Kickstarting Innovation: How Padron Watch Co. Is Bringing New Ideas To Old-Fashioned Industry
At Padron Watch Company, a Minneapolis-based maker of mechanical watches, old technology meets modernity. Forty-year-old Leo Padron is combing two great appreciations of his—the art of mechanical watchmaking, dating back to the early 15th century, and online crowdfunding site Kickstarter, founded in 2009—to handcraft a business that has gained notoriety not only locally, but globally. In an interview with TCB, Padron discussed how crowdfunding has changed in less than a decade, future plans for his company and how a now-defunct St. Paul watchmaking school influenced his business early on.
Note: The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
You’re now on your fifth Kickstarter and surpassed your funding goal in one day, right? Were you surprised by the speed of it?
It was actually within 25 hours, just over a day. But yes, I’m always surprised. It’s hard to know what to expect when it’s a limited edition version of a watch I’d already ran. What I’m heartened by especially is the positive public response I’ve gotten because there are a lot of bad skeleton watches out there. I wanted it to be something special. Kickstarter has changed tremendously from when I started. I have a lot of competitors now, so when I launch something I’m competing with a lot of other people and I always feel like I have to up my game.
When you’re vying for crowdfunding money, how exactly do you try to separate yourself from the competition?
I actually think I’m way ahead in the merits and I communicate those merits well. I have my own supply chain and have been doing this for a long time. I’m not a lifestyle brand and I think a lot of people get into this business with a lot of vague ideas of what to do. Many of them seem to just buy an over-the-counter watch and put a label on it and then market the hell out of it. And they’ll have a lot of brand collaterals and pictures of pretty people wearing their watch and then they’ll call it a day. I’m very different. The things I want to let people know is that Padron Watch Company is not a lifestyle company, it’s a watch company. I’m focused upon creating extremely well-engineered timepieces. And I don’t want to make watches that only a select few can afford. I don’t think that makes watchmaking interesting. I think what makes it interesting is when you get a lot of people that aren’t watch collectors or aficionados who are interested in what you are making because it is cool and it’s also attainable.
Your business model appears to be “design a watch, create a Kickstarter, produce the watches, repeat.” Do you think that accurately describes your process?
I don’t know if it’s necessarily a conscious choice. It kind of happened organically. I will say that Kickstarter put me on the map — no question about it. By the way, just a tiny nerdy historical footnote here, I had the first automatic watch to ever be funded on any crowdfunding platform. I think that when you have a campaign and you’re given $100,000, which is essentially what I was given for my first Kickstarter, it gives you a lot of options as for what you’re going to do. For people who are not familiar with running a Kickstarter campaign, it’s a lot more than a good place to raise money. You’re building an audience and a customer base there, too.
Your suppliers aren’t just based in the U.S., right, but around the world?
Yes, I have a global supply chain. A lot of my packaging collateral I get locally, believe it or not. I use a lot of local suppliers, too. For parts, I get my gaskets from Germany; my sapphire sometimes from Germany and other times from China; my cases are from China and sometimes from Germany or Switzerland. It really depends on which suppliers I can align with and which one will best carry forth my design.
With your fifth and most recent Kickstarter, have you noticed a lot of repeat business or backers?
I get a lot of repeat backers, yeah. They seem to like what I do and some of them have said they love every single watch I’ve made — the highest form of compliment that I can ever receive. But I also get new people that discover me, and it’s a great way to continue building out awareness.
As you begin thinking up a new watch design, where do you find inspiration?
I’m constantly discarding ideas and other ideas I’m refining. And sometimes designs come very quickly. The Hennepin was something that came to me in three days from when I sketched out the concept on a napkin to when I executed the schematics from my CAD drawings. Everything I do is original design. And they say a magician should never show his tricks, but I’ll give you my first watch, the Vuelta, as an example. When I was first showing off the design to a couple friends, I thought it looked like the dashboard of a Porsche and I didn’t know why but I liked it. It was until about six months or a year later, after I had already developed the prototype and was getting the watch built, that I said ‘I know what this is. I know what this looks like.’ And it was a Curta calculator that my father had owned. It was this mechanical calculator before there were digital calculators. They were something that engineers used to use in the 50s and 60s. When you look at it and the Vuelta, you’ll see an overlap. And I swear to you, I wasn’t even aware of that connection until much later. The way I work is I see something, then I completely forget about it, then I come up with a design and then I’ll find the influences of that design later on.
You spent your early career coding and in web design. What was it like to break into the watch industry?
I’ll tell you, there’s a lot of institutional knowledge when it comes to watchmaking that I’m trying to recover because a lot of the people that have been doing this are in retirement communities or they’ve passed on. There’s a lot of institutional knowledge that especially goes into mechanical watchmaking. Unfortunately, the routes for training, even to Minnesotans, are hard to find or no longer exist. St. Paul had a wonderful watchmaking school. I had friends tell me I should check out the St. Paul Technical School, but their watchmaking program went bust the year I discovered them; however, I ended up picking up a lot of equipment from them. But it goes to show you that watchmaking knowledge for a while was going the way of the dodo. Fortunately, because it carries a historical and cultural value, there are a lot of people that want to hang on to it and preserve this form of technology.
How did the St. Paul watch-making school influence your craft?
Let’s put it this way: When the school closed down and they were selling off everything, if you were a watchmaker, it was like being a kid in a candy store. I actually think that that particular auction was a rockstar event. There were people that were flying in from all over the country to go to it. There were a lot of things that were frankly out of my reach. But I got a nice staking set and I got a lot of different movements. And I got a lot of tools, too, and a bunch of really nice Steinhausen watches for pennies on the dollar. I mean, it was a fire sale.
And you’re selling those Steinhausen watches on your website, too.
Yes, I’m selling them for an aggressively lower price than what they’d retail for. I started the business as a restorer of vintage mechanical watches, and I still do that, but it’s something that I no longer do as my primary responsibility. I used to restore a lot of watches from the 40s, 50s and 60s and then I would sell them on my own. It started out as an eBay business and then it evolved into my business.
When did you do that?
It would have been around 2011. I had the business and I was an information architect at Target at the time. The business was doing nice and I was making pretty good pocket money off of it. I even started to build a reputation as I was getting written up by bloggers. What changed my business was my first Kickstarter with the Vuelta, which I decided on doing because I knew how much I loved mechanical watches and I had an idea of what sort of product specifically that I wanted to put out based on things I’d seen from the past. And that’s really where my idea for the Vuelta and others came from: my work with vintage mechanical watches.
Has Padron Watch Company received any outside investments?
No outside investment. This is entirely a self-funded business. Kickstarter is obviously a good source of income. I have actually had a lot of independent sales, especially with the Padron Hennepins. I’ve sold more Hennepins outside of Kickstarter than I’ve sold on Kickstarter, in fact.
Is your business profitable?
I’ve had a fantastic several years. The third year, when I released the Hennepin, it was gangbusters. It was definitely more successful than my first year of business. So in terms of upside, I have a new office now in downtown Minneapolis.
Your business is reminiscent of another local company, Faribault Woolen Mills, which brought increased awareness to its brand and its historically significant products through collaboration. Is that something you’ve considered?
What you said is really interesting because I have to answer it carefully. I actually can’t talk about it very much. But to answer your question, I have that interest. There’s a really nice opportunity that I’m looking at that could potentially work for both brands, and that’s all that I can really say about it at the moment.
What other avenues will you take to grow the brand in the coming years?
I’ve gotten a lot of very nice brand recognition over the years, but I think I’m still too obscure. But Neil Diamond wears my watches. I have people that know my watches and I have a very devoted customer base, but I still feel that I haven’t done enough in terms of letting people know that I exist. I used to just be known in Australia, New Zealand, in the U.K. and Canada, but locally I wasn’t too well known. But ever since the release of the Hennepin, I’ve gotten a lot of locally recognition and local business. Which is nice, because you can service local customers a lot better than people in Australia.
So do you plan on making another watch that’s connected to Minnesota in some way?
Yes and no. I like to touch upon things and I like to honor things. But the one thing I want to be careful not to do is pander. With the Hennepin, the snow emergency sign that I put on the back was just a way to have fun with it. But I don’t want to hammer people over the head and say, “Look, I’m a local brand.” I want to be very careful with how I weave that in.
Watchmaking is a somewhat obscure profession. Do you ever take a step back and wonder how you reached this point?
I was never a person who wanted to be an entrepreneur. I had a steady job and this was a thing that kind of developed out of itself and I fell into it. On Valentine’s Day, I passed the five-year anniversary of this being my full-time profession instead of being a side business, and that to me is cool. I think because I hit this critical mark recently, I’ve finally stepped back and appreciated it more and realized just how fast time has been flying by.