Lorenzo Buffa took pride in handing out samples of his Analog watches to the four judges on Lifetime's new Project Runway: Fashion Startup.
After all, Buffa's watches were handcrafted and selling briskly. So he thought he could persuade an investor to give $320,000 for 10 percent of his company, an amount that would value his Philly start-up at $3.2 million.
But suddenly, the judges turned critical. "You're pulling in profit, you've got decent sales, what do you want from us?" asked one skeptical judge. Others questioned the watches' prices and design and whether Buffa himself was truly open to suggestions.
The grilling, shown at 10:30 p.m. Thursday on Lifetime, shook Buffa up. Would he get the investment? Or would he literally lose time in achieving his dreams?
It's been a rocky and exhilarating run for Buffa, the son of a first-generation Italian father and American mother. Buffa earned a degree in design from University of the Arts, becoming the first college graduate in his family.
Since then, he founded and heads the now nearly three-year-old Analog Watch Co. on East Passyunk Avenue.
In September, Swiss watch exports fell for the 15th straight month. Buffa, however, is betting there's a place for the Analog watch, made with maple, teak, and bamboo, or even marble, and priced mostly from $150 to $300.
The start-up generated about $750,000 in sales in the last two years and notched 75 percent growth from year one to year two. Analog has been profitable since day one by closely managing its supply chains, leading to what Buffa said was an 80 percent profit margin, a startlingly high rate for any business.
Buffa's journey is all the more remarkable since he previously cleaned houses and worked as a barista to make ends meet. "One day something clicked, and I wanted to turn that sense of helplessness into power," Buffa told the judges on Lifetime.
The 29-year-old's passion for design got him started in watches. He first secured a $6,000 grant from his alma mater. He also immersed himself in workshops that trained him on the basics of running a company. An eight-week stint at Good Co. Ventures' accelerator rounded out his initial education.
The watchmaker put his product concept on the online funding platform Kickstarter in late 2013, raising $75,000 in preorders. In 2015, the company launched two other crowdfunded watches, generating more than $200,000 to date through crowdfunding alone.
Analog has created a market by being "inspired by nature," Buffa says. The firm uses all natural materials, including premium leather.
A part of every watch purchase supports environmental and educational groups.
While judges reacted positively to Buffa's numbers and his energy, they said his product was in a highly competitive market. The quality didn't seem to merit the price and be good enough to land a major account like Barneys, they said.
Plus, they thought Buffa was too stubborn, and didn't take criticism well.
Ultimately, the poobahs of Project Runway passed on backing his company.
Buffa said there was more to the story than the portion shown.
He cited a partnership he has struck with Mercedes-Benz to co-brand a watch. He is selling in major museum stores such as the Getty, the National Gallery of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. And he has scored a major distribution deal in Japan. All that and more were left on the editing-room floor.
When asked about the judges' personal criticism, Buffa remains unapologetic for his grit, which has gotten him this far. "Every entrepreneur knows what's best for his company," Buffa said.
Despite the setback, he remains committed to growing Analog into a major international brand.
"It took up quite a bit of time, but it was worth a shot!" he said. "Our mission is to inspire and remind people of nature every day, so having a platform that large to talk about that is pretty spectacular."