Tom Kartsotis of Shinola Detroit on the importance of authenticity
Q: Shinola is always innovating and evolving. We can’t think of another company that sells watches, bikes, branded notebooks, jewelry, pet products and now turntables. What is the narrative thread that holds this brand together?
A: There are two threads that tie all our products together. At the core of what we are doing is job creation so when we look at a new category we ask ourselves whether this category can bring manufacturing jobs back to the places in America where jobs are needed.
The second thread is product quality and design. With everything we do we make certain that the products we make are designed within the tight design/quality boundaries that we have set for the brand. We have a beautiful story and created an enticing brand. Perhaps consumers will buy one of our products based on the story alone but that alone does not lead to a sustainable business. At the end of the day, all successful consumer product businesses are predicated on the quality and design of the product itself. Whether you are talking about a restaurant, a movie, a watch or a turntable…if the consumer experience is not positive with the product itself, you really won’t have a sustainable business. So we focus on the stuff and we make sure that it’s well made while, at the same time, it fits into the narrative of the brand that is predicated on creating jobs where they are needed. Over time we envision this ethos to include other American cities whose core issue is a need for job creation.
Q: Shinola is a shining example of American hardship, resilience and craftsmanship. How much does the personality of Detroit inform your business decisions and the types of products you will continue to add to the Shinola portfolio?
A: I wish I could say we had a plan in the initial creation of the brand. Detroit was initially chosen as the place to locate because the initial strategy was simply to create 100 jobs in a place that really needed them. We planned to make watches and sell them to other watch companies, not so much to create Shinola as a powerful, multi product category brand. It was both a philanthropic impulse and a desire to experience the sport of trying to create a business model that was, well, let’s just say unlikely to return the fruits that doing something less complex and more proven would have brought us financially.
We did it because it was hard. We have since learned that, in today’s world, reputations and great brands are built by trying to do hard things well. At this moment we are trying to parlay this reality into a brand that can create an order of magnitude more jobs than we initially imagined.
Q: Shinola has been described as both “authentic” and “contrived.” What’s the secret to creating a new brand with instant “heritage brand” status?
A: Maybe the brand is both “authentic” and “contrived.” Maybe it is contrived because we went to a city that we knew very little about, that many people had written off as dead or dying. Shortly thereafter it went bankrupt. We took an old shoe polish brand that was known for the phrase, “You don’t know shit from Shinola” and we are selling a quixotic range of consumer products that sell from $20 to $3,000 with no fear of going higher. I guess that can be called contrived. It can also be called a little nutty which may just be part of this brand’s charm.
Perhaps the authenticity comes from transparency. Since day one we have been quite communicative about the trials and tribulations of the effort. We are open as to how we are training all these workers. We tell the narrative about how we come up with names of some of our products…such as The Gomelsky, about some of the incredible stories of some lives we have impacted to the positive and about all aspects of this adventure. It’s fun to show people who have followed us remotely, via press reports, the factory itself. When they come here you can see it in their eyes. They get it and they appreciate it by an order of magnitude more than an individual can ever understand without seeing the place.
Q: What’s the one thing you wish you had known when you launched Shinola?
A: I can’t think of anything I wish we would have known when we launched Shinola. If we would have known much at all we would have never have tried this and we would have missed out on a tremendous amount of fun. And while this business is not yet profitable and is still unproven as a sustainable entity, I believe that we have brought a certain amount of laughs and hope to a city that really is amazing. And that city has given us a bear hug. And that love has inspired us to work harder and to invest more. And we believe we are just now at the beginning of something that can prove to be a very good thing in today’s world.