Detroit’s Canvas Watch Co. Wants Customers’ Design Input

What makes a 26-year-old Michigan native leave a job working for Tesla in Silicon Valley? Shaun Reinhold, founder of the Canvas Watch Company, wanted to apply what he’d learned about supply chain management to a custom watch e-commerce business.

“It started with the idea of building a physical product and selling it online,” Reinhold says. “I saw what brands like Warby Parker were doing, so I looked for a category where a stand-alone brand could be interesting. I loved working at Tesla and seeing a product come to reality. I wanted to repeat that process.”

Reinhold also saw an opportunity to be on the ground floor of Detroit’s startup ecosystem. In launching a watch-making business in the Detroit area, Reinhold joined a burgeoning mini-cluster that includes the local juggernaut Shinola, the Motor City Watch Works, and a handful of custom watch designers who ply their wares at places like Rust Belt Market. Watches with “Detroit” branding are becoming so popular that an Australian clothing company called Rip Curl recently released a series of Detroit-themed watches.

Reinhold started his foray into watches by sketching, modeling, and prototyping wristwatch designs in December 2012 at TechShop in Allen Park, MI. He had been able to save a nice chunk of money when stock market interest in Tesla made his stock options in the company grow exponentially. His parents also invested $15,000 and he won a $7,000 grant from the Detroit Technology Exchange. Initially, during the planning process, he thought he’d sell low-cost watches in a direct-to-consumer model. But Reinhold worried that his company might be lumped in with low quality watchmakers who were doing it on the cheap.

So, in 2013, Reinhold decided to focus on selling high-quality watches, which he describes as not as expensive as those from Shinola, but built with similar components. The watches would also be unusual because instead of printing the numbers and markings on the dial of the watch, Canvas would print them on the back of the sapphire lens, giving the watches a 3D look.

Reinhold’s next strategic decision was to involve consumers in the design process. Though he has settled on a design for the case and strap, he plans to offer individuals the chance to upload their own designs for the printed dial. Canvas will choose the best designs for a limited production run of 250, with one watch going to the designer and rest to be sold online. Reinhold says the company’s long-term goal is to nurture its own online community of designers and watch enthusiasts who interact and choose which designs will be manufactured next.

Reinhold is currently a tenant in the Detroit Creative Corridor Center Creative Ventures program and, for now, he’s a one-man operation. He’s also in the last days of a Kickstarter campaign to raise $40,000 to finance production of Canvas’s first two designs. The campaign ends on May 4. As of publication, Canvas has raised more than $29,000 toward its goal.

If he can raise enough money, Reinhold plans to have a manufacturer in Ohio handle the first two production runs. But his longer-term vision is to build Canvas’s operation in Detroit. “Once I have the capital, I want to do the assembly in Detroit and eventually attach a store depending on our growth,” he adds.

Reinhold sees companies like Canvas, Threadless, and Dribble—which all encourage customers to contribute to the design process—as harbingers of how consumers might interact with businesses in the future. “There’s a faster move toward listening to customers and giving them what they want. It’s such a clear value proposition for people to be involved in designing their own watches,” he says.

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