Entrepreneurship Podcast post

Watchmaking with R.T. Custer

George Grombacher December 1, 2023

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Watchmaking with R.T. Custer

LifeBlood: We talked about watchmaking, the history of watchmaking in the US, doing it sustainably, turning pocket watches into wrist watches, and the value of a non-smart watch, with R.T. Custer, CoFounder and CEO of the Vortic Watch Company, and The Colorado Watch Company.       

Listen to learn why it’s so hard to manufacture watches in the United States!

You can learn more about R.T at VorticWatches.com, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn.

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Our Guests

George Grombacher

R.T. Custer

Episode Transcript

eorge grombacher 0:02
Artie Custer is the co founder and CEO of the Vortech Watch Company and the Colorado Watch Company. Welcome, RT.

RT Custer 0:10
Thanks for having me, George, excited to be here. excited to have

george grombacher 0:12
you on. Tell us a little about your personal lives more about your work, why you do what you do?

Speaker 2 0:18
Well, I’ve been an entrepreneur for my entire adult life. I grew up on a Christmas tree farm, fourth generation farmer and entrepreneur, it was the side hustle of the family back then. And so I think I was probably destined to be an entrepreneur. But I went to Penn State studied Industrial Engineering focused on supply chain, got a great job with the world’s largest retailer, and I was renovating Walmart distribution centers for my first corporate job. Before I realized I just wanted to work for myself. And my friend Tyler, and I started that watch company that we talked about. Back in college, we had the idea in 2011, we launched on Kickstarter, in 2014. And as you said, I’m currently CEO of a Vortech Watch Company in the new brand, Colorado Watch Company. But primarily, and first and foremost, at this point, I’m building the legacy for my two little boys, I have a four year old and a six year old west and Sawyer, and a beautiful partner, Lindsay, and so I’m a dad, I’m trying to be a good partner, you know, trying to be a good spouse, and trying to be a good leader for my team. And at the same time, trying to sell some watches to fund all of it.

george grombacher 1:31
Appreciate that. How is the train going?

Speaker 2 1:35
You know, pretty well, overall, honestly, I’m very grateful for for what I have, and and what’s coming to me and what has been manifested and what has actually happened. You know, we’re, we’re doing really well with Vortech. And it’s an uphill slope, trying to make watches in the USA, which is the original idea. How do we make a watch truly in America. But we’ve been doing it for almost 10 years now. And we’re getting pretty good at it. And, you know, we just launched our new brand Colorado watches, because, well, first of all, a lot of people forget the name Vortech Watch Company. And they’re just like, oh, yeah, it’s that Colorado watch company. So we’re like, alright, let’s buy that domain. Because you know what, that’s That’s it. That’s who we are. We’re Colorado Watch Company. We’re the only one. So now we have two brands. But the premise of Vortech was, you know, how do we make a watch truly in America, that’s the idea that we had over 10 years ago. And the only way to do it is to use old pocket watches that we turn into wrist watches. And, you know, long story short, that’s a really hard business to run. And so we can’t make very many watches, we make about 300 watches a year under our Vortech brand. And we charge 2000 to $12,000 apiece for them. Because we’re the only ones it’s very difficult to do what we do, and they’re truly made in USA. And so the premise of Colorado watch company that we just launched recently is how do we make as much of the watch in America as possible, but keep the starting price around $1,000. Reason being Tyler, my business partner and I are both in our early 30s We probably shouldn’t be out there spending 510 $1,000 on a luxury wristwatch, you know, that’s multiple mortgage payments, less mortgage payments now, unfortunately. And and so we said, okay, let’s, in order to scale our company make more than 300 watches a year, let’s come out with our new brand. And we can make 1000s of watches with Colorado watch company. So those are my two brands. That’s what we stand for. If it can be made here. It should is what we say. And that’s how we talked about Made in USA.

george grombacher 3:51
Well, I love it. So why is it? I have no idea? Why is it hard to make from soup to nuts of watching the United States?

