Modify Watches: Making Individualization a Core Principle

We want the best of all worlds: a perfectly designed product with that special customized touch that makes it clear that no one else could possibly have the exact same item. We want to be able to brag that we not only have something just as cool as the kids next door, but that we’ve gone one better and individualized our choice in a way they can’t mimic. I’m not just talking about keeping up with the Joneses, though there may be an inherent element of that, but rather how we telegraph our individuality and values with each part of our lives.

Modify Watches is running a Kickstarter campaign right now that boils down every element of the situation that we all find ourselves in each day — as we get dressed in the morning or make a purchase. The campaign takes Modify’s slick watches and offers a ‘mod-to-order’ version that allows buyers to swap in any image they’d like for the clock face.

Individualization is Driving Our Choices

Individualization isn’t exactly a new trend; it’s something Schwartz has been thinking about for a long time. He notes, “We’ve always thought about custom watches though. If you look at our business plan, I listed out Threadless for year-three goals and Zazzle for year-four. Threadless is all about a design community coming together to create products people love, and Zazzle is about empowering the individual. It took us about four years to finally get there.”

Schwartz picked major players to look up to: both Threadless and Zazzle are pioneers in letting consumers choose exactly what will appear on the products they purchase. Threadless launched in 2000 with a site where users could design and submit their own t-shirt designs. The Threadless community has the opportunity to get in on the action by voting to decide which designs will be printed. Zazzle has an even more extreme business model: the company operates an online platform where anyone can upload designs and have them printed on demand. Individual designers can also create their own stores, letting Zazzle handle all the production, without going through any sort of voting process. Zazzle was founded in 2005. Both companies are constantly growing.

Modify has tapped into the same sort of community love that drive both Threadless and Zazzle. Even without easy individualization options, customers were willing to go to some extreme lengths to make the watches they wanted (including diassembling watches, painting them, and then reassembling them). Part of that is due to the ‘individualization-lite’ nature of the the current iteration of a Modify watch. You can swap out candy-colored watch bands — as well as a few shades that are a little more straight-laced — with one of the many faces that Modify already offers.

“Our goal has always been to let people wear products that they love, that make them feel like they are wearing a unique piece. Modularity (i.e. having our interchangeable faces and straps) enables that,” Schwartz says. “Today you want to wear something conservative? How about a silver face with a black strap? But tomorrow, for $15 more, that can be a funky yellow strap, and a whole new look.”

With that goal in mind, Modify has pursued custom watch orders throughout the past four years. They’ve worked with Google, the WNBA, Nike, and other brands to create watches that matched those organizations’ styles. But, so far, they can’t produce those watches in batches of less than 100.

All or Nothing Works for Individualization

By launching the Mod-to-Order campaign, Modify found a way to raise the money necessary to offer more individualized watches by offering those watches right off the bat. Without the Kickstarter campaign, Mod-to-Order just won’t happen.

Making unique pieces is almost always more expensive and time-intensive than producing copy after copy of the exact same product. The money from the campaign, in addition to directly funding backers’ new watches, will go towards expanding Modify’s space and team in order to actually make the watches, as well as changing the company’s infrastructure to better handle printing and assembly for small numbers.

It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Sure, Modify will continue to operate as a business, but without funding, they won’t be offering truly customizable watches. Given the value at stake, it seems like a good bet. Not all products will really benefit from individualization, Modify has a lot going for it.

First, as a company, Modify is confident that the demand is there. Schwartz’s experience kept the company pushing toward creating one-off watches: “From day one we have always picked up the phone and talked to customers. Everyone on our team has at least one call per week to learn from fans…All indications were that we should explore one-off customization for individuals and small groups.”

Second, the fashion industry is generally one of the better bets for where people will pay a premium for unique items. It’s incredibly hard to sell an individualized truck engine, but much easier to sell a tailored suit or a personalized scarf. It’s an industry where it’s possible to bet big on individual orders and win.

One-Off isn’t Easy

But while the fashion industry isn’t the hardest place to offer custom products, the process still isn’t all that easy.

For a company that’s just starting out, making one-off products can be the hardest way to make a living. Look at Etsy shops for an example: it’s rare to find an experienced seller who doesn’t focus on making just a few different products over and over again. Such sellers often offer the option to commission special products, but they charge much higher prices for the privilege. Modify is able to avoid this particular problem, because the company has been producing and selling its watches since 2010. They’re changing just one small element — the watch face — in their whole production process.

For Schwartz, the idea of educating buyers on the many options individualization offers is one of the hardest steps. “I thought — and still think — that the biggest difficulty will be growing a channel and building awareness that you can do custom watches with us. Zazzle and Cafepress are amazing companies that allow you to customize anything you want. We need to work extremely hard to be heard and seen.”

The question of marketing individualization requires different answers for each product. While newer production methods, like print-on-demand, have made customization very practical, they still seem foreign to many buyers. As someone who is comfortable buying online and who is willing to try out new sellers, I often have discussions with friends who may want to order what I have but aren’t sure how to navigate the process of designing their own t-shirt or negotiating a commission. Selling on such a model requires educating your prospective customers.

It’s an approach that has its difficulties, but also its rewards: anyone with a Mod-to-Order watch will be an ad for Modify as their friends and family ask about the watch that no one else seems to have. Even better, once someone has placed a single order with the company, coming back is much easier — ordering a dozen custom watches as gifts, for instance, seems like a logical next step, especially when the buyer wants something personal yet easy to buy. Modify’s modular watches work in favor of driving multiple purchases, too: once you have one watch, you want more options to swap bands and faces among.

What watches does Schwartz want to wear himself? He says, “I’m most excited that our Creative Director Ashil will be able to produce all of the watches he’s wanted. Since we started the company four years ago he has designed thousands of watches, and only a few hundred have ever gone to production. The guy is a wizard — whatever he wants to exist, I’ll probably want to wear it.” Of course, Schwartz is also planning to put pictures of his niece and nephews on a watch as well.

A Personal Point

As a side note, I did ask Schwartz why Modify chose to launch their campaign on Kickstarter. He said, “We chose Kickstarter for the brand name. In the end, I’m pretty sure that we would have been better served using Better customer service, for one, and many fewer restrictions.”

I have a personal fascination with the way we choose between the many platforms that are driving new business models. It’s very true that Kickstarter has name-brand power, but it’s also starting to seem like a particularly restrictive platform. It’s a factor I’m following closely and that I expect to write about more soon.

In the Meanwhile

There are just a few days left on Modify Watches’ Kickstarter campaign. Take a look and consider backing it. Perks go far beyond a single watch — including having Modify’s creative director help you create the design you want.