Thomas Steinemann turned to crowdfunding to re-launch the Swiss watch brand DuBois et Fils when he was unable to find the equity needed. He raised CHF1.5 million ($1.57 million) in five months by selling shares via the Web.
When Steinemann bought the dormant DuBois et Fils watch factory in 2010, he was convinced that banks and investors would follow him in recapitalising the company. Founded in 1785, it is the oldest Swiss watch factory and one of the oldest Swiss watch brands.
Despite the emotional appeal of the brand and Steinemann’s 30 years of experience in the watch world, it was not enough to convince financiers and he was unable to raise the equity needed to relaunch it.
Along the way, he also discovered that financial investors like to get involved in the design of the watches and that’s not what he was looking for. Steinemann wanted to stay in control of the entire process, starting with the design, through to product development, and finally to production and distribution,
“I didn’t want investors to tell me to use quartz. I wanted these watches to be mechanical,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Steinemann knew that he had to come up with another solution and that’s how, in March 2012, he discovered crowdfunding. “Because there are so many watch collectors and lovers in the world, I thought: this should work.”
Crowdfunding is based on crowdsourcing: large numbers of people or investors connect on the web to finance projects.
Donation platforms finance causes, ideas or projects.
Equity raising or lending platforms finance businesses.
The platforms are financed on a commission basis: the worldwide standard for donation platforms is five or six per cent, and as little as 2.5 per cent for charity projects, whereas equity platforms tend to charge more, up to 10 per cent.
As a marketing professional, who successfully introduced the American Fossil watch brand to Switzerland in 1988 despite the economic crisis, he sensed the marketing potential of crowdfunding.
“The idea of getting a lot of people involved is very powerful for a brand. It’s almost more important than finding the money,” he disclosed.
The way Steinemann built his crowdfunding campaign was to propose a low buy-in with high benefits. For as little as CHF500, individuals not only become shareholders of “the oldest watch factory”, they also acquire the right to buy a CHF9,000 watch at half price.
From CHF3,000 to CHF10,000 of share capital, the discount is 70 per cent and allows the purchase of one watch per year for several years. This category of shareholders also belongs to a Diamond Club that allows members to choose their preferred number of the “limited editions” of the watches.
Steinemann describes this as a win-win situation, where crowdfunders are attracted by the benefits and the company ends up with hundreds of investors who are wearing its watches.
“That’s even more valuable in terms of brand awareness than having a celebrity wear your watch,” he said.
He admits that he knew nothing about social media, let alone crowdfunding, when he started building his project. “The main problem was to anticipate the number of shareholders who would subscribe.”
Steinemann knew that his target of CHF1.5 million was very ambitious and that the handling of the shares would be complex, unless it was done electronically.
He teamed up with Marcus Eilinger, head of I-D Connect, a product and graphic design company to put the system in place. “We needed to invent everything from scratch, including the software, because this has never been done before.”
Eilinger also designed the watches: Concept One and Concept Two, with a third one in the pipeline.
Like most crowdfunding ventures, DuBois et Fils have required payment up front. However, all funds were segregated on an account with a bank that could only release them when the total amount of CHF1.5 million had been reached.
In the meantime, each shareholder had received a proof of his investment. Had the target not been reached, each shareholder would have been paid back in full.
As it happened, demand far exceeded the initial offering with stock capital purchases coming from 20 different countries, including Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Kuwait, Turkey and Canada. (But not from the United States, where internal regulations require approval by the US financial department.)
Steinemann was in fact obliged to ask one of the larger shareholders to give back some shares in order to satisfy requests that were still coming in, even after the target had been reached. There are currently 598 investors.
One of investors is Yvan Jeanneret from Le Locle where DuBois et Fils originated. “I wanted to take part in the revitalisation of our heritage. I am convinced that there is a future for the brand,” he told swissinfo.ch. Jeanneret is himself in the watchmaking business
“I also like the idea that we’re all part of the brand and the brand is part of us,” he said, adding: “Besides, I know I’ll enjoy wearing the watch”.
Steinemann admits that he was surprised by the success. “When you start something, you’re not aware of the huge potential.”
He is convinced that many other companies could benefit as well: “Crowdfunding is about bringing investors, consumers and brands together and proving that we can be successful differently.”
It took DuBois et Fils only five months to attain its goal, although Steinemann insists that an intense PR campaign was the accompanying measure. Most of his work was just talking with potential investors.
And now the real work begins, as Steinemann and partners set the production wheels in motion. The first watches should be ready in July 2013.
By Michèle Laird, swissinfo.ch