It started with a talk about driving taxis
My brother Seng and I are comic book fans. In 1994 we also got into airbrush painting, and by 1997 had found a way to combine both interests, running a small hobby shop selling character figurines and DIY figurine kit assembly and painting services.
This earned us just $600 each a month, so to boost our income we took on contract work as landscape artists, a physically strenuous job.
We did this for 15 years, until one night, on the way home from a paint job at Vivocity, I asked Seng what we would do once we got too old for landscape work. He replied that we could be taxi drivers, perhaps?
I was shaken – I didn’t want our 15 years of artistic experience to go to waste! So I immediately began thinking of how we could continue our art in a financially sustainable way.
Customers had for years suggested we could make our own licensed products. They loved our paint jobs, and as comics fans ourselves, Seng and I thought we could make better figurines than the ones in the market. Plus, we had been in the industry long enough to know demand was out there for real, quality products: the collector community was swelling, new figurine companies were sprouting up every year, and a slate of superhero movies would soon be released, which we thought would drive interest even more. At the time, Asia barely had any figurine-making companies outside of Japan.
So that night, I thought up a plan: we would embark on a venture to produce top-quality luxury licensed figurines. Thus, XM Studios was born.
Magneto blasted us to fame and fortune
Now I had the idea, but we needed the licences. I first tried approaching Warner Brothers, but they had already awarded their licence to a major figurine maker. Next, I approached a Disney agent, and we almost landed a deal, but it was pulled at the last minute; we found out Disney was setting up their own Singapore office, and all deals were to be re-evaluated.
I approached other companies, but they said our unknown brand was too small to work with. Many people were doubtful of our business idea, asking if we would ever make any money selling figurines. But I believed the idea had potential.
Finally, on a fateful day in 2013, Disney called back. The long and short of it was: they were granting us a one-year license to make Marvel figurines. I was beyond happy – this was the big break we needed so badly. I was also worried: How would we cough up nearly S$300,000 in licensing fees when we didn’t have a cent?
I thought up a possible workaround: I asked Disney if we could pay in three instalments. We combined a loan from one of our co-founders and our mum to afford the first instalment.
Next, we made three figurine prototypes: Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk. Since we wanted our figurines to be the highest quality the market had to offer – with a price tag to match – we worked on improving every aspect of the product we could. We modernised the character costumes, added switchable parts, and studied the comics lore to design poses, facial expressions and details that would resonate with hardcore fans. Essentially, we made figurines we dreamt of owning.
Once finished, we showed our prototypes to shop customers, and set up a small booth at Singapore Comic Con to display them. Our products were priced at double the market average, but people loved the design and quality. By the end of it all we had 200 orders worth S$160,000 – enough to cover prototyping, manufacturing, and the second instalment.
Later that year, our sixth figurine featuring X-Men villain Magneto went viral among collectors worldwide for its design, and XM Studios’ popularity exploded overnight. By December, we had made enough to pay off our loan and third instalment. And as we got more and more
popular, new licences started rolling in, including from Warner Brothers. We eventually rose to become one of the world’s top three figurine makers, with customers across 35 markets.
From rough seas in 2018 to smooth sailing in 2021
Despite making a global name for ourselves, we still faced cashflow problems. To make products, we paid licence fees upfront, then spent 17 to 36 months designing and manufacturing each figurine. We earn nothing during this “empty” period while spending a large sum on research and development, a setup that hit us badly in 2018 when we took on more licenses than we could afford.
To fix the issue, we invented ways to slash our product manufacturing time to 6 months and even 3 months. This of course delighted customers, who didn’t want to wait either. With this, cashflow improved. And when Covid-19 hit, we were in good enough financial standing to make another bet: that customers in fact wanted to buy more figurines during a global recession.
Why? Because I still had the same two hunches I did when I first came up with the idea for XM Studios: First, fans valued high-quality stuff and would pay to own it, just like Seng and I would. Second, comics and movie collectibles were becoming more mainstream: as more people became fans, demand just kept growing.
So while every other major toymaker was cutting back on spending, we ramped up figurine releases and our efforts were rewarded: we launched 30 new products and tripled our revenue. As it turns out, people were unable to travel and willingly splurged on growing their collections instead. This showed us there was still so much room for the market to grow. Whatever we’ve made so far, collectors have snapped up.
Encouraged by our results, we’re planning to launch 100 new products next year and work towards our new goal: to transform collectibles from just products into an all-encompassing lifestyle. We’re launching a lifestyle line selling high-quality collectibles paraphernalia, and two product lines for new customer segments: a cheaper mass market line, and a scaled-down figurine range for collectors with less space at home. Last, we’re also planning to open 20 new physical experience stores around the world – a long way from our beginnings in that hobby shop.
When we joined the industry in 1997, figurines were mostly seen as childrens’ toys. We’ve managed to make products that changed that impression. People now regard our collectibles as art pieces – even investments – and over the past six years, we’ve graduated from being an unknown Singapore firm to an international figurine powerhouse. Some might even say that’s a superhero story, too.
Ben Ang is the CEO of XM Studios, an international luxury figurine maker that counts Disney and Warner Brothers among its licensors. A self-taught artist and entrepreneur, Ben dropped out of school as a teen and now runs a multi-million dollar business making collectibles for a living.
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