Thank you for the chance to be featured in your publication and talk about my favorite subject… Me! In all seriousness, it’s really great you’re offering a platform to help entrepreneurs. I’m happy to offer some modest advice to help people avoid some of the mistakes I made and more importantly, save time offering ideas on what did work.
Can you tell our readers about your background?
I’ve been a jack of all trades for all of my adult life. Financially, I support myself through investing, primarily commercial real estate. In the past, I’ve been a web and video game programmer, animator, and producer and I also studied character design and screenwriting fairly extensively. With that background, I had a lot of freedom to explore different interests and I always ended up working for a lot of indy firms and learning how to do a lot more myself.
What inspired you to start your business?
Well, being a jack of all trades doesn’t get you very far in the corporate world. It’s easier for managers to determine a position needed and fill it with the best person available that does just that thing, and ensure everyone stays in their sandbox and don’t call us, we’ll call you if we need you to break out of that mold. I understand why it’s done. The rationale is something like: Why hire one guy to do two things when you can hire two people who do nothing but the task at hand really well? It didn’t really help to get my foot in the door in the corporate world, but it did end up helping quite a lot in developing a business. Being a jack, but not a master let me identify talented people and even deign to assist them. Those who can, do. Those who can’t do something else.
Where is your business based?
Torrance, California! Not quite El Segundo with the other toy companies, but pretty close! I live in Redondo and wanted the office close to home. Since there are other toy companies, there’s a good labor pool. Office prices in Torrance are much more competitive than near the beaches. The neighborhood is nice. Win, win, win, win. That’s double the wins of a win-win situation.
How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?
I did quite a bit of planning. I used business plan templates from SCORE to ensure I was covering all the details. I’ve met a number of people who don’t bother with a business plan, but it’s important to make one because there are a lot of angles to consider in business. You don’t want to miss any. It also helped me orient action around the mission. There’s a lot of temptation to deviate from the goal by chasing every opportunity that might have potential, but you divide your resources if you do that.
I also researched my particular industry by reading the textbooks and business articles cited in college’s open courses. The planning didn’t stop there though. I spent a little bit of money and time testing concepts with kids before we actually started any project. A mistake I found that I and other artists I’ve known make is thinking that a project they’re passionate about will inspire passion in other people. Maybe it will, but the odds are against it. I thought it was smart to improve my odds by coming up with a bunch of ideas and seeing which resonated most with the target market. It also offers insights as to how to improve your product and what customers prioritize.
In the future, since we never planned to be strictly direct-to-consumer, it would’ve been wise to get more retailers involved in that feedback process. I considered that retailers were an outlet for brand awareness, but I overestimated the impact good design and consumer feedback would have on them. The issue is they can only carry so much product and they don’t want to take up space with things they can’t sell, so I found them acting as gatekeepers. Things aren’t 100% online yet, so appealing to retailers, wholesalers, and sales reps or distributors was a struggle. When retailers did like our product to buy it though, they were the best champions of it.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business? / What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?
To reach retailers, we advertise where retailers are looking. Diamond Comics is one of our main sales channels and comic book shops are our biggest brick-and-mortar retailer. Diamond has a great magazine and catalog called Previews. Advertising builds familiarity with both comic shop owners and fans.
Facebook marketing gave us the highest return. We got a ton of support and purchases from adult action figure collectors. Our primary target demographic was kids though, and kids don’t really use Facebook. First, they’re not supposed to, and second, they apparently think Facebook is the old people’s platform. When I heard that stereotype, I flipped my walker in rage. Luckily, retailers aren’t usually crawling around in diapers, so we’ve actually got a lot of inquiries from stores who saw our product online and wanted to buy. Other retailers see the Facebook ad and are already familiar with our product when our salespeople reach out.
We’ve also spent a good amount of time on data analysis to grow our business. We were having problems with conversions. We’d get a ton of traffic to our site, but there was a large disparity between that and checkout and we needed to find out why. Google and Facebook both offer quite a bit of resources to analyze which messages work the most and where potential problems might be in the pipeline.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Coronavirus has been our biggest challenge. As I mentioned, we had to find a way to inform kids but it didn’t make sense to spend millions on TV ads, and we had the perfect solution for that! A tour of Comic Conventions with a large attendance of kids! Unfortunately, a microscopic little virus shut down those plans.
Since our primary outlet to reach kids was live events, Coronavirus destroyed live events in what was our kickoff year. Even trying to plan live events ahead of the restart has been a struggle. Places are closed so we can’t budget costs. Conventions don’t seem to be able to give an accurate idea of when they will reschedule because authorities can’t. People have tried virtual events. They were worth a shot, but we get much higher sales and awareness from live appearances.
We didn’t let it deter us.
The first cancellation was Emerald City Comic-Con. We didn’t know that there was event insurance we could purchase, and the cancellation came after our logistics company had already shipped our booth fabrications to Seattle. So we were out a couple of grand for that shipping cost.
We didn’t know how long the shutdowns would last, so we operated under the assumption that conventions were going to continue until we got confirmation of a cancellation and that we’d buy insurance before spending any non-refundable funds. We then prepared for how we could reallocate any marketing spends in ways that wouldn’t be affected by the shutdown. We looked at alternate ways of getting through to kids and we’re looking at brand new, searing hot, digital platforms like Twitch and TikTok as well as throwbacks to traditional outreach with regular mail.
Life threw Coronavirus at our company, and we don’t sit around saying ‘oh woe is us.’ Either there is no alternative and we pack up and quit, or there is an alternative and we find it. Whether it’s this crisis or another, I believe this is always the way to deal with challenges in business or otherwise. We didn’t know what the future held, so rather than wasting our time on trying to find answers to things that couldn’t possibly be known, we put our efforts into marketing that was still possible, and planned for what we are able to do when the economy does loosen up. Things looked dire, but we knew shutdowns couldn’t last forever. I find it important to acknowledge danger and even fear but to not let fear guide your decisions. Reason should always prevail.
How do you stay focused?
Lots and lots of task lists and meeting agendas. It’s easy to lose focus on what I’m supposed to be doing, so my team and I create tasks lists for everyone on a piece of software called Monday. That list has a due-date for everything to give it a priority. We also use Monday for organizing documents that we use regularly.
Things that need to be decided as a team sometimes don’t get priority unless I schedule a time to review with the team. Meetings themselves can easily get sidetracked with tangential thoughts by everyone involved, so having an agenda is a way to keep everyone on task. It’s also a reminder to come up with an actionable step to take before moving on to the next agenda item.
It’s also important to acknowledge that as much as technology helps us, it also bombards us with distractions just as much. The solution isn’t to get mad at software companies until they subvert their own business model. It’s up to the individual to practice self-control and I offer a few simple steps that helped me.
First, I turn off all notifications on my phone that aren’t necessary. For me, the only notifications I allow are text messages, phone calls, and calendar appointments. This includes sounds or the little brightly colored dots on app icons. I also turn off all desktop notifications. They are absolutely not necessary for me since I have my phone on me more often than I put my 50 pound PC in my pocket.
Second, on my desktop, I periodically close any application or tab I’m not actively using. I made my desktop as boring as possible so I’m not visually enticed to think about multiple tasks at once.
Third, I also used to waste a lot of time focused on social media, because wasting time is what social media is designed to do. I tried a bunch of blockers and other tricks that didn’t curb my habit. The solution I found was to unfollow everyone on Facebook and mute or unfollow everyone on Twitter. If I want to check in with my friends on Facebook, I’m still connected. Likewise, if I want to post a funny quip on Twitter, I can do it without getting sucked into the very important debates over whether something some celebrity said was controversial or not. I’ve become very particular about the quality of the information I take in and try to avoid doing it passively. Social media carries all of the world’s most erroneous information. Not only does bad information waste time, but it can adversely affect one’s course of action and reputation.
Staying focused is a good discipline to develop for any entrepreneur. There’s a quote that goes something like ‘the thing you want to avoid doing is usually the thing you need to do most.’ I discovered that wisdom myself prior to ever hearing that quote, so I ignored the quote so I didn’t accidentally steal it and deliberately say it my own way so that people could mistakenly credit me for this brilliant insight. I look like a hero and the sucker who originally said it is forgotten in the annals of time.
How do you differentiate your business from the competition?
The funny thing is, depending on what time of day it is, if you ask industry people we’re either too far out or we’re not different enough. We set out to differentiate ourselves from the competition in two ways:
First, we pursue the toy categories and concepts we think will work regardless of the trends. A lot of other companies see a trend and try to jump on the bandwagon. Say Spin Master’s Hatchimals takes off in the collectibles toy category like it did last Christmas. Other companies our size suddenly are all telling retailers “I’ve got the next Hatchimals!” and retailers are telling them, “we’ve heard that 20 times today.” It probably works for some, but we didn’t think we’d have much success doing what everyone else is doing. We may not have success doing what we’re doing either! It’s worth a shot though if it works because of our major point of differentiation:
We’re an entertainment company disguising itself as a toy company. Our primary objective is to create kids’ entertainment brands. The problem with doing this in animation, video games, or comics is that the competition is fierce. Conversely, in toys, a lot of companies rest on their laurels or don’t really focus much on the narrative of the characters they’re creating. So we took a note from a lot of the brands we grew up with that were near and dear to our heart and launched with toys first. Unlike video games, comics, or TV shows, a brand new Alter Nation action figure next to stale old Captain America, Batman, and Leonardo stands out more than even a great Alter Nation video game would in an ocean of new, great, indie games.
What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?
Always check your assumptions. Don’t be Pollyanna. It’s tempting to hear critiques and ignore them because people are definitely wet blankets when you want to go outside of the status quo. If we let critics deter us, we’d never take chances. That’s a given. Critics are still doing you a favor in granting insights on why something might not work. As the executive, your job is to find out if it’s a viable criticism and how to address it before the public-at-large votes with their dollars.
