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How S$1,000 meant for school fees led to a multi-million dollar collectibles business with global reach

SINGAPORE — It started with S$1,000, money that was meant to pay for his brother’s polytechnic school fees for the semester.

Mr Ben Ang, chief executive officer of XM Studios, with one of the collectibles that the firm sells around the globe.

Mr Ben Ang, chief executive officer of XM Studios, with one of the collectibles that the firm sells around the globe.

  • Mr Ben Ang founded XM Studios in 2014 with S$50,000 capital
  • Before that, he ran a hobby toy store in Bras Basah Complex with his brother
  • It took 10 years of hard work with no rest before he found success
  • XM Studios is on track to pull in S$21 million in revenue this year

 

SINGAPORE — It started with S$1,000, money that was meant to pay for his brother’s polytechnic school fees for the semester.

Instead, Mr Ben Ang and his brother Seng, then 25, secretly took the money and invested it into a month’s rent to take over a collectible toy store, Xenomorph, in Bras Basah Complex.

The year was 1997 and the pair had been thinking of closing down their humble comic-book store in Chinatown as it was not making a profit and rent was expensive.

But the owner of Xenomorph had made them an offer they could not refuse — he would help with half of the rent and the brothers would need to just hand over 50 per cent of their profits. No other upfront costs was needed.

“I said to my brother, ‘Let’s just do it’,” Mr Ang, now 46, said.

This would mark the start of what would later become XM Studios, a premium collectible figurine company founded by Mr Ang in 2014.

Specialising in creating high-quality handcrafted figurines from popular media franchises such as Marvel and DC Comics, XM Studios has climbed the ranks to become among the top three players in the collectible figurines industry worldwide.

And the pandemic has not slowed down the company’s growth either— quite the opposite: XM Studios is on track to triple its sales, from S$7.6 million in sales revenue in 2019 to about S$21 million this year.

Mr Ang, who is now XM Studios’ chief executive officer, chalked this up to his decision to ramp up production while other studios decided to slow down or halt operations due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The demand for shiny, new figurines has also gone up as many collectors are idling at home with nothing else to do but admire their toy collections, Mr Ang said.

WORKING WITHOUT REST

The road to success for XM Studios in recent years was not easy.

When Mr Ang and his brother took over the hobby collectibles store in 1997, the “nerds and geeks” — like himself — who would spend their disposable income on model kits and figurines were few and far between.

This was years before the multi-billion dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe would bring in a new slate of fans to fawn over the various superheroes, buy merchandise and collectibles.

And so the pair could not rely on sales revenue alone to keep afloat. They also started teaching airbrushing workshops, charging S$50 for eight lessons, to help get by.

This killed two birds with one stone, Mr Ang said, allowing them to hone their craft of painting while bringing in an extra steady stream of revenue to keep the business going.

Still, the doubling of their workload meant that Mr Ang and his brother Seng had to work seven days without rest for 10 years, drawing S$600 a month in salary each and taking a break only during Chinese New Year.

“We only rest during reunion dinner and the first day of Chinese New Year,” Mr Ang recalled.

“Every day, we worked from nine to 10, painting and painting and teaching and teaching,” he said.

WEATHERING STORMS

But even then, times were still tough.

For one thing, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak had hit the store’s bottom line.

Xenomorph had also turned into a family business. With their oldest brother and retired father now added to the mix, they had to ensure that all mouths were fed with whatever the store could bring in in earnings.

They had even begun making large-scale models for companies, such as for Universal Studios at its Resorts World Sentosa theme park, as well as government agencies, to further diversify their revenue streams.

Mr Ang was aware that these ventures would not be sustainable in the long term.

As the brothers grew older, it would become more physically taxing to climb the scaffolding of large statues to do maintenance work, rain or shine. So they had to start thinking of alternative plans.

His brother Seng seemed unfazed — he could become a taxi driver or work part-time. There were options out there, he told Mr Ang.

Mr Ang felt otherwise. He did not want to see his brother give up the trade just yet.

“It struck me that Seng has been with me for 20 over years, mastering the trade, yet he cannot utilise his skills in whatever he wants to do and has to find a new job.

“That was what made me think of changing the business model that we had,” he said.

A BIG BREAK

With the encouragement of clients and long-time customers, Mr Ang decided to delve into the world of licensing, and began knocking on the doors of Warner Brothers — which owns DC Comics — and Disney.

After a string of setbacks and rejections spanning two years, Disney finally called back in 2013.

Cobbling together S$50,000 in startup capital from friends and family, they negotiated with Disney to pay the licence fee in instalments to buy them time to get things going.

Customers and clients then helped with funding the initial prototypes and designs.

And then they were off — well, not quite. XM Studios was born, but the early days saw many detractors.

Mr Ang recalled how during their first showing at the annual Comic Con convention in Singapore in 2014, people had remarked that the company would not survive because it was an unknown entity selling figurines at S$800 a piece — double the industry standard at the time.

That did not deter Mr Ang. “I believe people are willing to pay (more) money for good-quality statues, which is what we want to provide,” he said.

His blind faith was rewarded soon after. XM Studios’ big break came when it launched its Magneto piece in 2014.

XM Studios’ big break came with the launch of its Magneto figurine (pictured) in 2014. It is now considered the “holy grail” of Magneto pieces among collectors, with a resale value of S$6,750. Photo: XM Studios.

The figurine — which features sometimes anti-hero, sometimes super villain Magneto seated upon a throne made from the hand of a mutant-hunting Sentinel — was an immediate hit among collectors when it came out.

All 800 pieces of the figurine sold out within a day — a first for XM Studios. It is now considered the “holy grail” of Magneto pieces among collectors, though other companies have tried to surpass it.

This became the turning point for the company, Mr Ang said. All their other designs started selling like hot cakes, and fans and collectors were eager to see what else they had up their sleeves.

Other franchises started taking notice, too, when the company’s figurines began winning a host of awards despite its newcomer status, and soon offered their licenses to them as well.

THE NEXT CHAPTER

XM Studios is now a thriving business, employing 50 staff members across its operations in China and headquarters in Singapore.

It has presence in 35 markets worldwide and expects to sell more than 19,000 figurines this year.

In the future, Mr Ang said that XM Studios plan to open 20 experiential concept stores — showcasing their figurines, among other things — in countries worldwide in the next six years.

“What we really do is give (collectors and fans) a piece of memory from when they were young,” he said.

“For the older collectors, (the figurines) they saw when they were young, they could not afford.

“But now, they are able to afford a piece, and looking at it, they’re reminded of their younger days when they read comics,” Mr Ang said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said Disney called XM Studios with a licensing deal in 2014. The company has clarified that the call came in 2013.

Related topics

collectibles Universal Studios Singapore toys entrepreneur Covid-19

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