The product I created was a cardboard display case, 3 rows high, to hold 5 Pops per row (15 total) with the ability to store the box behind the figure. Each figure had beautiful artwork on the box so I wanted those to be free backgrounds for the figures. The main complaint in the community back then was "What am I supposed to do with the boxes. I have it all in storage totes." The second complaint was "Furniture on the floor taking up more space." So I created a floating display / storage unit. Simple. It does the job. With no money in my pocket it was a great first product. It has flaws and I was not as proud of it as I wanted to be, but it is a start.
My main advice for anyone starting a business is STOP LOOKING TO PERFECT IT. If you keep going back to the drawing board over and over you will not get anything started. You will talk yourself out of it until it no longer materializes. START SELLING IT. You can improve it later when you have more money.
Time to build the site! It started with me building a one page site for my one product with just a simple PayPal checkout button. I wrote the code on Bootstrap framework which I only knew the basics of. With my average knowledge of HTML and CSS I should be able to do a simple page. I made the buy button say "Pre-Order Now."
After a few months my keywords must have moved me into position where someone found me. I received my first Pre-Order from Eric in West Palm Beach, FL. I will never forget that moment, my first sale from my own company. (I sent him Pops for Christmas as a thank you. He had no idea he was my first customer). I was motivated to push harder.
I grew my Social Media following a little bit. Word of mouth in the community was growing a bit. I printed flyers and business cards I was too afraid to hand out. I was awkward. I then realized I was better at back end data and keywords. So I focused there. Then it started to pay off. One sale here. One sale there.
First Quarter 2016: I sold 8 Pre-Orders. A painful start. You go into this thinking "I have a brilliant idea and people are going to love it!" That almost never happens. Going viral should never be a goal. Pre-Orders are also very difficult for people to commit to. Once you have the product in hand, it gets better.
I got a 5 x 5 storage unit to prepare for my first 300 units. I had them shipped to the alley behind my local UPS where I had my business shipping mailbox address. Early in the morning, on my lunch breaks, or after working my full time job, I loaded my Ford Escape and headed back and forth to storage. Pre-Orders started getting shipped out. I would use my perks at my full time job to get cheaper boxes and materials I needed. I lugged a bunch of them up the steps and packed them in my apartment. Fun times.
Second Quarter 2016: I sold 50 displays. I then started making a new product, Pop Protectors. These were essentially plastic cases to protect the boxes the toys were in. Some older Pops started to increase in value so I saw the opportunity for a simple and cheap product launch. Pop protectors and Dorbz protectors were born.
Third Quarter 2016: I sold 230 displays and 380 protectors. This was because I created some package deals with the displays. I knew they needed both products and I learned from my full time job about "Kitting" part numbers together. Buy 2 displays get 10 protectors was a top seller. Then buy 4 displays get 20 protectors took off. I also upgraded to a 10 x 15 storage unit.
Fourth Quarter 2016: I sold 340 displays and 460 protectors. I only made $16,500 in sales the first year. I spent more than that to get through year one. 628 displays sold and 840 protectors seemed like a lot. Now THAT was the motivation I needed!
THE MARKETING & THE MARKETPLACES
During Quarter 2 of 2016 I attended whatever event or convention I had time to attend. I made a Display Geek shirt and started to wear it everywhere. A local comic book shop in Liberty Station San Diego was doing a "Pop Swap" as we call it. Basically this was a Funko community trade event. I had one Classic display and a bunch of Pops to trade. I made a ton of new friends and met some die hard Funko fans. These relationships grew over time and also gave me little opportunities here and there. I knew I had to get out of my comfort zone of hiding behind my computer and start talking.
I added my products to Amazon, eBay, Etsy and started pumping out marketing materials. 2017 showed up fast and I rebuilt my entire website on Shopify. Once I had a more legitimate looking site with multiple products and categories, people started taking it more seriously. My social media presence started getting much larger and I really utilized my Instagram growth to sell them my products. Once I had more customer photos and large collections on display, they started to understand what I was trying to help them do.
This began the age of stress. Like REAL stress. Keeping up with both my full time career and my side gig started to change me. Not much changed over the next few years, this was the routine. I knew what was working and kept doing it. I kept growing. I kept learning. I kept meeting people. I kept spending stupid amounts of money to grow. BUT, I also kept getting more distant from my full time job. The stress was coming from that job much faster than from my side gig. The office politics mixed with the amount of work on my plate and my team being stressed out, made it pretty clear where this was going to end. Shit was going to hit the fan, but I was going to keep pushing until it did.
2017 I sold 3,300 displays, 9,700 protectors, 980 background inserts. I was up 500% from 2016. $100,000 in sales. So yeah, stress kicked in hard. I invented background inserts for my displays. Add on items became a priority. More protectors and more inserts. The inserts took about 3 months to gain steam but became a very important product for Christmas time. I didn't realize it at the time but they really were a great seasonal gift product.
I upgraded into a 15 x 30 storage unit. Then a few months later the unit next to me became available and I rented that too. I now had about 600 square feet of space. I packed all orders in one unit and used the other for inventory. The larger quantities I could buy, the cheaper they would be. I was also on the ground floor, so no more steps or elevators!
2018 I sold 5,400 displays, 12,300 protectors, 3,000 background inserts and started buying and selling collections from people who were getting "out of the game." Still a massive 75% growth year over year. Insane. I then moved into my very first warehouse near my full time job. My rent was about to double from $700 for the two storage units to $1300 for the 700 square foot warehouse. It was a risk. A big risk. I was starting to feel the pressure at my full time job and was really afraid of this change. I did it anyway.
