Talley & Twine is a premium watch brand built with intention and inclusion. It was founded by Randy Williams, an avid watch collector who wanted to bring more representation to the watch industry. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Randy shares how he turned a sketch into his first prototype, built out a successful crowdfunding campaign, and doubled annual sales through data analysis.
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A brand built on diversity and inclusion
Shuang: Watches being a saturated category, why did you want to get into this industry and start Talley & Twine?
Randy: I think the biggest light bulb moment for me was after college when I started collecting watches. I had got up to a collection, maybe about 10 to 12 watches. And it was becoming harder and harder for my wife to find watches that I didn’t already have or watches that didn’t look like copycat watches but were still quality. The biggest thing I noticed was that there was no representation, in the watch industry, of people that looked like me. And what I mean is, I would join these online groups, buy these magazines, and there was never anybody in any of the advertising that looked like me. And I didn’t feel like any ads or marketing was directed towards people that looked like me. And I thought that represented a huge opportunity to go and address this huge segment of the market, that I knew was collecting watches as well, that was being ignored.
Shuang: How do you even begin designing watches or finding production partners to bring this idea to life?
Randy: Growing up I really enjoyed sketching and drawing and would have these sketchbooks full of stuff. I never took any formal classes. But before I even had the idea of starting my own company, I would start to sketch different watch designs of things that I wanted to wear. And so I would just do this in my free time, my downtime at work. When I decided to start Talley & Twine, I had fallen in love with this one particular sketch. And so I called my wife and I said, “What do you think about me starting a watch company?” And she said, “Yeah, sure. Go for it.” And I remember that day because I was on my lunch break at my previous job. From then on, that’s when I launched out into finding out how to actually get this made. And so I found several manufacturers on Alibaba and began communicating with them, going back and forth. And eventually started ordering samples from them, based on my design. Let me go back a step. But I also hired somebody on Upwork, I think it was Elance at the time. I hired a designer to take my sketch and make a 3D model out of that. And from that 3D model, that’s what I used to engage the manufacturers with to get the samples.
Shuang: Tell us a little bit about the name and the significance, because that means a lot to you as well. And also I love the story behind it and what it represents.
Randy: Talley & Twine is actually an intersection here in Virginia. And it’s really important to me because when I moved here from Georgia, I remember getting off the plane. I had a one-way AirTran ticket. And I remember opening my wallet and I actually physically had $1 in my pocket and no money in my bank account. And so Virginia always represented a new beginning for me. And so when I started looking for names for the company, I want it to be something significant. And Talley & Twine is significant because it was where my wife and I purchased our first home together. And it’s an intersection that used to be a really, really bad area, this neighborhood that was known for crime and violence. But now, because of a first-time homebuyers program, those same families now had the opportunity to become homeowners and there were these beautiful thriving families there. And I thought it represented that transition. And it really represents what many people know as the American dream, which is that you don’t have to finish the way that you started and there’s always an opportunity for you. If you are focused on those opportunities and you’re willing to take action, then great things can happen. And so hopefully the name Talley & Twine not only inspired me but inspires the people that wear a Talley & Twine as well.
Design process and finding the right manufacturers
Shuang: So you have a great brand, you have sketches that turned into models, and you now find a few manufacturers and producers. What did you do next in your path of launching the business?
Randy: Well, relatively, getting the samples and getting everything made was the easy part in retrospect, because now I had to figure out how to sell them. And so I didn’t have any money, very little saved up. But I used a crowdfunding site, Kickstarter, and I just built a campaign on there. I took a little time to build up my audience on Instagram, of people that I felt were like-minded and were into watches. And I bought a camera and filmed the whole campaign myself. Most of the video is either me using a tripod or my father-in-law holding the camera for me to model to watch. And I did all the graphics and everything myself as well. So we launched a Kickstarter campaign and we met our funding goal. Our funding goal was $23,000, I think. And we did close to $25,000. So we met our campaign. That’s how we were able to get our first shipment.
Shuang: And what were the messaging within your campaign that you felt spoke to those people who backed you in the campaign?
Randy: I capitalized on one of the trends that were happening, that I saw happening, as a collector in the market. And that was having these NATO-style bands. I had enough topics to build around that. And so we built around the fact that our watches were on NATO bands and you can get all of these cool colors. And we gave people these options for bands and they were interchangeable. And we used that to springboard the marketing behind it. And also, again, explaining the name, the significance of the name Talley & Twine. Explaining why we only have the number seven on our watches. That’s another distinctive feature of our watches, is the only number we have is the number seven. Because seven days in a week, seven represents completion. And it’s supposed to inspire people to finish the things that they start. And so, based on those factors, I think that positions us well enough to be able to get a successful campaign going. And it did.
