Alumnus’ Artisan Watch Startup Earns Shout Out From “Shark Tank” TV Star
What began in 2013 as a simple golf course conversation about watch preferences between two Penn State students, R.T. Custer and Tyler Wolfe, has grown into the nationally recognized high-end wristwatch engineering and manufacturing company, Vortic Watch Company. Based in Fort Collins, Colorado, Vortic pairs classic watchmaking techniques and traditions with innovative, modern technology.
“I like to say we preserve American history one watch at a time,” says Custer. “Because we salvage antique American pocket watches and turn them into one-of-a-kind wrist watches. Those pocket watches are about 100 years old, and because they didn’t make very many, our watches are as one-of-a-kind as one-of-a-kind gets, because every single one is different in many ways.”
Recently, “Shark Tank” judge Kevin O’Leary, better known as Mr. Wonderful, spoke highly about the Vortic watch and wore it on the Season 12 premiere of “Shark Tank,” giving a significant lift to the startup.
Custer’s friend Anthony Franco had won an investment from O’Leary for his eco-friendly dry erase board company, McSquares, on the May 13th episode of “Shark Tank” and wanted to give O’Leary a watch as a thank you gift. He looked to Custer for something unique that the watch-collecting shark would appreciate. Custer shipped a watch with O’Leary’s signature red strap and a letter, which O’Leary read aloud in a video with Producer Michael Blakey.
“It’s an incredible watch. It’s just an extraordinary piece, and it really worked on television,” O’Leary said in the video. “Congratulations to this company, Vortic.”
“We got a few huge media hits this year, one from national TV about two months ago, and then that one from that YouTube video,” says Custer. “Between those two big media hits, the website traffic to Vortic Watches has almost tripled from its normal levels. We’re seeing a lot more business, a lot more traction, a lot more people signing up for our newsletter – everything is awesome.”
The pair worked for many years to build their company before their “Shark Tank” moment. Back in 2013, after their golf course conversations, then-students Custer and Wolfe began design and production of their first watch using a Penn State 3D printing lab.
“In the watch industry, 3D printing was, for a long time, just for prototyping,” says Custer. “But we worked with Dr. Tim Simpson who runs one of the 3D printing labs at Penn State, and he helped us make some connections in the metal 3D printing world. We were able to make the first production metal 3D printed watch, and we designed it while we were at school at Penn State, with the help of Dr. Simpson and his team, and his recommendations on suppliers.”
While students at Penn State, Custer and Wolfe also filed for trademarks and patents for their watch design. Then in November of 2014, six months after graduating, they launched a campaign on Kickstarter and moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, to pursue full-time career opportunities. After raising funding through a combination of Kickstarter, angel investors, friends, and family, the Vortic team made the watch company their full-time jobs and decided to base their company out of Fort Collins officially.
“I think the Invent Penn State programs are great,” says Custer. “It’s amazing that the university has fully realized and accepted that entrepreneurship should be a focus and is encouraging people to be entrepreneurs. But the backbone of all of that is exactly the same as when I was at Penn State – the backbone is the educators and the professors who teach the entrepreneurship and leadership classes–they are the ones who inspired me and made me realize I could be an entrepreneur.”
Custer took full advantage of his engineering leadership and engineering entrepreneurship minors while at Penn State, taking all available courses and volunteering as a TA for each of them. He says he especially enjoyed working with engineering leadership development professor Wes Donahue, who was one of the many Penn State professors who inspired Custer to pursue entrepreneurship.
As for what’s next, Custer has a mission beyond immediate revenue, one that was inspired by his experiences at Penn State. He says that, although Vortic is seeing success right now, the watch industry is lacking skilled watchmakers and machinists, which Vortic will need in order to continue growing its business.
“It’s a bigger issue in America, the skilled trade gap,” says Custer. “So we plan to start a school called the Vortic School for Advanced Manufacturing. It will focus on metal manufacturing, traditional machining, and watchmaking. It’ll be the only school of its kind. It’s our way to give back. I was inspired by all the educators at Penn State, and that’s why I want to be an educator – it’s going to come full circle in my life.”
Custer spoke at Penn State Startup Week in 2016 when Vortic was just getting off the ground, and he looks forward to coming back to Penn State to speak to students in the future.
“The piece of advice that I usually tell young entrepreneurs is something that I didn’t do well but I’ve started to do a lot better recently: don’t be afraid to ask for help,” says Custer. “Entrepreneurs love to talk to other entrepreneurs, it builds energy and excitement around what they’re doing, so don’t talk yourself out of asking for help—those conversations have changed my life.”
To explore our entrepreneurial resources, visit https://invent.psu.edu/tools/resource-navigator/