It was the newspaper ad seen around the country, showing off the watch that started it all.
Five years ago, Shinola debuted the Runwell, a timepiece that captured our commitment to classic design, quality construction and American manufacturing.
Time flies when you’re building well-made products, and we’re just getting started. But to have a vision for the future, you have to honor the past.
Can you imagine being a part of a team so small on the cusp of something so big?
For some of the people who were at Shinola from the start, there was adventure, excitement and a sense of accomplishment being on the front lines of doing something that had never been done before—and doing it in Detroit.
These are some of their stories:
Daniel Caudill, Creative Director
At the very beginning, one of the first conversations I had with the founder before there was Detroit, before there was anything, was around the notion of proving we could make beautiful, well-made quality product in the United States, and that we could be competitive from a price standpoint.
There was the idea of building a factory and creating jobs, and that sentiment is something I’d rather take a chance on than anything else that was a sure thing.
We really didn’t know if it could even work until we actually did it.
There were very few people at the beginning. We had an office in Plano, Texas—and there was a feeling of camaraderie and excitement. It was about creating beautiful product, well-made product and an amazing environment.
I still get very emotional about the brand because the story is very real. The city, the people, the factories, the friends—it’s very heartfelt, it’s very deep.
We decided to pre-sell the Runwell watches. We hadn’t even started making the watches yet. The factory was still in training mode, but we had been talking about the product and factory, and we were getting a following.
There was probably around 30-50 people at the company, and the stores were under construction when the Runwell limited editions sold out.
We put the watches up for sale with photographs and when each one sold over the first week, someone would stand up and yell, “we sold one, we sold five, we sold ten!”
It felt like something from a movie, like the wave of what was to come started to hit—and I don’t think we really came up for air for about three years.
Carla Carr, Vice President of Leather
I remember the good old days when this was all just a thought in the founder’s head. I remember pulling inspiration with Daniel and having black boards all over the office in Dallas detailing all of the little things that would make us special: the crown, the caseback and the endless amounts of font type. It took forever to just get to a starting point of the overall watch design.
We had a tiny team and we were such a family.
We had a determined spirit to make watches in the U.S. I’ll never forget the very first video they put together. It was images of Detroit and images of the factory being built in a time lapse. We were all sitting in a conference room in the Plano office. There was imagery, there was music. Daniel and I looked at each other and we both had tears in our eyes. It was such a proud moment and we both were secretly hoping that no one would see we that were tearing up.
When we sold out the first time, there was a constant communication between the key players about what was happening. We couldn’t believe it. It felt like all the HARD work and I mean HARD work had paid off.
Loved all of it and the birth of the brand.
Greg Verras, Watch Designer
I never thought I’d have the chance to work in a startup environment in the watch industry. To be able to come back to the city that shaped who I was as a designer was surreal.
Being at Shinola in the early days was intense and full of endless potential. It felt alive. Watching the Runwell sell out so quickly was a confirmation that people still care about quality product. The way it launched Shinola into the larger watch world with an irreverent and undeniable charm was a thing of beauty.
Molly Wang, Watch Designer
Joining a startup before the first product is even released brings a lot of excitement and uncertainty. In the early days, we would joke: “If Shinola still exists, we can do x.”
Even though I was hired to design watches, we were all involved in multiple areas of the business because we did not have enough people on staff. One night, the watch design team was doing piles of leather strap quality control in the Detroit watch factory after the workers went home. We were all happy to help each other because we knew that’s the only way we would succeed.
When I saw the full page ad in the New York Times, that’s the moment when I felt that Shinola was real. I knew we were either going to make a huge statement, or we’d all go home.
I wasn’t completely shocked when the Runwell sold out so fast. I love everything about the watch: the case construction, caseback, dial printing and leather strap. It’s such a handsome watch that everyone would love to have. We have the greatest story with Shinola building a watch factory in Detroit. The great sales were just validation to all of the quality work.
Olivier De Boel, Head of Watch Manufacturing
I was in Thailand at Ronda, a manufacturer of watch movements, when the Shinola project was announced. The founder was going to work with Ronda to start building watches in America. When it was decided that the watch factory was going to be built in Detroit, I visited neighborhoods and the people were so nice and proud. I remember visiting the Henry Ford Museum and I told a historian there we were going to build watches in Detroit, she started to cry she was so happy.
When the Runwell sold out, it was unbelievable because we had only advertised with photographs and that was enough to entice people. They hadn’t even touched it. Everyone in the preorder paid the full amount and it took a couple of months to get them all out.
I couldn’t believe it, I was like “oh my, God. This is unheard of.”
From that moment, we never stopped—there was no down time after that.
I feel so fortunate that I was here from the very beginning. How often do you get a chance in your lifetime to start from scratch? How do you even find something like that?
Dyron Terry, Shipping & Receiving Manager
It was very difficult at first, we had sold out of the watches. So, you had about 600 packing slips and you had to manually enter each one. It was crazy, but it was magical knowing that there was a product going around the world and you had seen the first one that was ever built.
I can just remember being nervous that the labels were correct. I wanted to make sure it arrived to the customers.
From the start, it felt like we were a part of something big. We were staying here late at night, it had to go through us to get out.
It was really cool to see such a high quality watch coming out of Detroit.
Cora Alexander, Security/Reception
It was nice and different. I met the first trainers on the line, and-at the time-there were just two lines.
When the Runwell sold out, it was crazy. I thought it was just amazing how serious people were about the watches. I helped out when they first started customer service, because they didn’t have anyone to work.
When they finally put the whole watch together, it was beautiful. The first 10 workers, they were very happy they did it, because you have to understand, no one came from this background. It was a nice feeling for them, and it was nice for me to be here.
Tonya Hadden, Continuous Improvement Analyst
I was one of the first people on the movement line and it was something different, seeing things from the start-it was a blank canvas ready to be painted.
When we started, it was just dust and empty floors, so it was pretty cool. We built the movements for a little over a year and as things went on, we started seeing things progressing.
When the Runwell first sold out, that was exciting. You work on something for over a year and don’t get to see the final product and then you do, and it surpasses expectation.
I joked that my blood, sweat and tears were in those watches. It was something spectacular, because there aren’t a lot of things you can say you’ve had your hands on first.
I never would have thought I would be doing this, my background is strong in automotive. I was going to be assembling things on a smaller scale, but I’m used to big parts. I really like it, I enjoy myself. It’s given me a lot of different opportunities, I’ve met a lot of people from all over the world.
Tom Kartsotis, Founder
Detroit was a very different place then. I remember looking out the window of the Westin Hotel at 8:30 on a Monday morning and not seeing a car and not seeing a person—which is very different than it is today.
What remains the same is a strong sense of community optimism.
It was actually a similar sense that I had at the beginning in my first job. On my first trip to Hong Kong in 1984 when the economy was bad and 1997 was around the corner, I saw intense community optimism. Then in Hong Kong and now in Detroit we see people of all walks of life helping each other—competitors helping competitors digging each other out of a hole.
It’s a pretty great thing to witness.