Shuang: So now that you have people supporting your campaign, how did you go about ensuring production went well and the people who supported you get their first products?
Randy: This was one of the toughest parts of the whole campaign and the whole launch period because you got these people who trusted you to get the product made, and they pre-ordered the item, and now you have to deliver it. This was one of the things I hadn’t really taken into consideration. I thought I had built in enough space and time to be able to deliver it at the date that I said, but we wound up being several months late. It took so much longer than I anticipated because of Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can happen, will happen.” And we got all these delays. But what I found is that, if you continue to communicate with people and be accountable and just admit that, “Hey, look, this is what’s happening. This is the stage that we’re in,” most of the people were very, very understanding. We had very few people to ask for refunds and they were used to supporting crowd-backed projects. So I think we delivered about three months late, and then we were able to get those shipped out. And it was this huge weight lifted off of my shoulders. And that’s the first time when I felt like we were really in business, at that point.
Scaling beyond crowdfunding and sourcing new customers
Shuang: And moving away from crowdfunding, now you have to generate new customers. What did you do next?
Randy: Yeah. I felt like, not having a very big marketing budget, my only option was to use social media to tell the brand’s story. And so that’s what we did. We started utilizing some influencers who had helped us out during the campaign. We now know them as micro-influencers. But at the time, they were just people who I felt like had some reach to be able to help us spread the word about Talley & Twine. And so we gave them some products. And then we started to emphasize or focus on creating content that I felt represented the brand. And so we did that on both Instagram and Facebook, and we eventually got into running Facebook ads. And we started picking up traction as I learned more and more about how to do Facebook ads. That’s how we really began to get the word out. Our most successful video was actually a video of me explaining what I just told to you in the first few minutes, of how and why I started the company. And I realized that people really like hearing that brand origin story. And that allows them to connect with the brand and encourage them enough to be able to come to our website and check out our products.
Shuang: What were some of the initial Facebook ads you put out? I understand it’s all about tweaking and enhancing the ads while you learn. So how was that learning process for you?
Randy: It’s still an ongoing process. We have an agency now, but things change all the time. So that’s the main thing I had to realize. But the principles, the core of the type of messaging that you use, remain the same. You want to make sure that you’re still representing the brand, in the best possible light, to the people that are most likely to buy. And so some of the techniques that I used was, like I told you, telling the brand story. Number two, constantly improving the quality of our content. I think that’s really important. I go back and look at some of our early photos and I just shake my head, I’m like, “Man, this was terrible.” So as you’re able to, and as your resources expand, try to make better content. And then I found the technique is the same as well, find out where your customers are hanging out and engage with them there. So some really grassroots stuff we did was go to some pages, Instagram or Facebook, that we felt a large number of our customers would be there, and we just engaged with that platform. We engaged with that platform, engaged with those people, commented on their pictures or their statuses and things of that nature, to encourage them to, “Hey, take a look at us.” And that’s how we got the word out early. And, after that, I think we started dialing in on really who our customers were. So we were able to target those people with our ads as well.
Shuang: So, speaking of reaching out to different communities or engaging in different communities, did you specifically go into watch communities, or did you go to more adjacent groups, like fashion or design?
Randy: Well, that’s a good question. We went into the watch groups first. And it didn’t work. Number one, because when you’re talking to people who see a new watch company every day, it’s not really that exciting that you’re watch company number 1000. I learned that the watch community is kind of unaccepting of companies that don’t meet the norms. So I’ll explain what I mean. So there’s a lot of companies that are successful in the watch industry, and their watches look just like some of the most popular brands. It’s almost like there’s a group of people that want watches that continue to do the same thing, that looked the same way. They have a frame of reference for it. And so people, I think, are more comfortable with that. And our watches looked very different from most of the stuff that was out. And so what I did was I went to a subculture, which was the fashion community. And I realized that these fashion influencers, especially if you consider yourself on the cutting edge of fashion, you want to be more of an early adopter and a trendsetter, as opposed to someone who’s just following the trends and wants to wear what everyone else is wearing. So I went to those people who like to introduce new things to the marketplace. And I felt like we’re more of a fashion watch than anything because we want to compliment your wardrobe. And so that’s why we dove headfirst into that fashion community and really latched on to the people who are like, “Okay, let me find the newest, hottest sneaker. Let me find the newest, hottest sweatshirt. Let me find the newest, hottest accessories.” And we were able to see some growth because we chose to switch that fundamental difference in the way that we go after customers.
The one data insight that doubled sales
Shuang: And then speaking of other things that you’ve tried, campaigns you’ve done, or expansion into different categories, what were some of those scalable successes that you can share?
