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November 02, 2015

Lorenzo Buffa went from house cleaner to artist-entrepreneur

Philly designer launches his third Kickstarter with business that’s already raised more than $100K

Start-ups Entrepreneurship
Marble Watch Contributed Art/Analog Watch Co.

A model shows off a watch with a marble face, designed by Lorenzo Buffa. His company, Analog Watch Co., is based in Philadelphia.

Lorenzo Buffa did not come from a place where people wear Rolexes.

He grew up in Palmerton, a town of about 5,000 in Pennsylvania’s coal country, near the Appalachian Trail. His parents worked at their pizza shop seven days a week, leaving him with plenty of freedom to pursue what he called some “hippy-dippy” activities – exploring waterfalls and hiking trails and “communing with nature.”

Those trails eventually led him to Philadelphia, to art school and to selling designer watches made from the natural materials that inspire him. He’s launched his third Kickstarter campaign, having raised more than $100,000 through crowdfunding already – and his story shows just what a blue-collar boy can do with some business savvy and an art degree.

“I'm an artist at the end of the day, and so I think the way I come at business is a little different,” said Buffa, 28. “I think that is part of the reason I've been successful."

Buffa’s studio, Analog Watch Co., sells watches crafted from wood and marble – “sculptures for the wrist” that are meant to evoke nature, not to serve as a status symbols.

“No two watches look alike. We're relying on the natural grade of the material so people have a really one-of-a-kind piece,” he said.

Each watch contains, at minimum, 35 parts sourced from all over the world. He works with suppliers from as far away as Japan and Switzerland and as close as Lancaster County (an Amish group supplies leather straps, for example).

In addition to selling his own product, though, Buffa tries to promote the work of other artists. He posts his favorite designs on his blog and started a documentary video series called Hands On to honor manufacturers in Philadelphia, from textile mills to glassworks.

"We really are trying to contribute to the creative economy in a number of ways," he said.

Watch Tools
Each timepiece has a minimum of 35 parts. (Source: Analog Watch Co.)

Buffa knows the struggle of making it as an artist. He graduated with a degree in industrial design from the University of the Arts and managed to land a paid internship at Kohler, but that internship never turned into a real job. He ended up working as a house cleaner – where, being the new guy, he was put on toilet duty.

"I literally went from getting paid more than I ever made before at Kohler to cleaning Kohler toilets. For me that was a really big pivot point," he said.

He needed a successful product, so he looked back to his senior thesis project: a minimalist wooden watch. After taking an entrepreneurship boot-camp that the university offered, he applied for and won a $6,000 grant, enough to put some samples together – and start prepping.

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"I spent maybe 4-6 months building the Kickstarter strategy," he said. That meant building a press list, crafting a marketing strategy and studying what made other crowdfunding campaigns flourish or fail.

His preparation paid off, in the form of almost $75,000. The money was enough for Buffa to open his studio on 1214 Moore St. in East Passyunk.

The campaign also helped Buffa meet Analog Watch’s second employee (out of two), Scott Hughes, who e-mailed him with the subject line “I will work for you for free.” (Hughes is now the company’s marketing and accounts manager and, yes, he is paid.)

A year-and-a-half later, Analog Watch Co. was ready to launch its second crowdfunding campaign, this time for a watch made out of marble.

“I was nervous because I did it once and all I could think was can I do it again?” said Buffa. “Can I create another watch that's just as beautiful, just as unique and can I crowdfund it again?"

Lorenzo Buffa
Lorenzo Buffa, 28, went from scrubbing toilets to starting his own designer watch business. (Source: Analog Watch Co.)

The final haul: almost $60,000. For the first time, Buffa started to cautiously believe that his success wasn’t a fluke.

"This is real,” he recalls thinking. “I'm a designer. I'm an entrepreneur. And I can successfully pull off these challenging tasks."

Two weeks ago Analog Watch Co. launched its third Kickstarter for its “Classic Collection,” elegant and simply-designed timepieces with interchangeable straps.

Buffa puts his success down to preparation, he said – and the city he calls home.

“I think Philadelphia loves an underdog and I think Philadelphia wants to see its locals succeed,” he said.