Blogcast #23: Anthony Marks, CEO of Fanattik, Collectibles for the Film & Gaming Industry

Blogcast #23: Anthony Marks, CEO Of Fanattik, Collectibles For The Film & Gaming Industry

 

Rebecca: Welcome to the Entrepreneurial Journey podcast. Today I have Anthony Marks with me. He describes himself as the CEO, the owner, the founder, and the MD of, now let me get this right. Fanattik.

Anthony: Yeah. I also do the washing up here, and if the toilets get blocked, that’s down to me as well.

Rebecca: Excellent. A proper business owner. Definitely.

Anthony: You have to.

Rebecca: And Anthony, the only business owner, I have to say, that has a full-size cardboard cutout of The Hoff in the background.

Anthony: Yes. Well, I’m actually talking to you from our showroom, but our showroom has been decimated. It’s show season at the beginning of the year, so everything is all over the place. So yes, we worked with Universal Studios and it was coming up to the 40th anniversary of Knight Rider. Can you believe it? And we released a 40th range of products, and that’s why he’s behind me looking over me, making sure everything goes well.

Rebecca: Fabulous. Right. Okay. Tell our listeners and our viewers about the business, because it’s really interesting.

Anthony: It’s different. We don’t make frying pans, that’s for sure. Not that there’s anything wrong with making frying pans. No. Right. We are a licencing partner for the biggest film and video game studios in the world. What that means is we have an agreement with them. We have a licence to produce gifts and collectibles, which we do. We design everything in-house, we produce them, and then we sell them to retailers all over the world. I suppose the ones in the UK that you’d recognise are HMV and Game. So we would supply our licenced product to those sorts of retailers, geeky retailers, pop culture retailers. That’s basically our world.

Rebecca: That’s amazing. Now I have Chewbacca in the background. I don’t know if you really can see him.

Anthony:   I didn’t notice that, but yeah, now I see it now. That’s all I’m going to be looking at. I’m not going to be looking at you. I’m just going to be looking at your background.

Rebecca: Yeah. So do you do Star Wars?

Anthony: We have done a little bit of Star Wars in the past. I think the situation with Star Wars, it’s a bit of a complicated one, but since Disney bought Lucasfilm, it’s a lot harder to work with them as I would like. But yes, we have done Star Wars products in the past. Now our biggest partners, I suppose in film, it’s Universal Studios. In video games, it’s maybe Capcom or Bethesda.

Rebecca: Right. I know nothing about video games.

Anthony: Alright,

Rebecca: Big Fat zero. So we’ll come back to that, but how on earth did you get into this business?

Anthony: Well, I started my career at Manchester United.

Rebecca: No way. You’re a Man.

Anthony: Yay. Oh yes. Yeah. My accent doesn’t give it away, I suppose. Yeah, so I started at Manchester United a long time ago, maybe, well, definitely 25 years ago because I was there for the treble, but it was well before that. And in the merchandising division where I worked, we were coming up with ideas for things that you could put the crest on to create that product. And then we would sell that product to Argos at the time or supermarkets, wherever. And I was there for maybe five years. And then from sports, I moved into toys. So I worked for a large toy company and I worked on everything from Disney to Dora the Explorer, wheel toys to inflatable chairs. And I spent, I would say a third of the year in China. Not all at once, but spread out throughout the year. But it was about a third of the year working with factories to get that product made at the price that we needed it to be made and then kind of get it from concept to end shelf.

And then I was getting to a certain age and I thought, if I don’t do something now, I’m never going to do it. So I left a job that I really enjoyed, a well-paid job, and I set up from my spare bedroom, this company, and I didn’t have a salary for the first three years. And then it was only when my wife kicked me out of when I say kicked me out, I just meant, I just went out of the spare room because we needed it for our daughter. So yeah, I graduated from the spare room to the garage, then my first unit, and then started taking on employees, and then I’m where I am now in this building and very happy with the way things have worked out. It has been a long old journey, though, a bit of a lot of mistakes made, but I’m happy with where we are now.

Rebecca: That’s fabulous. I love a bedroom startup story. Three years with no salary. So was your wife working? Did she support you through that time?

Anthony: Yes. Well, we just got engaged and then again, I was coming up to a certain age and she said she’ll pay the bills and so just so I could get it up and running. But it did take a little bit longer. The reason it took longer, and you could say this could be one of the mistakes I’ve made, depending on how you look at it, is I took no investment at all. I just did it with the money in my personal bank account, which wasn’t massive. So because I was kind of watching every single penny, I was very cautious and I didn’t go for some opportunities. I thought, what happens if it goes wrong? And then that’s it. All the money’s gone. My first year’s turnover was 7,000 pounds, and I was so happy with that turnover, no salary was taken, but still, I was so happy with making any money in my first year. So yes, I was lucky. She was great and I worked on that. And now she actually is our marketing director. Fabulous. So I wouldn’t say it’s the only time I can boss her around, but it doesn’t really work like that. But yeah, so in the end, she’s come back here to, she’s working here now.

Rebecca: I love that often you need a very, very supportive spouse, family, or group of friends to scale and grow a business. They have to be patient with you whilst you go, I’m really sorry, I can’t buy you a round. I can’t buy you Christmas presents I’m skint. But then hopefully as you’ve described, you get to the point where you go, well actually now I can pay full time and actually, I can buy you nice Christmas presents.

Anthony: Well, yeah, don’t give her any ideas. But yeah, I think again, because I didn’t take those investments or go down that route, I would’ve had the money there to scale things up a hell of a lot quicker. And so that’s why no exaggeration, it’s probably taken me seven years longer to get to where I am compared to if I would’ve had that money initially. I brought all the experience of working with brands, working with licences, and working with Chinese factories. I had all of that. I just had no money to actually scale it up. But then again, you could say, well, if I did that, then now here I’d be, and I’d have to be answering to other people. And now when I want to go with my gut, I can do because I own the company, but I wouldn’t be able to do that if I had other investors.

Rebecca: I agree. And was investment on offer at that point when you were starting out?

Anthony: No. No, it wasn’t. But I never even looked for it. I never even looked for it. I didn’t even know. And man, this is going back a bit like how now that you have the, you’ve got groups like the funding circle or government-backed opportunities. I never knew any of that existed. I’m a product person at the end of the day. I’m not a numbers guy and I love products. I love well-designed products. And it just didn’t even occur to me to investigate that. And also nobody around me was doing this. So they weren’t of any use to say, maybe you should be looking at this. And as I say, I didn’t take advantage of maybe what was on offer at the time. As in your local council or things like that, didn’t even know any of that existed. No. Yeah, it was just by default. I ended up doing it all on my own.

Rebecca: I have to say though, Anthony, it’s a very good discipline. I’ve seen businesses quite young, businesses have a lot of money and they don’t learn the discipline of controlling costs, I don’t think. I agree. I also don’t think they learn the discipline of making a profit. And that sounds a bit crazy. Your investors are asking for a return on investment, but unless you have had that experience that you’ve had, have made 7,000 pounds this year and have made Sure, my cost base is 6, 9, 9, 9.

Anthony: Yeah. Well, I have to say, I mean, I slept in the back of my car outside a trade show because I didn’t want to spend the money on the hotel. I almost caught frostbite. My first unit. It was like a small icebox. There were no radiators, and I almost caught frostbite in my fault. I know. You know what though? It all goes to build you up. So now I’m a lot freer, and if somebody comes to me with a case that we need to invest in this, then I’ll do it. But I do it maybe a smidge in Jingly because you do have to watch every penny. And as soon as you ignore that, well maybe not watch every penny now because it’s impossible the size of business we are. But once you start throwing a hundred pounds here, thousand pounds there, 2000 pounds there, 3000 there, 2000 there. Next thing your profit is, it’s down the toilet.

Rebecca: So

Anthony: You do have to keep an eye on it.

Rebecca: Yeah, you do. And my first business, years and years ago, I spent way too much money. I was young, I was foolish. I made some money, I bought a flash car. I did all of the stuff that you’re not supposed to do. And I learned the lesson the hard way, Anthony. So I drive a mini now.

Rebecca: What more could I ask for? Right? So size and scale of your business is really impressive. It’s really impressive that you’ve got these licences for these mega mega brands. I mean, they’re recognisable all over the world. What is it that keeps you going and keeps you driving the business forward and where are you taking it?

Anthony: That’s a really interesting question. And where am I taking it? I think if you look right in front of my face, America’s a big target for us because it’s the home of pop culture. A lot of the brands that we work with have given us permission to sell to North America. The products we do, the people we’ve spoken to in North America say it is what they call white space, which is a phrase I’d never heard of before, but it means that there’s nothing like it out there. So that’s good. So America for the short term, America is our goal and we are already supplying a number of retailers over there and we’re having a lot of conversations with people. So I see that as being the near future, the long-term goal. That’s interesting. We work with a lot of brands. There are a couple of brands that we don’t work with, which will be nice to have, but it is not the end of the world.

So there’s always that title you want to work with. But as I say, we work with a lot of brands. I think the long term is I’m trying to create something. We’ve been going now for 15 years and we only made a loss. Sorry. No, that’s wrong. We’ve made a profit every single year. We only went down one year, that was it. But we still made a profit, but just less than the year before. So we’ve constantly grown. We’ve constantly added people to the team. And what I want to do is I want to create something that has been here for a long time. I’ve seen companies in our sector come to have a great two years, then they’re out of business. And what I want to do is to create something that even if I’m not here, then the rest of the team can take it forward. And it continues to provide a good living for everybody who works for the company. Really.

There are some massive companies out there in the pop culture world. I’m not going to kid myself. We are never going to be the biggest. Okay. We are niche. However, we are best in class when it comes to our niche product. So we’re quite happy swimming in the pond we’re in, and we’ll continue to create that really unique product that the fans want. Because we’re fans here. We only get involved in a brand if we’ve got some knowledge because the fans will sniff you out if you try and fake it. So you’re appealing to fans of the same show that you love. So we just want to keep on doing what we’re doing. Hopefully, all of us earn a good living. And then in 10 years time, we’ll have another video call and you can see how that’s gone.

Rebecca: That sounds amazing. So what are you a fan of? What’s your favourite in all of the stuff you do, which I don’t know, is it a character, is it a game? What is it?

Anthony: Nope, nope, nope. Back To The Future. I love Back To The Future unbelievably, and I got asked to go down to London to this theatre. They wouldn’t tell me what it was for, and they took my phone off me when I got there. And I wasn’t allowed to say anything on social media or anything like that. And it was the first read-through for Back To The Future the Musical. This was before we knew that there was going to be a Back to The Future musical. So besides all the cast being there for this first read through Bob Gale, who was the writer of Back To The Future, was there, and he gave a little speech about how he came up with the idea of Back To The Future, Robert Zemeckis, the director was there who I got to see. And then at the end of it, they were asking me for my opinion, not just me, there were other people in the audience as well, but it was just unbelievable as a fan of the film to kind of be there with the writer, the director being the first person to hear the songs and look at the actors.

And then I was at the premiere and yeah, it was just great. That’s my favourite film of all time. I could watch those three films forever in a day, and I do. So it’s good to have a job that lets you enjoy it. And also actually, we tend not to go here for the latest film release or the latest video game release. We’re not interested in that. We don’t appeal to kids. We were Kidults before Kidults was a word. It’s because we focus on retro products. So basically our biggest films are Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Back To The Future. Even our video game titles, it’s things like Doom, which is 30 years old. Street Fighter was 25 years old. Sonics coming up to its 35th anniversary in a couple of years.

Rebecca: Sonics going to be 35 years old?

Anthony: In 2026. But if you want to feel really old Shrek, which we’re going to be releasing Shrek product for its 20th anniversary of Shrek, I think next year. I think it’s the 20th anniversary. And it’s even, I think it’s the 20th anniversary of Fast and Furious coming up as well. So it’s the stuff that grownups want. The kidults want something you would get a present for your girlfriend, husband, father, whatever. Because we don’t rely on pester power then it’s people with disposable income. So that’s our world. And especially actually when COVID happened, people, there were no new film releases. People were at home watching all the old films, and playing all the old video games because nothing new was coming out. And that saw a big boost for us because people didn’t have anything new to see in it. And it opened their eyes and then their children’s eyes to films that their parents grew up with Back To The Future. That was so amazing,

Rebecca: Which is

Anthony: A great film. That’s the way we’re on Back To The Future.

Rebecca: I’m not sure about the sequels, but definitely the first one I thoroughly enjoyed.

Anthony: Okay, well, we’re not going to fall out about it, but yes, I agree with you. The first one was amazing, that’s for sure. But I can watch all three.

Rebecca: Because it was like, for me, my seminal film was Star Wars, the 1970, was it 77 or 76? I can never remember.

Anthony: I think, well, I think it was 77 because Jaws, which was released in 75 was the biggest-grossing film ever until Star Wars came along.

Rebecca: Right, okay.

Anthony: We did, there was a Star Wars piece where Han Solo is frozen in carbonite. I remember it. We’ve got a small metal version of that where he’s trapped in the carbonite. So we do have that on our for sale on our website.

Rebecca: Was that in Return of the Jedi or Empire, I can’t remember. Anyway, I can’t remember.

Rebecca: Okay. So that’s really nice that you’re creating this legacy for the business and I love that. I like the way you’re doing that and that sounds fantastic, and it sounds like you’ve got a really good passionate team. How do you,

Anthony: Bunch of misfits,

Rebecca: Which are misfits,

Anthony: They’re a bunch of misfits, but they’re all, I have to say, they’re all passionate and they don’t have to be part of the creative team in the Warehouse. They love Lord of the Rings or they love Batman or in accounts, they love this or they love that. They’ve got to have passion about something to work for the company because if they don’t have passion about it, then we are not the right team. Absolutely.

Rebecca: Basically. Absolutely. To get into this way, way back, did you do marketing or product design? Was that, or was it the creative arts before you went to Man United? How did you get into that bit?

Anthony: No. Well, Manchester United, that was literally, I just saw a job advert somewhere to be part of the merchandising team, but I can’t draw for shit.

Rebecca: Oh, right,

Anthony: Okay. So I can’t draw, and all my marketing skills are, I think I seem to, I have a vision. I have an idea of what something should be, and I surround myself with really talented people, talented designers who I can say what I want to say. If they don’t agree, they can push back no problem. But that’s their skillset and they will create that item that I can envisage in my mind. So no, I can’t draw or anything like that. But I think when I was working for the toy companies, for example, I was sent say the BBC would send through the latest cartoon that hadn’t gone live yet, and I would watch episodes of that and come up with ideas for a product just from watching those episodes. So that was good training for me. And now it’s easier because I’m focusing on films and video games that I grew up with. So I have that knowledge of those. But I think the tricky is you don’t have to be an expert in everything, but you’ve just got to make sure that the people you work with, they know what they’re talking about. So as long as you hire the right people, then I think, yeah, you’ll be all right.

Rebecca: These are just good,

Anthony: Solid, solid. It’s much a team effort.

Rebecca: Good solid lessons in leadership, no matter what industry and what sector you’re in, the leaders creating the vision, you’re getting the right people on board, doing the roles that suit them to help bring your vision to life.