I talked to my boss and asked to buy the warehouse racks he had laying around. He said yes and I slowly started moving into my first warehouse. It was one small office room and a warehouse with a bathroom in an industrial park. Nothing fancy.
THE STORE FRONT
Before summer of 2018 i said, "wouldn't it be cool to have my own store?" If I use my displays it would be a great marketing tool as well. I learned from Vegas Toy Con that people need to see it and need an explanation to understand my product. I designed the office and some of the warehouse with my collection. I had an area to show off my collection and everything else was for sale. It was really just for fun and I wasn't using the space for much. I also knew there really wasn't any competition locally with people selling Funko products.
I opened my store July 15th, 2018 with a Grand Opening Event. It was amazing! So many people showed up and they were so excited to finally have a Pop Shop in San Diego. People were coming up and telling me how they were inspired by what I was building and they wanted to start their own business as well. I was blown away. I gave them all the advice I could but made sure they knew it all started small. What they really needed to hear was that I did all of this with no money. I think that is what every entrepreneur needs to hear. I feel like TIME and PERSISTENCE is the way to growth. It is not about a quick buck, it is about REPUTATION, TRUST and COMMUNITY. Stay at your full time job and collect that salary, but also start the side gig. Be strategic but take on some risks. You have to think and work harder than you ever have before. Period.
I have watched dozens of companies crumble around me because they only cared about money. They sell everything for market value and above, they sell mystery boxes filled with nothing but junk, they swap convention stickers and try to cheat their customers, they don't disclose the damage on the box before shipping out an order, or they simply ignore emails and messages. I have seen it all. I will never be that company. Mystery boxes are a reputation killer. Plenty of companies survive it when they have thick skin, but I do not see the benefit of having your company smeared on every social media page for a few quick bucks.
Now it's time to have my own Pop Swap Events. These grew pretty quickly. My Instagram following was large now and all the locals were following me. I also belong to the local Facebook groups related to this. Word spread that I had free tables, great raffles and I even paid for food. Nobody was doing that. The reason was because I was making a few thousand dollars per event and I wanted the event to be successful and for everyone to love it, so I ate the expenses. It worked very well.
MAJOR NEW PRODUCT
Collectors were not taking any Pops out of the boxes now. Every collector quickly became an "In Box Collector" and the Classic display was still a decent option, but not great. I cut the depth in half and tightened up the fit. The INBOX displays were born. This was a massive amount of money to get off the ground.
At this point my 6 month lease was up and I moved next door to a new warehouse with an actual office for me. It was now $1,550 a month. My first REAL OFFICE. I worked for 15 years in a cubicle trying to get upgraded to be the boss in my very own office. They would not give it to me, so screw it, I gave it to myself! The timing was also good, which you will understand in the next section.
Display Geek was in big debt again but growing at a great pace. My stress and focus was all over the place now. All I wanted to do was run the business and quit my job. I just wasn't ready yet. I could not afford to pay myself anywhere near what I was making at my job. I could barely even pay the bills I already had. It all started to hit me pretty hard. My quality of work was getting more obvious and my anger more apparent at my full time job.
FIRED FROM MY FULL TIME JOB.
Late 2018, a lot of big changes started happening. My wife and I took a much needed vacation to Australia. After a few days I realized I was not getting emails from work. I assumed it was my service issues I had been having while abroad. On the last day of the trip it sunk in, they turned off my email. We got to the airport and waited for our plane. I had texted a few people while I was away and they never answered. I decided to call one of them and see if my suspicions were correct. She told me "The day you left for vacation they let 2 of us go. We didn't want to ruin your vacation." I sighed heavy, "Well that also would explain why my email doesn't work. I guess I am fired too." She said, "Yeah." I said, "I am really sorry that this happened to you guys, you don't deserve it."
I turned to my wife and she was visibly upset. I was numb staring into space. I said "Yep. I was right. Now I need to take this plane ride to plan, do math and strategize." She turned to me and said "I can't believe you are not crying." I replied "I am upset, but I am going to figure this out. They made the decision for me and when I get back I am going all in on Display Geek. I just need to figure out how. I am more focused than sad. I am also pissed because my team didn't deserve that." We also found out a month or so later they got rid of another one of my employees. What was the point of all this? They cleaned house. Absolutely disgusting and cowardly behavior as always. I have seen them do this before but I did not think I would be on the receiving end of it. I can envision every single conversation and who was involved in making it happen. That is why I was not upset, I felt stupid for not realizing it sooner. They made it so obvious.
I have never been more focused in my life. I paid for the wifi on the plane. Added up all our bills. Cut all the waste. Ordered a thermal printer, tape and boxes since I was losing access to most of that. We got back October 30th, Happy 3 Year Anniversary Display Geek. The next day was my birthday Happy Birthday Sean! I marched into work, turned to my coworker and said "Where do I need to go?" He said just head to the conference room." I was supposed to be escorted, but I just wanted to leave and get to my shop. I walked down and said "Ok what do you need from me?" The CEO said "I think you know why this is happening and I need you to read and sign this paper." I said "I didn't ask why." I read it, signed it and walked out. Went to my desk and packed up. There was a lot of awkward silence around me and averted eye contact. I broke the silence and said to a few people "You know where I will be. Come by anytime" and smiled.
I headed to the shop. I finished all the math, called some people, you know... did all the things. I felt okay. The next day my printer and labels showed up and it was off to the races.
UPDATE 2020: I forgive all of them for it, even the one person who helped influence them to do this. No he was not related to the owner. He knows who he is. ;-)
STAY TUNED FOR PART 3 ...