From a small desk deep within the office building of DKC, one of New York City’s top public relations firms, Michael Altieri, MCAS ’20, spent the beginning of his sophomore summer bored out of his mind from 9 to 5, he said. But instead of slogging away at low-level intern tasks all summer, Altieri capitalized on this on-the-job downtime—by starting his own watch company. As a self-described “schemer,” Altieri had always wanted to find his big idea, he said, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2017 that he decided what that would be.
“I was thinking, I really don’t need to invent something new, I don’t need to do something that has never been done before,” Altieri said. “I just need to do something that’s already been done either better, faster, or cheaper, or maybe two of the three or all three of those things.
“So eventually I was like, ‘Okay, why don’t I start selling watches?’”
Flash forward just two years, and Altieri was again in contact with DKC, but this time to get into contact with a New York Times reporter who wanted to feature his watch brand, Luxana, which he had dreamed up during his long hours as a low-level PR intern. Her piece was about up-and-coming watch brands taking a stand against huge trends, such as the Apple Watch. As someone who started his own watch brand, Altieri was a perfect fit for the story, he said.
Altieri’s initial desire to create something new began at age 17, when he started running an “investment club” at his school, in which he convinced friends and peers that he could get a great return on their investments in the stock market. The idea was ridiculous, he said, but it worked.
“I was smart enough to realize that we got lucky, so we took the money out right away,” Altieri said. “It was seven or eight grand, and that was on top of my summer work money. I sat on that for a while waiting for some big crazy idea.”
He thought he would design an app, but that idea never came to fruition. Eventually, his realization that he didn’t have to create an entirely new product, but could instead improve upon an already existing one, melded with his interest in watches, he said. His father, Paul Altieri, has spent the last seven years buying and selling used Rolex watches with his company Bob’s Watches. Although his father’s work gave him some exposure, his father’s luxury market and the vision Altieri had for his own affordable watches were practically two different industries, Altieri said.
“It obviously influenced me a little bit,” Altieri said. “But more so what’s influenced me is when he tells me like, the real money, the real following, the real clout is from starting your own brand. And that’s what I always wanted to do.”
Altieri created Luxana in June 2017, when he was given too little to do during his DKC internship. He spent much of this summer coming up with designs for his first watch, the Dadi. Initially, his biggest challenge was communicating with his manufacturers in China who only spoke Mandarin, he said. He recalled sending videos of him signaling with his hands the exact degree of outward angle that he wanted on the metal around the Dadi’s face.
The design phase was also costly, as each prototype cost $300 to $400. The third prototype wasn’t perfect, he said, but he had to take a leap of faith since he lacked the funds to secure another prototype.
“The last prototype I had wasn’t right,” Altieri said. “Typically, you’ll get a final prototype and be like, this is perfect, let’s make 300 of these. Nope, I had one that was really close, and I had to trust them. … [I told them] I want this changed, then once you do that, you can make 300.”
His junior year was the most labor-intensive in terms of getting Luxana up and running, as Altieri was preparing for the company’s soft launch in February of 2019. Between finalizing designs, building his website, and getting his trademark in place, Altieri estimated that he spent four or five hours each day working on Luxana, on top of doing school work.
All of these facets of building his brand were entirely new for Altieri. Though he sought out advice from connections he had with brick-and-mortar entrepreneurs, he lacked mentors in e-commerce.
“I was super lost,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was doing anything right, and I didn’t really have anyone to ask.”
One completely unexpected challenge arose while Altieri was securing his trademark. Altieri said he filed to trademark “Luxana” without realizing how unlikely it is to get a six-letter trademark. Right after he filed it, other people on the internet filed similar names—“Luxana Watches,” “Luxana International,” and “Luxana LLC”—knowing that Altieri’s request for the six-letter trademark likely wouldn’t get approved, he said.
“Some guy probably spent two grand filing all of these other names just so I’d be screwed and have to buy it from him,” Altieri said.
Nevertheless, Altieri’s trademark was approved—and is itself now worth about $5,000, he said.
After his soft launch in February 2019, sales picked up the following summer, when Altieri sold over 300 watches. With the Dadi, Altieri focused on versatility—the straps can be interchanged between the black and white models—and maximizing quality while keeping the price at just $99, he said. A year later, he has less than 40 of his original model left in stock.
Compared to other affordable watch brands geared toward millennials, Altieri’s profit margin is much lower. MVMT, a watch brand Altieri said was dominating the market, typically spends only about $3.99 on each watch, he said, which are priced at $99.
“I spend way more money on each watch than any other company making a $99 watch for sure,” Altieri said. “That’s why I started this whole thing.”
