by Daniel Pickett, editor-in-chief, Action Figure Insider
We are currently in a golden age of toy making and collecting where not only is the technology of digital sculpting and rapid prototyping available in affordable home versions, but the internet also gives hopeful toymakers a global connectivity they can use to reach license holders and leverage overseas factories for toy production. Add in the proliferation of crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Patreon, and you suddenly have the fan equivalent of venture capital to help back products that, even a few years ago, would have been thought of as impossible to produce.
If you have a love of toys, a drive to succeed, and an entrepreneurial spirit, then all of that can add up to the fact that fans are able to make figures for themselves. New, smaller, independent toy companies are popping up each month, and we have now seen at least two waves of these companies succeed and inspire new, hopeful toymakers into the market.
There has been a significant shift from the toymakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Many of those toy forefathers were engineers and designers who thought they would end up designing cars or industrial products and happened to find their way into toy design and manufacturing. But today’s toy companies are filled with the kids who grew up with the amazing toys of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, and now want to see improved versions of their favorites, or make products based on iconic movies, TV shows, comic books, and video games.
No longer are the large and mid-sized toy companies the gatekeepers of what products get made. Because of all of these new tools, toy fans are forming their own independent toy companies and making some very impressive lines. These are not the small, “art toy” makers, doing home-castings and small runs of figures out of their garage. These are actual factory-made figures featuring both licensed properties and original intellectual properties (IP).
In this feature, we have a conversation with the newest class of fans who have successfully launched new lines of action figures, talking about how to turn an idea into fully realized plastic, the biggest pitfalls and snags in this process, and if passion is enough to succeed.
STAND ON THE BACKS OF THE GIANTS WHO CAME BEFORE
There is already a “first class alumni” of established toy companies that started out as fans wanting to make toys. Companies such as The Four Horsemen Design Studio, Onell Design, Spy Monkey Creations, and Boss Fight Studio are all great examples of early pioneers that proved it could be done, and that the fans would show up and support with their wallets. These toymakers inspired the next generation and have supported and advised the maker community to help get more cool products made.
For some of these up-and-coming toymakers, the moment when they realized they could make toys themselves came very early in life. “It came very young for me, maybe [age] 5 or 6, when I used some bakeable clay to mold a Mega Man figure,” says Jesse DeStasio of Toy Pizza and Knights of the Slice, creator of the “Figure of the Month” club. Although it would take him three more decades to take the chance and do this on a professional scale, he says, “It was like a doorway opening, making it possible to give life to the characters I wanted to see as toys.”
For David Silva, founder of Creative Beast Studio and the Beasts of the Mesozoic action figure line, he looked to those who came before him. “I suppose the first signs of this being a possibility happened when I saw the Four Horsemen’s success with their Gothitropolis Raven Kickstarter back in 2013,” he says. “After that, I noticed that action figures were being crowdfunded each year by small companies, and again with the Horsemen’s Mythic Legions a couple years later. It was around that time, [in] 2015, that I experienced another failed attempt at bringing dinosaur action figures to market with an established toy company … so I decided that if it was going to get done, I’d have to do it on my own.”
Ryan Magnon of Panda Mony Brand Toys, which just launched its successful line of 6-inch Alter Nation figures, always had an unrelenting passion to start a business and work with talented people to bring new ideas to life for characters and stories. He said he could always come up with dozens of ideas for stories a day, but he needed a way to get them out into the world.
“While toys was a riskier industry because it required a higher upfront cost, it was significantly less saturated than content creation outlets such as comics, games, and animation,” Magnon says of his entry into the toy world. “We mitigated the extra risk by testing our concepts with kids to see what appealed to them. That way, even if we’re putting a lot of extra investment into a project, at least it’s not a total shot in the dark or a personal passion project. We wanted to make sure it resonated with kids. We had no delusions that it was going to be easy, and I was totally inexperienced in manufacturing, but we expected a bold move to pay off bigger than a safe play.”
Inexperience is often enough of a hurdle to keep most people from embarking on an entrepreneurial venture, but these plastic pioneers saw far because they stood on the backs of giants and sourced those who came before them for advice on how to get started.
“Before I did my first Kickstarter campaign, I spoke with Jim Preziosi (Four Horsemen) and Fred Aczon and Dave Proctor (Boss Fight Studio) who all gave me helpful insight into the process along with advice based on their own personal experiences with Kickstarter,” Silva says about launching his Beasts of the Mesozoic: Raptor and Ceratopsian crowdfunding campaigns. “There were a lot of things I had no clue about before I spoke to them, such as keeping the main funding goal attainable, fulfillment challenges, and how to incorporate stretch goals via BackerKit.”
Bill Murphy of Fresh Monkey Fiction, makers of the Amazing Heroes and Eagle Force figure lines, says he reached out to several other successful toymakers before jumping into those waters. “Finding a reliable factory has been plaguing me for four years,” he says. “I’m thankful that other indie toymakers were kind enough to help me get to a new factory … Know your market, do your research, and build a fanbase. This was the best advice and I still use it as a baseline for every project.”
Toy Pizza’s DeStasio gives credit to one of the granddaddies of the independent toy movement and creator of the Glyos system: “The entire line of Knights of the Slice owes a life debt to Matt Doughty and Onell Design. I wouldn’t be doing this today without standing on the shoulders of what he built.”
OVERCOMING THE FINANCIAL HURDLE
The biggest hurdle to getting started is often a financial one. “It’s a minimum investment of $10,000-20,000 to manufacture a figure over in China, and that doesn’t include the cost of time you put in,” DeStasio remembers. “I’m thankful now to have a prosperous Patreon and dedicated fanbase … With them, I can self-finance most of my creations.”
For others, the biggest obstacle has been overseas manufacturing, an issue that haunts every toy company, regardless of size. “Each step is full of challenges from crowdfunding to production and then fulfillment,” says Silva, who literally and figuratively was getting dinosaurs to walk. “But my biggest challenge being a small, independent toymaker is distribution. Many people don’t realize that funds from these crowdfunding events really only cover the cost of producing the figures. Potential profits can’t really be assessed until after all the rewards go out and then [the] remaining stock, which is to be sold to the general public, is where the real profits happen … Getting into stores and creating retail partnerships from the ground up after a Kickstarter is a slow process, a lot of work. I’ve been fortunate enough so far to have my product in many great online stores and specialty shops, but I’m always looking for new ways to reach customers via retail.”
Even with the roadblocks, the setbacks, the sleepless nights, and the early mornings, there are priceless rewards to taking on these projects, from seeing your first factory-painted sample to releasing your original IP into the world. Then, the real reward: Through the power of social media, you get to see the evidence and pictures of fans enjoying your labor of love.
ADVICE TO THE NEXT GEN OF ASPIRING TOYMAKERS
We asked each of our contributing toymakers what piece of advice they would give anyone who was interested in launching their own new toy line, and while there is not exactly a common thread to their answers, you can tell that each tip has been colored by their personal experience of the process.
“Focus on handmade/resin projects stateside for a couple years before moving into manufacturing in China. Everyone wants to run before they walk,” says Toy Pizza’s Destasio. “Work on building up 100 unique customers who buy everything you release before you invest in tooling. Iterate every single day on your ideas, be it through Instagram, Facebook, etc. Starting at mass-manufacturing is a recipe for failure.”
He adds, “If you do, in fact, move to manufacturing overseas, you must go to the factory. I cannot overstate this enough. You will not be treated the same way if you are a faceless name in email. And yes, I realize this is an extra tall ask right now because of the pandemic, but you should weigh that risk into your plan.”
Panda Mony’s Magnon says to start with some simple questions: “The most important [thing] is to focus on the business first: Who’s the audience, what do they want, and how can you deliver?”
Fresh Monkey Fiction’s Murphy warns, “Don’t do it for the money (because you won’t make a lot). You need to do it for the passion … But passion is not enough: You have committed to not only your projects, but also the fans who are supporting you. If you don’t want to put in the work — and trust me, it’s a lot of work — don’t bother. This is not something you can do unless you’re 100% invested in making it a reality. That said, don’t go into debt to make this happen, it’s not worth it. Like everything in life, you need to find the right balance.”
“If you are considering this, I urge you carefully and honestly think about your motivation for doing it, because it will consume your life,” Creative Beast’s Silva says. “Personally, I love it because, as Bruce Banner said, ‘I was made for this’ … If your motive is that you want to see your characters get made into action figures because you like action figures, that may not be enough. It’s important to see what’s missing in the marketplace and come up with a way to fill that void. Take an honest look at the action figure market and think about how you can improve it for others, not just for yourself.”
Every one of these quoted toymakers are regular fans — just like us. They took their dreams and made them plastic. If you have an action figure line that you think should be made, don’t simply put that dream on a shelf. Put together a business plan, talk to the experts who came before you, build a fanbase, find some funding, and see if just maybe you could put your own creation on that shelf instead.
This article was originally published in Issue No. 7 of the Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue!