Shinola isn’t just a startup. It’s a Detroit-based startup. Like the city, Shinola is a bit of an underdog. As disposable, mass-produced goods from China flood the market, Shinola is betting on high-quality products produced with American labor. But as it expands its manufacturing footprint in Detroit while opening retail stores across the country and overseas, it’s leaning on Detroit just as much as Detroit is leaning on it.
Tom Kartsotis, a founder and former CEO of clothing and accessories company Fossil, founded the venture capital firm Bedrock Manufacturing Company in 2003 with a different business concept: “skill at scale.” Kartsotis was interested in making watches again, and he wanted to do so in a city where he could create jobs. He founded Shinola in 2011, and his team put Detroit on their shortlist. “We have a close relationship with the community leaders, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits in the city. It’s a close-knit community. It’s part of what brought us to this city in the first place,” Shinola CMO Bridget Russo told NewCo.
By 2012, Shinola had opened its Detroit factory and launched its first product, the Runwell watch. It’s the first watch built at scale in the U.S. in 40 years. Runwells are assembled in a 30,000-square-foot watch factory at the College for Creative Studies, formerly known as the Argonaut Building. The building, located in midtown Detroit, has a storied industrial legacy. General Motors built the Art Deco building in 1928; it’s where GM invented the hydraulic automatic transmission.
By 2013, Shinola’s flagship store opened in Detroit with an assortment of American-made products — not all of them its own. Beyond Shinola’s watches, leather goods, bicycles, and journals, people could buy Detroit-based goods like jeans from Detroit Denim or ceramic vessels by Local Portion. Shinola continues to work with local makers, not only in Detroit but in the other cities where it has stores. Shinola offers local makers an opportunity to set up a pop-up in its stores. “It’s to show the community that we’re in support of their entrepreneurs, and it also allows us to speak to a targeted audience through their channels,” Russo says.
Although Shinola opened its first store and factories in Detroit, the company always intended to create a global brand. “We didn’t know, at first, if the Detroit message would resonate outside of the community who had a connection to it,” says Russo. But Shinola learned quickly that people didn’t need a direct connection to Detroit to appreciate what Shinola is doing. “The fact that we were creating jobs in a city that needed it really resonated with communities, not only here but also overseas. I think there’s a Detroit everywhere in some way shape or form.”
Russo says the company generated $100 million in revenue in 2015 – up from $20 million in 2013. The company is not yet profitable, but it aims to be in the next 12 to 18 months as it continues to open new stores and grow its footprint with retail partners like Nordstrom, Saks, and Neiman Marcus.
Shinola looks at its product categories in two different ways – volume drivers and brand builders. Brand builders, like its bikes, give the company a point of differentiation, according to Russo. The Shinola Runwell bicycle, for example, goes for $2,950. “It’s not fast fashion,” Russo says. Instead, the company focuses on quality products that last, but it’s not afraid to pursue eclectic product offerings. The company will launch turntables, speakers, and headphones in the fall, which it sees as a revenue driver. The company is also pursuing jewelry through a partnership with Pamela Love and hopes to get those to market by the beginning of November.
Ultimately, Shinola is a design brand with the mission to create jobs in the U.S. “If we can come out with a kickass toaster tomorrow that’s made in the U.S., we will,” Russo says. Shinola opened its watch factory in Detroit to start an American brand. Even if it purchased its name from a defunct shoe polish company based in New York, it’s become an example of what can happen when a company reinvests in manufacturing and takes a bet on a city still lifting itself out of trouble. Whatever tension exists between Shinola’s mission and its desire to lean on Detroit as a part of its narrative, there’s no denying that the company has created manufacturing jobs in Detroit and established a luxury brand that is as proud of its community as it is of its products. “We’re really going after a consumer that appreciates well-crafted products – and the story behind those products,” Russo says.
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