From observing successful brands such as MVMT as well as his own trial and error, Altieri began to realize that a quality product wasn’t enough—he needed much heavier marketing campaigns if he wanted to be successful, he said. He upgraded his website from Squarespace to Shopify, another website-building platform, which he had to outsource to a web developer since the platform is far more complicated. With nearly all of his purchases coming from Instagram ads, he focused heavily on visual advertisements that were engaging and would present well on phone screens. His first major ad campaign, which included pictures and videos of the Dadi shot in Bali, has racked up over 80,000 views on some of its videos.
He also quickly encountered the world of social media influencers, with creators such as Teddy Baldassarre and Anthony Watson asking for free watches to post on their Instagram accounts, which he gave them. Last fall, Altieri was in contact with the manager of Jay Alvarrez, a model with 6.3 million Instagram followers, about a potential collaboration, but turned it down due to a wildly high asking price, he said. Altieri was also in contact with Zac Efron’s manager, but that deal didn’t pan out either.
“Emailing him was great—everything seemed awesome,” Altieri said. “But then he called me, and I think he realized I’m a college student, and I didn’t get a call back. It’s tough dealing with celebrities.”
Soon after learning the importance of paid marketing, Altieri also realized he needed to capitalize on free marketing, he said. His knowledge about Facebook and Instagram ads was extensive, but Altieri hadn’t ventured into free publicity—which was ironic, he said, after spending an entire summer interning at a PR firm.
He connected with Victoria Gomelsky, the author of the NYT piece, through someone at DKC. Unknowingly, he stumbled into a wealth of similarities: She was from Huntington Beach, just six miles from Altieri’s home in Newport Beach, and she also had a background in investments. With his name and brand right at the top of the piece, Luxana’s site had over 8,000 daily visitors in the weeks following the article being published. November soon became as demanding for Altieri as his previous year was, and he sold over 100 watches after the feature hit the press.
Altieri said he hopes to capitalize on Luxana’s increasing presence in the watch market by releasing a series of seven or eight limited edition watches. By switching his watches from their current battery-powered design to a Japanese automatic movement model, they will be higher quality and more expensive. Altieri said he will only stock 10 to 15 of each watch, hoping to increase Luxana’s exclusivity.
Altieri recently was one of 14 seniors to be selected for the Shea Center for Entrepreneurship’s Accelerator Program, which gave him $1,500 that he plans to use to fund the marketing campaigns for his limited-edition watches. The first limited-edition watch, called the Lucia, will be released in March. He drew inspiration from a more vintage style for the Lucia, which he plans to sell for $395.
“This is definitely not something he’s trying to just push, then get an exit and go on to the next gig,” said Luke Sanabria, Altieri’s sophomore year roommate and MCAS ’20. “He’s invested in Luxana and the watch industry and really hopes to build it bigger and have multiple models and crack into new markets.”
While playing off consumers’ desire for exclusivity is what drove Altieri to work on this limited edition line, he also doesn’t want to make his watches unavailable to those who want them. He said he plans to create a waitlist button, and he will restock watches that prove to be more popular.
“Hopefully the sold-out, limited-edition ones will fuel the exposure to the one that’s mass-produced,” Altieri said. “Then I will keep building on the ones that are mass-produced, and then eventually I’ll have a collage of watches I know people like, not that I’m guessing [they like].”
Across all stages of Luxana’s growth, Altieri said he has remained committed to fostering brand loyalty, especially among his early customers. He offers free one-to-two-day shipping and has given full refunds to customers when this promise is not met. Once, a Chicago snowstorm prevented a watch from getting to a customer within this time frame, so Altieri refunded her payment and delivered the watch within two more days, he said.
“I also offer a one-year warranty,” he said. “You have to add credibility to a brand that’s not credible. You have to realize that nobody knows who the hell you are, like I’m even in The New York Times, and I’m still making sure that people trust us.”
Altieri now sells an average of three or four watches a day, which he pays a friend to ship from his office in Newport Beach—although Luxana’s growth may necessitate hiring a full-time employee to take over this role soon. After nearly two years of investing huge amounts of energy and money into building Luxana, Altieri has finally seen his effort come to fruition, he said.
“The best part was when I didn’t have to put any more money into Luxana,” Altieri said. “It was like I created this little machine that is running on its own, and even though it’s not remarkably profitable yet, it’s running on its own.”
Luxana is built around the idea that there is a formula for building watches that his customers want, Altieri said. With his brand largely geared toward his own demographic, Altieri said he hopes to continue tapping into what those around him want, as they reflect the tastes of his broader audience.
“The transparency differentiates Michael,” Sanabria said. “He is making a watch for the audience that he surrounds himself with. … It’s a watch for him, by him, that he then releases for other people to wear, and I think it’s resonating with his target market.”
Photo by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor