Ben Ang of XM Studios on carving out the Singaporean superhero story through collectibles

When Ben Ang was a young man conducting airbrushing workshops at $50 for eight lessons in the 1990s, he had no idea that he would become an important part of Singapore’s new economy.

XM, the home-based design company led by the CEO, is known for its hand-made graphics based on movies and cartoons such as Mickey Mouse, Capt. America, Batman, Superman, Godzilla and Transformers.

It all started when the 48-year-old decided to enter the licensing business. After two years of entertaining the big boys, Disney finally called with a Marvel license in 2013.

But XM Studios is no child’s play.

Ben Ang, founder of XM Studios

These aren’t the $19.99 action line toys you’d give your 10-year-old for Christmas. (His two young children are more interested in Lego toys than XM collectibles, admits Ang, whose wife is a homemaker.) Because of his customers’ expectations, he made small numbers of them. calculated, the parts can command between $600 and $6,000 – it’s not. with the kind of money you need to shell out for hard-to-find designs, end up in the second-hand market.

XM’s fans are mostly male and between the ages of 18 and 64, with some serious collections of over 600 units. “We have 300 designs, so when they get 600 units, that means they’ve probably bought copies of every unit!” he was proud.

Made of polystone, each sculpture is the culmination of more than 10 steps: from sketches to 3D modeling and printing, as well as casting and hand carving. Some of the more difficult pieces show skill and techniques, such as comparing the ripped denim of Red Hulk’s jeans or Batman’s cape being dropped in the middle of the space.

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Selling parts of people’s childhoods

There is also post-production finished parts quality control. XM employs about 30 workers in China just for this and for checking the final package. QC is done three to four times instead of just once, and “we’re focusing on premium packaging to provide a better experience,” Ang revealed. The workers used to “tap the sides of the box” when sending pictures, but Ang decided to change this overlooked method by using Velcro straps for convenience. and flexibility. “It’s easy to open the box, and you can reuse it.”

The self-proclaimed “anime person”, for the record, does not collect pictures but Manga comics, making a lot of effort and investing in the process “start to finish” because he knows to the importance of the smallest details in the avid collector. .

“It’s about the unboxing experience, the customer experience. Every day, you clean your photos and look at them, so the relationship between the collector and the collection is important. We bring joy and laughter to our customers, and we are selling a piece of their childhood. This has kept me sane for 26 years,” said Ang, whose company collaborates with artists and illustrators around the world to infuse diversity and creativity into parts.

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Next page: Dedication to Van Gogh’s masterpieces

His next collaboration is with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Although he could not reveal the details, he believes that Dutch artists can easily reach a wider audience, especially a younger generation of 20-somethings who are not familiar with the Post-Impressionist masters. .

“Van Gogh paintings are very expensive. What if we make a 3D version of his Sunflowers, so you can arrange them exactly as you like? he joked.

While others would easily create works inspired by famous paintings, Ang went directly to the museum and Van Gogh’s family to negotiate a licensing agreement. “We respect the artist and we want to do things the right way, which means approaching them or their representatives directly.”

Mindfulness and thinking are unknown. In a city-state where most of the money and attention goes to industries like F&B, healthcare, construction, blockchain technology, and education, Ang’s XM has captured the face of the Temasek company Heliconia Capital, now an investor. In addition, Ang told The Business Times that despite the pandemic, revenue doubled to $16.9 million for the year ended December 2020 and profit after tax to to $ 4.2 million.

Building a community for collectors

It’s ironic how few people know about XM, except avid collectors. “In the beginning, we focused our attention on the international market. Apart from people in the collecting community, most people here don’t know us,” Ang said at the store. XM’s new 19,000 sq ft project in the Kitchener Complex, which he hopes will become a community space for collectors.

Visitors can make pre-orders or purchases, but most are for display and not for sale. A variety of cartoons and movies are featured in themed pods, including a Transformers Optimus Prime and Megatron bust that stands nearly a meter tall.

He set up a 99 Gelato Coffee Bar in the store, serving a variety of flavors like Strawberry Tomato to those who “need to sit down for a break after the long walk to our gallery”. At the back of the new store-and-gallery is UNIC, which sells limited edition and vintage designer clothing and streetwear brands from around the world.

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Starting from airbrushing anime figurines

Ang has come a long way from his airbrushing days when he and his older brother Ang Kok Seng – as he calls him Seng – painted characters from the Sailor Moon and Evangelion anime series from the inside. from a 500 sq ft leisure shop in Bras Basah.

Today, Ang, the youngest of three brothers, Seng and elder sister Clair count as founding partners of XM. Seng is the creative director, while Clair is the logistics director. More than 90 employees at XM’s Kitchener Complex warehouse and office, Yishun warehouse, and Guangzhou factory.

Don’t expect him to tell you some great stories about how he overcame evil forces to get to where he is today. It’s surprisingly stoic, business-like and humble for someone in the workforce. His story, however, is a page-turning personal story.

There is now a popular story, or, at worst, the story of how he and Seng rented their hobby shop at Bras Basah Complex for a month with the money meant for the polytechnic semester. of Seng. Ang withdrew himself from his mechanical engineering course at Ngee Ann Polytechnic after two years.

Although neither brother was trained, they gained a huge following among their customers when they started airbrushing anime figurines that stood out in hobby shops at the time. Because of their high performance, they have a list of fanboys who want to paint their picture. These customers then encouraged the duo to turn to licensing.

Telling stories through good collectors is his key to success

When asked how he was able to impress Disney, Ang attributed this to his storytelling ability and the quality of his product. Captain America, his first cartoon for Disney, he said, “changed the collectibles scene by changing superheroes”. That winning piece now stands proudly in XM’s concept store.

Even now, he’s not planning or creating a picture of, say, Batman. One of the dioramas shown on XM shows Batman surrounded by all his enemies, from The Penguin to The Joker. It’s a scene that could be a disaster that Bruce Wayne finds himself in.

“The relationship between the collector and the collector is very important. We bring joy and laughter to our customers, and we are selling a part of their childhood. This has saved I’ve been working for 26 years.”

Ben Ang, CEO and Co-Founder of XM Studios

After Disney, XM acquired its DC Comics cartoon collection license under Warner Bros. Consumer Products (WBCP). In a rare move, XM was granted the creative license to co-produce the Batman Samurai line with WBCP featuring Batman characters in a previously unseen Japanese samurai setting and debuting new designs such as Batman Shogun and Joker Orochi.

Ang has been involved with WBCP in many different ways. For example, XM announced The Great Gatsby Collection, a series of single-cask selections of Scotch whiskey and cognac in Art Deco style packaging designed by the XM team.

Collectors can be art form

He hopes to expand the lifestyle because this opens up opportunities for his team to be more creative.

“In the 90s, hobby shops were viewed as places for entertainment, not for art. Through the work of XM Studio, we showed that art collectors are a form of art – an art story teller. through creativity and skills such as photography, 3D modeling, engineering and painting,” said Ang. “We hope to encourage young people to develop an appreciation for art and design.”

What is Ang’s favorite comic? “Doraemon,” he said with a childlike grin.

Although XM wanted licenses from Disney, Warner Bros. Hasbro, Godzilla, Ultraman and Sanrio, he did not come close to the Doraemon company. “I have a Doraemon poster in my office that I look at every day, but I never want to knock on the doors of Doraemon’s offices. I love Doraemon so much I want to separate my work. I mean, I like to eat, but that doesn’t mean I want to be a chef. I think I don’t want to spoil the idea of ​​finding the first love.

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