Speaker 2 3:58
Great question. So it’s what we call the movement are all the gears and springs inside of a watch. So when I when I refer to a movement, you know, we’re making watches that are gonna last a lifetime, right? They’re, they’re 1000s of dollars. They’re really valuable and they operate based on gears and springs, you have to either wind them up or they wind as you move your wrist to like a modern luxury swiss made watch. You can make a watch fairly inexpensively using battery powered movements like an apple watch like a Timex you know things like that you can, you know, you can buy a watch for 20 bucks at Walmart that honestly will tell time better than a Swiss watch. But that’s not what people want. People want a really high quality watch that’s going to last them a lifetime. And that’s all powered by gears and springs, tiny, tiny little gear system and we call that the movement. And no one makes movements in the US those are made in China or Switzerland. At least that’s what people told us when we started watching them They’re just like, You got to go to Switzerland or go to China, by your movement. And then yeah, you can probably figure out how to make the case. You know, the outside of the watch the crown, the winder, you use, you know, maybe the face of the watch, you can probably figure out how to make that in America. Those are bigger parts. Like there’s a lot of stuff like that. But the answer your question is that no one makes those tiny little gears and springs at scale in the US today. The cool part is 100 years ago, we used to be the Switzerland of the world. And many people don’t know this, that back in the early 1900s, and late 1800s. There were 10 watch companies back then that were basically from Boston to Chicago across the Northeast. And those companies made pocket watches in America 100 years ago, and they made millions of pocket watches. Because I mean, early 1900s, we didn’t have phones, we definitely didn’t have anything else in our pockets. And if there wasn’t a clock nearby, the only way to tell what time it was was a pocket watch. And so there was millions of these great pocket watches made. And we call those companies the great American watch companies. And so that’s really what Vortech does, is we take those old pocket watches. And we turn them into wristwatches preserving American history, one watch at a time is what we say. And it’s really cool, because I’m not selling watches, I’m just telling stories about American history that people don’t really know. And by the time you’re done, you’re like, Okay, I gotta go to Vortec watches.com. And just see what one of these looks like. And, and I think one of the coolest parts is that so many people have a family heirloom, you know, you have grandpa’s pocket watch, that’s been sitting in a drawer for 50 years. And you hear me on a podcast or you see an ad, you know, on Facebook for Vortec. And you realize like, oh crap, I can I can take that pocket watch and make it wearable, I can put it on my wrist. And we do one or two of those projects a week at this point. And basically preserve people’s family heirlooms and get them out of the drawer and get them on your wrist.

george grombacher 7:08
That’s super cool. It’s very, it’s I think it’s very interesting. I and perhaps you and I can talk about fixing this. But I stopped wearing a watch about 12 years ago, and miraculously just never got back into it went to grab my watch. And battery was dead. I went to a watch store here. And there were two young guys who were at his watch store. And they’re like, Oh, here’s we need to do to turn it on. Like, that’s amazing. I told my wife I said, you know, I’m shocked that there was these two young guys, I wonder how that got into, or what made them interested in watches to get to the point where they knew so much about it. So to for you to fill in sort of the history of of that we had these 10 Great companies think it’s really interesting.

Speaker 2 7:52
Thank you. Yeah, and it’s, it is interesting, especially to find young people in the watch industry. Just for reference, the average age of a watchmaker or someone who’s like, skilled at restoring or fixing a high end watch, like Rolex or something like that. The average age of a watchmaker in the US is 68 years old. And it’s literally a dying profession. And unfortunately, it’s part of what what I call the, I think a lot of people would call this skilled trade gap, where, you know, just like we need more, more, you know, electricians and plumbers and, and people like that. We also need more watchmakers, and no one realizes that you can go to school for two years, and become a watchmaker and make more than someone like me who went to engineering school for four years, right out of school, and, and have a great skill that’s, that’s highly sought after I always have watchmaking positions open. We’re always hiring watchmakers, and I’m competing with Rolex, who pays a lot more. So there is no shortage of those types of jobs. And so maybe, hopefully, maybe that’s how those young people got into as they have just like, you know, there’s, they’re a couple of entrepreneurs, right, there’s, there’s money to be made there. And, and there’s a lot opportunity for people with a skill that is valuable and highly valued.

george grombacher 9:16
Which which makes sense. And now I’m just curious to know, and if if there’s an uptick in that kind of a thing, it seems like it’s something that there would be a hipster with an awesome beard who would be very interested in watchmaking.