Addressing it is the easier part. Get creative, change course, find a different audience, whatever. Whether it’s viable is trickier. My advice is to check whether there is the evidence behind a claim and ignore things that appear anecdotal. If someone tells you “that’s not going to work because my kids hate blue toys” it’s less reliable than “based on our latest data, there is a trend whereby all blue toys consistently sold 30-50% fewer units than any other color toy based on data from 50 brands targeted to our intended demographic.” If you don’t have the information to make an informed decision, get it if you have time, and if you don’t have time, go with your best guess. If all you have is a subjective preference, go with your own. You shouldn’t regret choosing your own subjective opinion over someone else’s whether it works out or not.
What’s your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?
I don’t have a favorite app, but we use Google Suite for our business needs at Panda Mony Toy Brands. I would like it to be better, but I haven’t found a better solution for so many business needs in one suite. It wins my favorite just because I use it the most.
I used to like Grammar Girl’s grammar tips. I still do, but at some point, I realized I was following grammar rules the vast majority of people don’t even know, so I figured I knew enough and I stopped. It’s still a really good source.
My favorite book used to be 1984 by George Orwell, because of its damning critique of the populous’ support for elite, hypocritical, tyrannical oligarchs at the expense of their own personal identity as they succumb to propaganda which obfuscates their own rationality whereby they, in a sense, dehumanize themselves for benefit of the ruling class. Then I discovered I liked his Animal Farm better because it’s the same thing, except with cute animals.
What’s your favorite business tool or resource? Why?
I used a lot of resources from SCORE in the initial planning phases. They have a ton of free planning guides from everything from business plans to financial projections.
I also have a subscription to Harvard Business Review. They offer a lot of free articles though. They’re great because they give you insight on trends or analysis and they’re backed up by research rather than editorial, prognostication, or opinion.
It’s cliché, but one of the best books I believe an entrepreneur could read is How to Win Friends and Influence People. It rightfully directs a businessperson to put their focus on what others need using simple guidelines. The second is The Art of War. It has a lot of practical and rational advice for leadership and strategy that can be applied to business. You can probably skip the stuff about actual battlefield tactics unless you want to apply it in a metaphoric sense.
Who is your business role model? Why?
I admire people who achieve by sticking to their guns, not only in spite of naysayers but overtly bucking the status quo. We will never advance if we conform.
Early on in my business planning, I read a story about MGA Entertainment’s Isaac Larian’s legal battles against Mattel. I was pleasantly surprised they chose to stand up against a large company like Mattel since usually smaller companies back down against big corporations, usually because lawyers advise them to. So, I admired him for that as well as MGA refusing to kowtow to ridiculous criticisms from people, with nothing better to do, claiming Bratz was too sexualized or L.O.L. Surprise being anatomically correct. So often companies wring their hands over every tweet with any hint of negativity, so it’s refreshing to see a company brush off that kind of trivial criticism. Speaking of tweets, Larian’s outspoken criticisms of the industry and personal attacks are entertaining as well.
I also admire Lloyd Kaufman of Troma for a lot of the same reasons. He’s carved a niche with independent productions, gained a loyal following without worrying about making the next Hollywood blockbuster, gave a lot of talented creators early starts, and not only doesn’t care about mainstream approval, he overtly criticizes the likes of Disney for their media monopolies. Technically speaking though, oligopoly is probably more appropriate since Disney still has I think 1 or 2 competitors they haven’t bought yet.
How do you balance work and life?
I had a hard time doing this since my business is a major source of enjoyment for me. It’s more entertaining of a project to work on than playing a video game or watching TV shows. The thing that tipped the scale the other way was really my daughter. I estimate I only have a few years where she actually has any interest in spending time with me. Childhood is also the time with the most impactful memories on a person, so I want to make sure I’m allocating a fair amount of time to her. After 6 PM and on weekends, my time belongs to my wife.
What’s your favorite way to decompress?
Lately, it’s been old movies. Anything from the 90’s all the way back to the silent era. I cut cable and just use an antenna. They play a ton of free movies now that digital signals are the standard, but there’s also a bunch of free streaming services on Roku and Fire playing the same movies. At present, I’ve been on a film noir kick, particularly Peter Lorre, Edward G Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and Robert Mitchum movies.
What do you have planned for the next six months?
When things reopen we can resume a tour of live events. We’d like to visit places where the kids are going to be and bring some fun activities. We’re already prepping for it since it seems like The Great Reopening is nigh. We have a special collector’s edition catalog coming out to help us out with marketing while no one is allowed to, or maybe doesn’t want, to go anywhere.
How can our readers connect with you?
I’m on all the socialized media, The cool people like me are on all of those platforms of course, but it might be easier to just email me at [email protected] or call our offices. I try to make it a point to answer all serious inquiries, but it’s getting tougher as more people ask. Still! No excuses! I will write back to you eventually if you email me and it’s not random spam.
You Can also find Panda Mony Toys on all social platforms at @pandamonytoys and our website at www.pandamony.toys!
This article originally appeared on femfounder.co and can be found in its entirety here.Full Rant . . .