Six Startup Lessons Learned by Modify Watches Co-Founder, Aaron Schwartz
By Aaron Schwartz, Co-Founder, Modify Watches (Happy 30th Birthday, Aaron!) - Modify is today's featured Startup America member.
We started discussing Modify Watches in April 2010 and had our first sale only three months later. To be fair, the first was to one of my brother’s best friends, but it still counts – you know you are a business when someone will actually exchange cash for your product or service!
Modify is the leading designer of interchangeable watches. Every watch face and strap can be interchanged, so that our customers – “The ModiFamily” – can show off their own style. Our motto, and we mean this, is: “We’re not craftsmen, we’re just good at listening”. Our fans vote on watch designs and, very soon, will actually be able to submit their own. They suggested that we pursue licensing and now we are an official licensee of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association, deadmau5, Domo, UC Berkeley and more.
Our first website was built with an inexpensive website tool, Weebly.com. It may not have had much technology behind it, but it certainly had the personality of my co-founder Gary Coover and myself. And by that I mean that we added a lot of jokes, a prominent link to one of our favorite websites, and nicknames for every single watch-color combination, like the black-and-blue “Bar Fight”.
Modify turned into a “real” business by fall, 2010. We started customizing watches for brands and organizations like Google and the Pac-12. I then made a very large sale (2,500 watches) while on a cross-country flight – the buyer is IPO’ing soon – and earned the blessing of my family and advisers to stick with the business!
There have been a ton of tough moments along the way. Gary left the company in August 2010 to join a strategy team with Samsung in South Korea (he’s still a very active adviser). I did not take a salary for the first year of the business so that we could bootstrap. We worked out of my apartment until February 2012 – convenient, yes; healthy to stay inside all day, not so much.
But the positives far outweigh any of the stresses – the positive of a great team more than anything. Our first partner, Ashil Parag, is an A+ designer who has run his own studio in Atlanta for the last decade. He has wound down that business as he ramps up with Modify. Anything that looks great on our watches, collateral or website is due to him. And our Tech Director, a UC-Berkeley sophomore named Sean Linehan, is as talented as anyone I have ever met (I have not met Michael Jordan). Probably the highlight of the last 6 months was a 1am walk around Berkeley with Sean. We were working on launching our site to support the release of our new, water-resistant watches. We could not solve one interface issue on the site. Well, we created a solution on that walk, then proceeded to have an all-nighter to update the website. We successfully launched on Thrillist the next morning.
One other major positive of running Modify? Interacting with customers brings us happiness on a daily basis. From the beginning we have always sent hand-written thank you notes and business cards with every order. Basically, if you are going to support our business, we want you to know that we really appreciate it; every customer has my personal cell phone and email address. This accessibility gives customers more comfort in sharing feedback – both positive and constructive. The more we learn about customer preferences, the better we can live up to our promise of creating designs that they want.
I have received truckloads of great advice over the years from family, friends, colleagues at Deloitte, founders of other startups and professors. From that advice and my experience, here are 6 lessons that I would like to share with prospective founders
1. “Get outside the building and test everything”, is a combination of messages from Steve Blank and Eric Ries in a class I took at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Treat every idea you have like a hypothesis and test it; let data and facts win arguments in your company.
2. “Think of yourself as a customer”.This message was written above every door at MBNA America, a credit card company for which I interned. You will never treat customers poorly if you internalize this message.
3. Build a great team.An A+ team can build a business around a B+ product. A B+ team will fail even if it stumbles upon an A+ product.
4. You are not the first person to run into different issues. Talk about your business with as many advisers, friends and strangers as you can. Everyone wants to see you succeed, so lean on them for support and insights.
5. Read everything by Tony Hsieh, Zappos and the Delivering Happiness team. Find your company’s higher purpose.
6. Smile. A lot. Don’t forget that you are living your dream! Of course, the added benefit is that you will be happier, your phone calls and meetings will be more energetic and your partners will love working with you because you will brighten their day.
Watch Aaron's Interview with Startup America here: