Honest Ecommerce: Defending the American Dream with R.T. Custer

Honest Ecommerce: Defending the American Dream with R.T. Custer

What does the American dream mean to you?

To many, it means every American has an equal opportunity to pursue their highest aspirations and achieve success. Essentially, the American dream is the idea that anyone, regardless of where they came from or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success.

Honest eCommerce is a podcast dedicated to cutting through the nonsense and finding actionable advice for online store owners. Host Chase Clymer believes running a direct-to-consumer brand doesn’t have to be complicated. He interviews founders and experts who have put in the work to create real results. 

On today’s episode, his podcast guest is none other than our very own co-founder, R.T. Custer. 

Without further delay, let’s see what these two had to say about defending the American dream in this jam-packed episode of Honest eCommerce.

Honest Ecommerce podcast art

In the Beginning, There Were Watches

When R.T. and his friend — and co-founder of Vortic — Tyler Wolfe were in college at Penn State, they came up with the idea to restore and revitalize vintage timepieces. They met regularly from 2011 to 2014 to plot out their strategy and wanted to ensure that they were creating an American-made company — with jobs for Americans as a top priority.

During their lengthy search for suppliers, they uncovered the rich history of century-old American watch companies like Hamilton, Elgin, Illinois, and Walham, which produced hundreds of millions of pocket watches in the United States, mostly in the Northeast, between 1850 and 1950. The pocket watch of that era was the equivalent of today's iPhone and was one of the few convenient ways to keep track of time for the general public.

Back then, most people valued these vintage pocket watches primarily for the precious metals they contained, but for R.T. and Tyler, this was the beginning of their company. 

They reasoned that by repurposing the movement and hands from these antique pocket watches from a century ago, they could create a watch that was entirely made in the United States. After finalizing their concept, they launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $10,000 to fund the purchase of a 3D printer to produce the necessary parts.

vortic watch converison

They started making watches in their basement in 2014, and R.T.'s corporate logistics job at Walmart helped them make ends meet. Sometimes things went wrong, and there was a definite learning curve.

“We put the idea of an antique American pocket watch turned into a wristwatch on Kickstarter in late November of 2014. Like a classic Kickstarter story, we set our goal at $10,000. We hit like $41,000 in 30 days, but internally, like we thought we were gonna make like a million on Kickstarter, and we'd just be on yachts the rest of our life or something. We had these crazy goals.” - R.T. Custer

While R.T. spent the next few years attracting seed capital and angel investors to bring the total to over $1 million, this endeavor ultimately served more as a proof of concept for the duo. In 2017, the company began to turn a profit and was subsequently able to secure bank loans, marking the beginning of its expansion and financial success.

“And so then it just became a hustle. $40,000 isn't enough to start a business, but it was enough to prove that people were interested in this product. I started raising money, and [Tyler] started figuring out how to make the product. And since about 2017, we've made and sold just about everything we can.” - R.T. Custer

It’s amazing to see how a successful business grows and achieves success when its owners have a vision. Vortic began in a basement with a 3D printer from Amazon and just two guys working to make their dream come true. Unfortunately, however, their journey was not all smooth sailing.

r.t. and tyler

Defending Vortic Watch Co. and Defending the American Dream

Before the first Vortic watch was ever sold, the Swatch Group, which owns over twenty-six different watch brands, sent a cease and desist letter to R.T. and Tyler in July of 2015. 

At first, they thought it was just a miscommunication. It seemed ridiculous that the world's largest watchmaker would be going after these two guys, fresh out of college, who were making watches in their basement. They contacted the Swatch Group and spent two years trying to explain their work and its distinction. Regrettably, a formal lawsuit was filed against them in 2017.

“So when we got the cease and desist, we thought they just didn't understand. We're taking the antique Hamilton pocket watch and turning it into a modern wristwatch. Yeah, it still says Hamilton on the face of the watch, but that's not because we're printing it there. It's just an old pocket watch and wristwatch. I was in entrepreneur magazine actually for the story. It's called Hamilton V Vortic. That case is now being cited in major lawsuits all over the country because, basically, we defended the art of upcycling. Trash to treasure is what we do.” - R.T. Custer

The Swatch Group refused to back down and continued legal battles for six years. Because of this pressure, R.T. not only had to master the ins and outs of business and company management but also the intricate details of trademark law. 

With everything R.T. went through during the heated suit with Swatch, he thought the lawsuit's impact on his friendship with Tyler was the worst part of it. Due to Tyler's physical commitment to creating the watches and instructing new workers, R.T. took on the role of the public face of the company and, by extension, the lawsuit.

“Other American entrepreneurs standing up and saying, Hey, these kids are just trying to make some watches guys, like, come on. That was huge. I would say instead of a mistake, it was just the unknown. You don't know what you don't know. I don't know how I would've solved the whole lawsuit without having experiences like that and just getting the cease and desist. Now I'm implementing [the things I’ve learned] every time we have an idea for a new brand or a new product, I immediately look up the trademark to see if we can own it and then start working on it. I'm trying to look ahead.” - R.T. Custer

r.t. at the courthouse

In addition to the lawsuit, R.T. faced other hurdles along the way while defending the American dream, stating that the early pandemic in 2020 was one of the most challenging times in his life.

“I was going into the pandemic with all these bad things happening, all this stress. Then you know, the pandemic hits, and people start freaking out, and I started freaking out too. I couldn’t stop thinking, Why would you buy a $3,000 wristwatch that does absolutely nothing except tell time? — and only if you wind it! This is the ultimate niche luxury thing. Why would somebody buy that on the internet during a global pandemic? Well fast forward to today and we've never sold more watches than in 2020 and 2021.” - R.T. Custer

Not even a global pandemic or a cease and desist from the largest watch company in the world could stop Vortic. The Vortic Watch Company journey is truly an amazing one, and one that other entrepreneurs could learn from. When you have an idea you truly believe in, you will pursue that dream regardless of what life throws at you along the way.

What Makes Vortic Stand Out

Vortic Watch Company is a small-batch, custom watch manufacturer based in Northern Colorado. Our objective is to preserve and improve the tradition of excellence in American manufacturing. To do this, we combine traditional and cutting-edge technology to produce distinctive, efficient, high-quality watches of excellent value. 

As a business, we’ve learned that manufacturing is not as simple as giving your designs to someone and asking them to make them. Going from concept to final product is a long process of working with suppliers on design, revisions, prototypes, etc. Assuming that everyone has access to similar machinery, why is it that some facilities perform better than others? 

The answer is that the individuals who run those machines are the most important factor in creating a quality product.

We have confidence in the people behind each of our components, and we want to share that confidence with you. We truly believe that the more you know about our products, the more you will want them.

vortic team photo

Check Out Our Social Media Platforms for More Vortic Content

We want to thank Chase Clymer for having R.T. on Honest eCommerce to talk about the Vortic story. Defending the American dream is something we take very seriously as an American-made company. Check out the Honest eCommerce website here to learn more about the podcast and listen to more episodes!

At Vortic Watch Company, we do more than just produce wristwatches. We refurbish vintage timepieces and turn them into wearable works of art. We're proud of our method, and we believe it shows in the superiority of our final products.

To learn more about the watches we create at Vortic, visit our Instagram to view the featured watch of the day and sign up for our newsletter to receive email updates. That way, you can stay up to date on all the works of moving art we produce.

If you want to know everything there is to know about Vortic, you should subscribe to Custer & Wolfe on YouTube. You can find the latest information on our expanding warehouse, our methods of production, and our plans to make an impact as a company right there!

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