Randy: I told you we used to use NATO bands. So one of the first things we did is we started offering metal bands, stainless steel bands for our watches. That was really important because it allowed us to offer things at a different price point. And so $30 to $40 in price difference really means a lot when you’re a small company. And so we were able to offer a higher price. Another thing that we did, and this was probably the most significant thing to date, is we listened to the feedback from everybody that was purchasing watches from us. And in digging into our Google Analytics, we found that 50% of the people purchasing our watches were women purchasing for men. And at this time we only sold men’s watches. And I was really strict on that at that time and I only wanted to stay in one category, because I thought it would be too confusing to offer women’s watches. As a man, I felt like I didn’t understand it. But they practically begged me to make women’s watches. And I think in 2017 we started making our first women’s line of watches. And now it represents 50% of our business. And that was probably the most significant change that we made. It allowed us to grow a lot faster and gave us a really diverse community of customers as well. I think prior to launching our women’s watches, we were probably doing maybe around a quarter of a million dollars in business per year at that point. And business doubled that following year from just offering women’s watches, amongst other factors, but that was a significant point of growth force as well.
Shuang: And it’s so interesting to see how leveraging accessible tools from Google gave you that insight to say, “Hey, I can actually offer similar products but just for a different demographic,” and that actually doubled your business.
Randy: Data is everything. I think utilizing that data to make smart decisions is a huge advantage that we have in small businesses that weren’t available to us. Even if you run an ad campaign online now, through either Facebook or Google, you can track and see how well that campaign has performed. As opposed to having a billboard, placing a magazine ad, or get even a TV commercial, you don’t really have the feedback from the customers. And it definitely isn’t as immediate as it is with some of the online tools that we have now. So it’s a great time to be an entrepreneur.
Shuang: What are some other tools or apps or services that have helped you grow your business?
Randy: I think one that we use a lot because we probably use it today, that’s top of mind, is Zipify Pages. We use that to create landing pages for our announcements and to update our blog, and any press and news. And then also, another app that had a huge effect on our business was the Google Shopping app. Being able to index our products so they’re searchable on Google, and that coincides with our Google ad campaigns, has been huge because now people can find us and we’re right up there with all the other watch brands as you search for different styles. So those two come to mind right now.
How entrepreneurship changes as you scale
Shuang: Talk to us about some of the lessons and maybe some of the shortfalls or failures that you faced that really taught you a lot in this journey.
Randy: What I learned on this journey is that there are always going to be challenges. I think, for many people, they expect to get into business and not struggle at any point or not see any challenges. And what I learned from our challenges is that when we do overcome them, we grow; not only as a company but also individually. You become a better business owner, a better entrepreneur. One of the biggest challenges recently is just hiring and finding the right people. We’ve been blessed to have great people who’ve been with us. We still have employee number one that works with us and a lot of people who have been with us for multiple years. But in order to grow, you need the right people. And it can be very daunting trying to find those people, especially as a small business who is competing with these big corporations for top talent. You really have to find people who agree with your mission and who, again, are going to be able to see the vision of the company and hire for where we are going not for where we are right now. And so being able to add people to the team has been one of the most impactful things, but it’s also been one of the most challenging parts, is just finding that right fit. Because that was a new skill that I hadn’t had to learn. For the first few years, it was just me and maybe people I knew. So to have to start going out of network to find new people, that was one of the challenges that comes to mind right now.
Shuang: A lot of the time, hiring, expanding the team, also means you need to shift your mindset, let go of responsibilities, and trust others. So how has that journey for you personally?
Randy: That’s been different for me, especially over the past year or two, is because we started hiring people to fill these key positions. And I was doing so much double duty, or whatever, during that time, that I wasn’t even aware that I probably wasn’t supposed to be doing that stuff. So stuff like even running my Facebook ads, to engaging on social media. Once we started hiring people for those positions, I realized that, “Man, I don’t know what I should be doing right now.” So I remember talking to one of the partners in our business, the other owner, Eric, and saying, “I feel out of sorts this week. My calendar is clearer than it’s ever been. And I don’t know what to do now, as a result of that.” And so it’s been great having people. But I’m shifting my focus, as it has allowed me to do, is to be more of a CEO and more of a visionary for the company, and focus on, again, making sure that the new people feel welcome into the Talley & Twine family, that I’m sharing those values. A large percentage of the team is remote. I have to make a larger effort to share that vision and for the company: where we’re going, company updates, and make people feel welcome as well. So my behavior has definitely shifted. But I think I’ve grown as an entrepreneur. And honestly, I’m less stressed now that I have people helping with all those other tasks.
Shuang: Great to hear. Great to hear. And then, looking back a little bit, because I know that this started with a phone call during your lunch break when you still had a 9:00 to 5:00, talk about that journey of leaving 9:00 to 5:00s, taking risks, and actually building something of your own as well.