Speaker 2 9:29
And they’re everywhere, I’m sure yeah. Well, you know, it’s, you know, what’s really interesting is, I think a lot of people ask me, like, how Apple and the iWatch is, or the Apple Watch is impacting the sales of luxury watches like mine, I mean, everything I make, whether it’s Colorado watch company around 2000 or Vortech Watch Company in the you know, 2000 to 10,000 kind of range. We make luxury wristwatches you know, there’s only when we look at it, and, you know, when I start Did the company 10 years ago, a lot of people said like, why did you start a watch company like no one’s wearing watches anymore. And if you do wear watch, you’re gonna wear a smartwatch because it’s going to track all your stuff. And like you want all that. However, I think a lot of young people, and people of all ages really, but a lot of young people are being trained to wear something on their wrist now, which is an Apple Watch, their first watch is an Apple watch a whoop, you know, or something like that. That’s like tracking their stuff. And over time, they realize like, Okay, I’m used to wearing something on my wrist. But I don’t really want it to vibrate. Every time I get a text message. There’s a huge movement of people that are like, I kind of don’t want the connection. You know, there’s I, I was just listening to Joe Rogan the other day. And he said, he bought us a second phone, and his personal phone literally just as text and call and he got rid of all the apps and everything off of it. And that’s becoming really popular. It’s just like reducing the amount of technology that’s connected to us. And so I think between reducing the tech and getting a watch that simply tells time, especially when like ours, where you have to manually wind it up every day, or it’ll die. Like that’s really cool, too. I mean, to use your word hipsters, but also just young people in general, I think they think that’s interesting. And then also, you know, you hit a certain point in life where you’re like, I saw a meme the other day, I love memes and dad jokes, by the way, but I mean, the other the other day, it was like, You got to take your Apple Watch off. When you’re all dressed up for a wedding, you look like a like a Gosh, I’m gonna butcher it. But you just look so out of place. Like, Oh, you look like a spy kid. That’s what it was used to spy kid. Get your Apple Watch off. When you’re wearing a tuxedo. You look like an idiot. Put a nice watch on. And so I think there’s a lot of people that realize that it’s like when they do dress up when they do want to look nice when they’re going to a wedding when they themselves are getting married. You know, they want a nice watch. And maybe they don’t want a Rolex like their father their grandfather had. Maybe they want something nice. Maybe they want something made in USA. And that’s why the Google search term Made in America watches is really working well for me.

george grombacher 12:16
Yeah, don’t touch that for a second. It seems that there are a lot of great companies out there like origin that’s Jocko. willings, company’s making jeans and boots. And I imagine that that they’re doing well, that people have an interest in American made products and that you have two American made watch companies. It certainly makes sense to me that people would be interested in that.

Speaker 2 12:40
So far, so good. I mean, you asked how it’s going, and it’s going great. We sell every watch we make. So knock on some wood.

george grombacher 12:46
Yeah. So you, roughly speaking, you make around 300 Vortech. watches every year, is that right? That’s right. And are you always just sourcing those those historical watches that were made 100 years ago?

Speaker 2 13:01
Yep. Yeah, that’s my job. So I go to pawn shops in a state auctions, mostly watchmaking estates and jewelry store states, and then pawn shops. Especially, most pawn shops are part of a conglomerate or their own. There’s like 100, pawn shops that all kind of like function by the same overhead. And there’s this really cool network of basically pickers, you know, if you ever seen American Pickers on the History Channel, there’s people like that, that are always looking for special things. And a lot of those people now have my business card in there when they find 100 pocket watches sitting around or 1000 pocket watches from some watchmaker that that had a bunch of them that passed away. They give us a call, and they say, Hey, you know, do you want these pocket watches no one else does. And we buy 1000s of pocket watches and then cherry pick the best of the best to turn into a Vortech watch. That’s how we get most of our watches. And then like I said, people also send us family heirlooms from around the world and we turn those into wrist watches as a service that we call convert your watch. Very cool.

george grombacher 14:05
And so somebody’s listing they’ve they’re that very person they have grandpa’s pocket watch and like well, maybe I can explore turning this into a watch or maybe I could sell it do you just buy that straight up?

Speaker 2 14:20
Yeah, you know, it’s it’s rare that somebody wants to sell their grandpa’s watch. But when it happens or you know what I think what’s more common is someone has three or four pocket watches like in their family they got you know, handed these these pocket watches and they feel really bad getting rid of them. But they have no use for them. They send us an email with pictures of you know, three or four pocket watches and all by the three that we can’t turn into a wristwatch and then I’ll make you know we’ll do like a little partial trade kind of deal. And I’ll make them one watch from either the most special one or the one they know the most about or, you know, the grandpa either from the side of the family they like something like that. And we have those conversations all the time. And no one has to remember our website, you can literally Google convert your watch, because there’s no one else in the world does this.

george grombacher 15:16
Nice. So it’s just using round numbers again, pawnshop estate sale reaches out and say we’ve got 1000 watches, we know that you buy these, you buy 1000 of them of those, you can turn a couple of 100 into your actual watches that you can see on the site, which are all super cool by the way. And then the other ones that are left over, do you then try to get the movement out of those, see if it’s working or tell me a little bit what what what you do with the others totally?

