired straps."

Customer relationship:  Straton Watch founder Kyle Schut’s passion for classic cars, and especially his Alfa Romeo, inspired him to design hand-assembled Straton watches based on chronographs of the 1970s. Picture: SUPPLIED
Customer relationship: Straton Watch founder Kyle Schut’s passion for classic cars, and especially his Alfa Romeo, inspired him to design hand-assembled Straton watches based on chronographs of the 1970s. Picture: SUPPLIED

He had wanted to launch Straton in 2012, but felt the risk was too great: the minimum order of 500 timepieces would cost him R200,000 — a huge commitment when you don’t have any customers yet.

When he learnt about the concept of crowd-funding two years later, he realised he had found "a way of starting the business with the least amount of risk".

His first campaign, for a model called the Straton Vintage Driver Chrono, launched in 2015. While an authentic personal story and the watch’s classic design contributed to the campaign’s success, relentless promotion was key.

"One needs to market a campaign at least three months before launch — you need to build momentum so that when it launches, there are people interested enough to back the campaign and pre-order," Schut says.

He used social media to spread the word, posting on Instagram and spending R50 a day on Facebook adverts in the lead-up to the launch. Within an hour of it going live, he reached his R200,000 target.

"I was gobsmacked. From there, I spent every possible free minute writing e-mails to car, gadget, watch and entertainment publications about my story, asking them if they would be willing to write anything about me to help spread the word. I had a great response."

Schut was profiled in several notable publications; a feature in one – Petrolicious.com – helped raise an extra R750,000 in the last two days of the campaign, bringing the total funding to R2.2m.

His second campaign, in 2016, for the Curve Chrono and leather driving gloves, did even better – raising almost R3m. He has shipped 2,000 watches to customers – mostly in Europe, the US and Australia, although there has been a smattering of South Africans too.

"I build a relationship with them," he says. "When anyone writes to Straton’s e-mail address, it is me who responds. People appreciate this — it’s something you just don’t have with big brands."

Each of the three watch models he has designed are inspired by the chronographs of the 1970s, which Schut believes "are the most aesthetically pleasing to look at – the colouring and the boldness of the designs.

"It was a very experimental period for watches in terms of overall appearance and some of the most iconic chronographs come from this period."

The Syncro, on offer in the current campaign, is a chronograph that merges automotive and dive watch styles. Backers are able to customise their watches: they can pick two straps (from 11 options) and choose between two different bezels and case sizes and two different Seiko movements (the VK64 Meca-Quartz or the NE88 Automatic).

Pre-orders start at $320 for a watch (for the quartz movement; the automatic is pricier). After the campaign ends on March 5, the price goes up to $499.

The hand-assembled Straton watches are made by a manufacturer in Shenzen and Hong Kong — Schut says that making the watches in Switzerland would triple the cost.

"There are negative connotations for brands producing in Asia due to quality, but this, however, is slowly changing," the entrepreneur says.

He was very picky when selecting a manufacturer and visits the factory at the end of the manufacturing process to do quality control and personally pack each customer’s watch.

This, he says, "helps me
keep well below a 1% watch industry standard defect rate. The quality of my products speaks for itself."

For others contemplating launching a crowd-funded brand, Schut emphasises the importance of social media, but says that savvy marketing is not enough.

"To start off, you must have an authentic story behind it to get people that relate to it, to support it and spread the word about it," he says.

"The reward far outweighs the risk with crowd-funding, so if you have an idea which doesn’t have that much upfront costs for prototypes, there is no excuse — try it and who knows, you may just create that business you always dreamed of."

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