Randy: It’s been an amazing journey. I did have enough foresight to be able to appreciate it along the way. Maybe not as much as I should, but I realized as soon as I was fired from my job … I didn’t share this part of the story with you, but a couple of years later I was actually fired from my job and my wife was five months pregnant at that time. That’s how I really became a full-time entrepreneur. Luckily we had enough money saved. And so I sat down with my wife and we talked about it. I said, “Look, here’s my plan for getting us through the next 90 days. After that, we’ll reevaluate. If things are not going well, I will look for a job. But I would like to see what Talley & Twine looks like when I fully devote myself to it and when I fully give it my all each and every day.” And luckily, I did not have to go back to find a job. And that being said, I learned that every day you wake up and you’re doing what it is that you want to do, you are winning. That is success. Success is not tied to a specific number or specific accolades, it’s you fulfilling your purpose and doing something of your choosing that day. And that’s success. So I learned to appreciate the journey because of that. It’s not about how big the company gets, it’s more about, am I enjoying what I’m doing every day? And the answer to that is yes. So it’s been a great journey for us.
Shuang: So was that moment scary? Because it is a contentious time, your wife was pregnant, and also I think any form of leaving something behind that’s so familiar is scary.
Randy: Well, as a married man, the good thing is I had previously had this conversation with my wife ever since we were dating, is that my real passion is entrepreneurship. I really want to own my own business. I’m never going to be sitting at one job for very, very long. So I wanted to make sure she was on board with me in taking that risk. It wasn’t a totally new conversation. But my biggest fear was not me trying it full-time, my biggest fear was: how would she accept it, with her being five months pregnant and me basically saying I don’t have the income I once had? But after having the conversation, even with the baby hormones, she reacted extremely well. She was very calm about the situation. I think she saw how passionate I was about it and she knew that it would really make me happy. And so she made that sacrifice for me to be able to chase my dream. And so I’m forever grateful for that. I’m more afraid of not trying than I am of trying and failing. I’ll always be able to find another job. But when you have an opportunity and you have a business that generates traction, you owe it to yourself, you owe it to the business and to those customers, to give it a shot.
The next chapter for Talley and Twine
Shuang: And I’m so glad you’re here, in this chapter of the journey. Looking forward, what are some exciting projects that you can share? And what else are you doing to scale Talley & Twine to the next level?
Randy: Great question. This year our theme is collaboration. So we’re partnering with some really cool brands and creating unique timepieces built around those collaborations. And so I’m very excited about that. It’s going to allow us to keep our product line fresh and it’s going to also expose us to different customer bases that we might not normally be interacting with. So we’re really excited about those partnerships. We got some licensing deals as well. And then we’re also doing our first Swiss-made automatic watch. And so last year, my co-owner and I, went to Switzerland and put everything in motion for getting the watch made. We met with our watchmaker, toured the factory, and really dialed in on some of the details of the watch. And so we’re hoping to launch that by the last quarter of this year. And I think that will be our first entry into truly the luxury market. So we’re really excited about that and where that can take the company. And then as far as scale, we are in a few conversations right now. We are raising money to grow, to capitalize on the momentum that we have. And we’re looking for the right strategic partner that can assist us with going there. I think the partner for us is not going to be someone who just brings money, it’s going to be somebody who brings some sort of expertise that can tie into where we are. But I’m very happy with the pace that the company is going. But as you grow, you experience these new growing pains as well. So there are challenges no matter if you’re growing slow or growing rapidly, like us.
Shuang: That’s very exciting. I think entering that luxury level and also working with those Swiss watchmakers is an exciting chapter. You mentioned fundraising. I wanted to ask about the financial side of the journey.
Randy: Well, lucky to say that we’re still 100% independent. So we haven’t taken any outside money in our seven years in business. And the way we’ve been able to manage that growth is just by being creative in the way that we do things. So right now, when we do new products, we do two things. We bring them to our existing … we have a big enough customer pool now to bring it to them and ask for their feedback on it. Number one, so we don’t waste money, buying things that won’t sell. And then, number two, we’re able to set up pre-orders for our items in the same format that we did when we were on Kickstarter. And so that allows us to get the funding for our new orders. Because our biggest expense, every single year, is inventory. And the challenge around inventory is that you have to order it before you sell it. Sometimes you can order too much inventory. Or you can do like we’ve done in previous years as well, is order not enough inventory and then you sell out. Now, you risk hurting your brand when you sell out of inventory. And so, financially, that’s been one of the biggest challenges for us, is finding that sweet spot of ordering the right amount of inventory, selling through it in time enough to go and purchase more inventory. So that’s always been a balancing act for us.