Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Lorenzo Buffa is not averse to a little benign deception. In his first business, Digital Coffee Designs, he made thousands of dollars creating logos for small companies, none of which realized their vendor was just 11 years old. Later, as a college student, Buffa finagled his senior project onto several influential design blogs by pretending to be a faculty member. "I emailed them and said, 'We have a really talented student. You should take a look at this project,'" says Buffa.
That senior project became the initial offering of the Analog Watch Company, a two-person business with revenue in the low seven figures. Analog's timepieces, which range in price prices range from $150 to $300, are functional wrist art crafted from natural materials like wood, marble, and moss. Sixty percent of business is online direct, while much of the rest is through museum stores and catalogs. Analog's wholesale customers include the Museum of Modern Art, the Getty, the Smithsonian, and dozens of others.
Buffa, 30, is a trim, bearded man with a technical drawing of an Eames chair tattooed on his right arm. One recent morning he showed off the minimalist display cases arrayed at the front of his pocket-size studio and retail space in a hipster neighborhood of south Philadelphia. The wooden watches are at once sleek and warm; the marble versions cool and formidable. Buffa's newest collection is infused with real flowers in saturated colors and delicate green tendrils of moss. The plants are suspended in resin for an effect like wearing a miniature garden on your arm.
"I look at seashells. I look at cork. I look at feathers. I look at butterfly wings. And I think, 'What can I transform?'" says Buffa. He donates a percentage of sales from each collection to a related environmental cause. The wooden watches subsidize tree planting, for example. The marble ones benefit a nonprofit that encourages responsible mineral extraction.
The connection with nature is a large part of Analog's appeal, says Katherine Lock, senior manager for merchandise and product development at the Guggenheim, where the watches sell well. They are also a perfect fit for that museum. "We have tried to develop a mid-century collection of products harkening back to 1959, the year the building opened," Lock says. "Analog has a classic style and midcentury aesthetic, and the white marble matches our building."
A grade-school entrepreneur
Nature provided a sanctuary for Buffa when he was a lonely boy growing up in Palmerton, Pennsylvania, a small town in the heart of coal country. He lived in the apartment above his parents' pizza shop, where he helped out after school and on weekends. Unlike the other local kids, Buffa attended Catholic school. And while his two brothers made friends through sports, he was left mostly to his own devices. "I explored the woods and played in the creek and caught crayfish," says Buffa. "Those were my favorite activities."
He also started businesses. At age 9, Buffa discovered eBay, where he unloaded several Tickle Me Elmos for a tidy sum. Two years later, he was charging $600 to $900 for packages of custom business logos, finding clients as far off as Atlanta. But Palmerton was not a hospitable environment, and Buffa was subject to bullying. So he lit out fast after high school, traveling and working odd jobs.
In 2008, Buffa enrolled in the industrial design program at Philadelphia's University of the Arts with the dream of working at a design firm like Ideo. Assigned to create a product for his senior thesis, he identified a trend in wooden accessories and narrowed that to watches, which were growing in popularity. Wooden watches already existed on the market. But none had a flexible wooden band.
"It took 10 or 15 iterations to get me to the final product," says Buffa. He eventually achieved the desired effect by combining a thin wood veneer with a soft substrate. (A utility patent on the band will be issued in a few weeks.)
Buffa's watch debuted in a show of student work. More than 150 people expressed interest and gave him their email addresses. "That was my happiest moment as an undergrad," says Buffa. "I thought, 'Maybe I will do this.'"
When MoMA calls
Masquerading as a professor, Buffa approached several design blogs and scored write-ups, including one from the influential publication Core77. That's where manufacturers found him. Chinese factories reached out, and Buffa began collecting samples for the bands and casings. He bought timepiece components from a local watchmaker.
While he developed the product and a business plan, Buffa supported himself by cleaning houses and working as a barista. The experience only deepened his determination to become an entrepreneur. "When you are on your knees cleaning a toilet you look at your life and ask, 'How can I feel empowered again?'" he says.
In October 2013, Buffa raised $75,000 through his first Kickstarter campaign. The timing was perfect. As part of its fifth anniversary celebration, the crowd-funding platform was collaborating with MoMA to market two dozen innovative products through the museum's design store. MoMA ended up offering the wood watches for two years after the promotion ended. Other museums swiftly came onboard.
(The company, which is profitable, has been funded entirely through Kickstarter, where Buffa has raised $210,000 over three campaigns. His current one, for the botanical watches, is still active.)
Soon after delivering his first wooden watches, Buffa moved on to marble, a material that presented a unique set of challenges. Not many manufacturers can cut marble into tiny, unflawed circles and hexagons. Fortunately, by the time Buffa launched in marble he knew his way around Chinese factories. Buffa estimates he has visited between 60 and 80 Chinese manufacturers, seeking new suppliers and quality checking existing ones. (The products' time-keeping guts come from Switzerland and Japan.)
Analog has made a few forays into the mainstream: some successful, some less so. Last year, it produced a custom watch for Mercedes Benz, and Buffa hopes to pursue similar deals with other major brands. But his 2016 appearance on Project Runway: Fashion Startup came to nothing. "It was going to be the Shark Tank moment for us," says Buffa. "But the time slot was not good, and we only got a little boost in sales. We had secured a lot of inventory and put a lot of money into it."
The less bold but still beautiful
Analog is a charming business but--in its current iteration--not one designed "for the age of Amazonification," as Buffa calls it. "People are getting used to cheap," he says. Buffa's watches, by contrast, are meant to be a "statement" when the wearer wants to make an impression. "They are not going to wear it every day because they have a phone in their pocket or a Fitbit or an Apple watch," he says.
In response, Buffa's begun pivoting toward designs with broader appeal. The wood and marble watches are too bold for some people, he says, so a "classic" line incorporates some of those materials but looks more conventional. He's also started making wooden eyeglass frames. The new floral line includes rings and cuff bracelets that act like jewelry-shaped terrariums for flowers, leaves, and miniature pinecones.
The eyewear retails for $90; the jewelry for between $60 and $70. Buffa says the lower price points appeal to his wholesale accounts, including major distributors in Japan. "I'm expanding the portfolio with a little bit of hesitancy because we are a watch brand," he says. "But I have to go where the business is moving me."