Anthony: Yeah, I mean, I’ve worked for companies where bosses were horrendous. I mean, shouting at girls in an office and making them cry. I mean, really going back like 20 years, it’s not like that now. So I went out of my way when I started hiring people to be the total opposite of some bosses I had that weren’t maybe as PC as they could have been. So yeah, I feel as though I’ve gone the other way. However, you’ve still got to do a role. If they can’t do a job, then they can’t do a job. But I would like to think that, well, I know for a fact that everybody who’s currently working for this company, besides having a passion for those films or those video games, want it to be a success. And the more successful the company is, the more successful they’re going to be. Whether that means they get to travel to New York or they go to Film Premiere, or we have a number of bonus schemes in play as well. So the more successful the company is, the more successful they’re going to be. I’m not going to be buying a new Ferrari every year, put it like that, so very much we’re all going to rise on this tide. Definitely.

Rebecca: Yeah. And didn’t you, I think we found you won an award for, was it the great British entrepreneur? Were you finally?

Anthony: I did. It was the great British Entrepreneurial Award, but it was only for the Northwest. It wasn’t for the whole of the UK, it was just for the northwest. I’ll take that. But also the team here, the design team fully enough in the same month, they were named one of the top hundred teams in the licencing world. So by licencing, I mean films, TVs, video games, all that sort of thing. So one of the top hundred in the world they were named at, which is great for a small company in Cheshire in the middle of nowhere. And we do win awards for our product. We’ve had a product nominated for Gift of the Year in the uk. We’ve won awards in America for the product, and that’s great. But then again, our product is never going to be on a supermarket shelf because it’s not a mug, it’s not a pair of slippers, it’s not a T-shirt, it’s quirky, it’s different. So on the downside, it means that we are limited to the retailers we can sell to, but on the plus side, it means the bigger boys don’t really want to get involved in it because we’d be happy selling a thousand of something if they sold a thousand of something, they get the sack. So we’re happy with the lower numbers for unique products.

Rebecca: I had a little sneak preview view website and all the products that my son, my middle child is 23, would love your products.

Anthony: Thank you very much. I mean, that website is a small part of our business. We are Fanattik.com and that accounts for maybe two 3% of our business. What we do is we supply the retail trade. 60% of our business is exports.

Rebecca: So

Anthony: Yeah, 60% of our business is exports. So that website is just a tiny part. But the thing is, if you put a lot of effort into a product and then the retailers don’t go for it, you still need somewhere to sell it. You’ve spent a lot of time and money developing it. So you need that website just in case of situations like that. But really what we focus on is supplying the retail trade here in the UK and overseas.

Rebecca: And has any of your stuff become collector’s items? Will it be on Antiques Roadshow in the future?

Anthony: Do you know what? I won’t say Antiques Roadshow, but I will tell you a good example. We released this Jurassic Park ticket. It was a metal ticket and it was a ticket as if you got this ticket to go into the park yourself because we like to do in world kind of items. And this ticket, it was 24 karat gold plated and it retailed for 35 pounds.

Rebecca: That’s quite good value.

Anthony: Yeah, I think so. Well, you’ll see how much good value it was. There’s an American who bought two for 35 pounds. He kept one and then he put the other one on eBay and he didn’t just list it on eBay, he sold it for a thousand dollars. It wasn’t even a special number. It wasn’t 1993, which is when the film came out, wasn’t number one, it was just some random number because everything we do is limited edition and individually numbered. So that was the best 35 pounds he’d ever spent selling it for a thousand dollars and another, we did a resident evil collectible coin and they retail for 12 pounds and we saw that one, it’s sold on eBay for 235 pounds. Again, not a number, not a special number. Wasn’t number one, wasn’t the last one in the edition and somebody who bought it.

It’s because fans and hence the name Fanattik, they think with their hearts and not their head. So for example, we are not allowed to sell Universal Studios products in America. Okay, we sell it in Europe, the Middle East, and Australasia, so where can fans buy it in America? So they saw it, it was new, they hadn’t seen it before and they bought it from this guy. So yeah, that was a pretty good profit margin for that one person buying it. Either a coin at 12 pounds, selling it for two 30, or one of our tickets was bought for 35 pounds and sold for a thousand dollars. Crazy. But do you know what our mantra though is affordable collectibles? That’s what we want to continue to create because not everybody is a fan, and I go to all the comic conventions, not everybody can afford a £300 Batman statue, but a £20 Batman item, which is a limited edition individually numbered, comes with a certificate that’s affordable, that’s a Christmas present, that’s a birthday present, that’s a gift for your daddy, your husband or whatever. So we want to stay affordable. That’s what we’ve got to do, affordable collectibles and leave those £300 statues to companies a lot bigger than us.

Rebecca: I know where I’m going to buy my son’s birthday and Christmas presents in the future. That’s for sure.

Anthony: I’ll send you a discount code. No problem.

Rebecca: Thank you. That’s really kind. So I’ve got two more questions. When you go to Comic-Con conventions, and this is just pure nosiness, do you dress up?

Anthony: No. However, a lot of people here do, but I don’t. So I’ve got to still look like the boss, but other people here do so. No, but you know what? Again, that’s how I started. I used to go to comic conventions and have a little stall, a little table. I used to go to jumble sales and buy products from, this is before the internet, so this is all down. So I used to buy products from the jumble sales and take it to comic conventions and sell them there. I was doing that in my part-time while I was working for Manchester United or in the toy trade. So I just did that at weekends and then that’s kind of where I had that entrepreneurial bug and wanted to grow it into something bigger.

Rebecca: I love that. I would prefer you to, as the boss, have dressed up as somebody because that,

Anthony: I’m sorry to disappoint, you’re not the first person, I’ve disappointed. Maybe for next time, do you know what? I’ll be wearing something next time we have a video.

Rebecca: Some kind of ears or something, mask, whatever. Right. My last question, Anthony, because I know you are super busy running your empire, your business, if you, from Cheshire, and I know Cheshire quite well, and I don’t want you to give away where you are on air, but afterwards I’ll find out where you are anyway. If your business had a personality or character, who would it be?

Anthony: Crikey, that is a really, really tough one. Who would it be? Do you know what that is? It’s such a difficult question because you know what? I think we’ve been very lucky here and I think to get the team members we’ve got when we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere in the countryside, that was really lucky. I’ve had some really good breaks of people in the industry who saw me and thought he might not have the experience running his own business, but he’s got passion and he’s going to treat the brand with respect. And they gave me a shot when they didn’t have to give me a shot. So we’ve been lucky is hard to put that as an actual character. I’m trying to rack my brains now to think of somebody who has been lucky. So I’m afraid that I can’t answer that question.

But what I will say though, I say we’re a very lucky company. You make your own luck and there’s a lot of hard work that’s gone in there. I can’t stand people who just say, oh, this hasn’t worked out for me. They always blame other people. You make your own luck. But I will say that I feel lucky because we’ve got team members here who give it their all. And I got given a few breaks and I’m a great believer in karma. If anybody comes to me asking for advice or if I can help them or make any introductions, I do that. And then you never know, two years down the line, they may come back and say, Hey, thanks, and pass an introduction to me. So yeah, all I can say is that we’re a happy company and long may that continue.

Rebecca: I love that. I love that. It doesn’t matter that you can’t think of a character. I do ask about personality traits, but I love that.

Anthony: I’m nothing but honest.

Rebecca: I live in Scotland and I have to explain to people that in the northwest of England and particularly Manchester, people are just really, really direct and outside of that area people can find that a bit tricksy.

Anthony: I find workingI do find that because I deal with a lot of London, it’s very London-centric, the industry because all the head offices are in London and that sort of thing. So sometimes I can be a little bit too direct, but do you know it all comes from the heart?

Rebecca: It does. Exactly. That’s amazing. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it and I wish you all the luck in the world.

Anthony: Thank you very much, Rebecca. I appreciate it.