Speaker 2 15:49
Well, typically, we just get the movement dial in hands or the guts of a pocket watch. The cases of most pocket watches that we get were gold or silver. And they already got scrapped or melted down for the precious metal by a pawn shop or the like. And so we’re already you know, upcycling and just trying to use the ones that we can use. And the ones that we can’t use, usually they’re too far gone, you know, they’re rusted, they’re missing parts, there’s missing teeth on some of the gears and the mechanism, something like that is wrong with them. And so we’ll either use them for other parts, you know, some screws, that would be really helpful to fix another one. Sometimes we can use just the dial or the face of the old pocket watch, and use a movement from another one that was working really well that had a poor dial or a dial that wasn’t nice enough to use. And then a lot of times we can use at least the hands. The hands on old pocket watches are really thin pieces of spring steel, most of them are blue, or they’re blued steel. And they’re beautiful, but they’re very small, and they’re fragile. And so sometimes we have to replace those on on one pocket watch. And so we can find a similar set of hands from the same period. On another one, and, you know, use one to save another.

george grombacher 17:07
Got it. Nice. Thank you mentioned you were the fourth generation of a Christmas Tree Farm. Is there somebody who is still managing the farm? Or are we out of Christmas trees?

Speaker 2 17:20
Well, unfortunately, the Christmas tree business is a really difficult business. Back in the 90s, it started getting harder. And then in the early 2000s It got almost impossible to compete with, you know, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart, now Whole Foods, you know, sales, Christmas trees. So the business started to kind of go under, in, especially around like, oh, eight things were really, really tough for my family. And right around that same time my parents got divorced. And so my mom was left with the farm. And I was an only child. And then to finish the story. Also, unfortunately, I lost my mom in 2020 to cancer. And so I went home in 2020, say goodbye to my mom and started preparing for doing something else with the farm because I live in Colorado, I have a small family, I can’t run that business from here. And she and I were already kind of talking about what that would look like. And unfortunately, the timeline got exponentially escalated. And I sold the farm to you know, pay off family debt. And then reinvested the difference here in this building that I’m sitting in right now. And so I personally owned the 8500 square foot manufacturing building that we have here for Vortech. Awesome. And that’s where we make all the watches. And I like to think my grandfather and my mom would be really proud of of how I took the family’s, you know, investment that they made in the state of Pennsylvania. And, and that legacy and pivoted to a business that’s a lot more successful and honestly a lot more fun to run at this point. And now we make watches with the same investment.

george grombacher 19:19
I’m sure that that’s right. I love it. Well, Artie, thank you so much for coming on. Where can people learn more about you and Vortech? And why is the Colorado watch company up and running when or when is that going to happen?

Speaker 2 19:33
Yeah, so to answer that question first Colorado watches.com Colorado Watch Company was launched on Kickstarter about a month ago. We were successfully funded. We are we set our goal at 250,000. In 30 days, we have 350,000 in 30 days. So people seem to really like the idea of a modern mechanical automatic wristwatch, as Made in USA as possible for around $1,000 So that’s it In process now that our Kickstarter has been funded, a few months from now, we’ll have like pre orders and stuff like that directly on our website. But for the next couple months, we’re just kind of making all the watches we sold on Kickstarter. If you’re interested in that it’s Colorado watches.com. We basically just have an email signup to learn more. And then all the other stuff we talked about is at Vortec watches.com. That’s V o r t IC watches.com. My email address if you want to connect with me, it’s just our T like Robert Thomas at war tech watches.com. And I primarily hang out on Instagram. So I’m Artie customers are TCU Ste are on Instagram, send me a DM and let’s talk business Christmas trees, watches, whatever you want.

george grombacher 20:48
Well, if you enjoyed as much as I did show RT your appreciation and share today’s show with a friend who also appreciates good ideas, go to Colorado watches.com and get on the email list for the updates go check out Vortech V o r t IC watches.com. And you can see all the amazing work on restoring and turning the pocket watches into wristwatches that Artie has been talking about today, and they are really cool and worth a look. And then you find them on Instagram as well. And I’ll link all those in the notes. Thanks again Artie. Thanks, George. Till next time, remember, do your part by doing your best

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