KEFA: the history of a startup born in reverse

Faith in the project: the only certainty in a sea of uncertainties

Did the watch or the company that produces it come about first? This is the Hamletic doubt that emerges listening to the story of KEFA from the passionate tale of its two founders, Carmelo Caruso and Gianluigi Di Lorenzo.

KEFA’s story is that of a startup arising in reverse, for a range of reasons.

The first?  The founders were not entrepreneurs – anything but. Carmelo and Gianluigi were and, in part, continue to be, officials in the Ministry of Transport in Rome. Whilst the lives they were leading were undoubtedly dignified, they were still left feeling dissatisfied, without outlets or opportunities, in roles by which they were only partially defined and in which they were unable to further their ambitions, their deepest desires and the willingness to come out and leave something of themselves to the world, something that was different, lasting and prestigious. In short, they wanted something more for themselves and for others.

A startup that is distinguished by its values, not for the value

This startup goes against the grain given that its premises, not being purely profit-driven, has been from the outset to distinguish itself in another way – with the values it transmits and that are able to be shared by many.

It was precisely the idea of the watch that came about first, with the only immediate certainty being the desire to create this type of object: not an ordinary watch, of course, but one that stood out. The brand-positioning strategy thus arose, paradoxically, well before the company and the brand itself or at least, before its name, logo and flagship product. To make a name for itself in a market already saturated with prestigious brands that are more than established, the company needed a watch with a unique feature. The question, at this point, was: “in terms of what?”

The two future shareholders decided to opt for an object that was economically less pretentious than those of the competition, against which it would have been impossible for a young company to compete, to say the least. They chose to produce a watch that could stand out not so much for its value but rather for the values it would be able to transmit and bear. Hence came the idea of creating “the Pope’s watch”. This is the very first definition of the future Petrus, a name coined by Carmelo’s teenage son when joshing about with his father. This is the exact moment from when the KEFA minute hands started to tick then never stopped.

“The Pope’s watch” grows and becomes a marvellous project

The next step was to translate the basic idea of a teenager into the most profound and mature thoughts of an adult. And so, the Pope’s watch, in the mind of Carmelo and his future partner Gianluigi, soon became a series of exclusive limited-edition specimens, depicting emblems inspired by Pope Francis and the centuries-old values embodied by the Vatican State. A little treasure chest on the wrist, encasing the strength of a history going back millennia and even “higher” meanings, shared by over a billion believers around the world.

Differentiation came not merely in the product but in the clientèle of reference, creating a specific niche target – this was the only certainty. And precisely from this certainty the ascent began. Yet, formed on 11th February 2019, the fervour of the new-born KEFA would, in fact, immediately be inhibited by the onset of the pandemic and the first unexpected lockdown.

Fear of the uncertain and Faith in the project

Well before the fears arising from the global health emergency, however, were the fears of the two partners regarding the economic uncertainty of a business project entirely based on a request made to the Vatican Authorities to use the official emblems of the Holy See and the Pope. This critical concession required technical time for approval, added to which was the need to be able to develop the budget in order to be ready to take the next steps. The response was as could be expected from a startup that is courageous and ambitious, if not a tad naïve – the fund-finding strategy would be based entirely on the unconditional Faith in the project. Once the partners had signed the contract with the Vatican Foundation for exclusive use of the emblems (which was not a sure thing and would only end up happening some ten months later), the company itself and the project would have gained value and credibility, both elements that can be levied to obtain the trust of banks and the liquidity to be utilised immediately.

The exclusive license from the Vatican: the most difficult challenge to overcome

That year, perhaps because of this underlying naïvety, things did not seem to go well, with the Vatican Foundation initially refusing the proposal. Whilst this major setback may have dampened the enthusiasm, it did not succeed in extinguishing the unshakable Faith that the two partners had in the KEFA project.  Indeed, despite the refusal, they decided – and perhaps rightly so – to invest funds from their own pocket to create three prototypes of the watch. With something more concrete in hand to show, instead of just sketches of the watch, the request for the license was re-submitted. From that point, the new company, the future timepiece and the lives of two state officials with a big dream, officially passed into the hands of the highest offices of the Vatican State, with no recourse for appeal.

The official confirmation came only in January 2020 – the Vatican would grant KEFA license to use the emblems, recognising in the project an endeavour that was not only commercial but also linked to a charitable project that consisted in donating part of the proceeds to the Foundation itself. Production of the Petrus – their first creation – could finally start. But the two partners soon realised that the complications had just begun, given that time was passing by and the budget was looking bleak. Added to this concern was the unexpected advent of the pandemic and the first lockdown in Italy, which not only effectively blocked all possibility of promoting the product at fairs and in-person events but also compromised the production of the watch itself due to the halting of commercial activities imposed by the Government.

A Startup in the time of Coronavirus: how KEFA took the virus by the horns

Even under such difficult circumstances, it was necessary to push forward and not be overwhelmed by the unforeseeable. The decision was, being perhaps even more courageous and crazy than the initial idea itself, to produce the prototypes without having the license in hand. It was 19th March 2020. Italy was in full lockdown and nobody knew what the pandemic had in store. Yet, Carmelo and Gianluigi decided to pay the advance for commissioning the first 200 Petrus pieces.

This modus operandi seemed to make no sense, even from a marketing strategy perspective, since communications regarding the Petrus watch began with more of a whisper, through direct and individual contacts with people who were passionate about the project and had pushed it forward spontaneously, raising awareness even across national borders and advertising the product to industry bigwigs at no cost. A more reasoned structuring of product-based communications came only later, with the creation of the website, which only went live as of May 2020, thanks to a collaboration with a web agency.

The results were soon evident, with a first order of 5 pieces from someone who, having heard about the watches directly, was convinced to place the order upon visiting the website. And it was just a pre-order, since at that the time, the pieces themselves were still in production. But it was precisely thanks to the down payment on this order that the Unshakable Faith in the project was reinvigorated, allowing KEFA to continue along its path and further invest in digital communications, the only reasonable thing to do during a pandemic, with the introduction of an e-commerce site, a periodic newsletter, an exclusive club for future watch owners and the setup of a blog for enthusiasts. This strategy ultimately proved to be a winner and has managed to integrate perfectly into the great impulse for online purchases generated by the pandemic.

Only Time will tell if KEFA is a success

KEFA is now in a phase of growth. The startup that started out backwards only to walk along a perilous path of uncertainty paved with naïvety, had managed to find more solid ground on which to create a structured operation, with more defined business and communication strategies, focused on the possibility of opening up to other projects, always linked to the world of limited-edition watchmaking. In its thus-far short history, there have already been dangerous “lows”, moments of risk-taking and fear about the actual success of the project, but also several “highs” that have decreed the success of the project, even if at times in an entirely fortuitous way.

Today, KEFA’s first creation, the Petrus watch, has already gained so many admirers and owners around the world. It has its own online showcase where the timepiece can be purchased by enthusiasts and indeed anyone who shares its precious values.

Only Time will tell how and when the story of KEFA will end, but for the time being, the hands continue to turn.