It Changed My Life: How Jackson Aw built a multimillion-dollar toy empire with $20,000 loan

Jackson Aw is having serious fun building a toy empire with annual turnover of several million dollars

Mr Jackson Aw looks at his cargo pants and says ruefully: "I guess I have grown up."

Just minutes before, the 30-year-old has been talking about the career ambitions he nursed as a teen.

They were amorphous but he was certain of one thing.

"I wanted to do something which would allow me to go to work in shorts," says the founder of design studio and collectible toys maker Mighty Jaxx.

He did just that when he started the outfit seven years ago with a $20,000 loan. His office then was a client's toy storage room, and he ran the company with the help of two friends - one of whom became his wife - who worked for a song.

Today, he employs 45 staff and has a new, funkily furnished 6,500 sq ft office in Tai Seng industrial estate.

Mighty Jaxx, which has collaborated with big players like Warner Bros, DC Comics and Cartoon Network, now exports its collectible toys to more than 50 countries and has an annual turnover of several million dollars.

That he would one day run a successful toymaking enterprise is something Mr Aw would never have envisioned a decade ago.

He was, by his own description, a master procrastinator, a chill soul who would not do today what he could put off until tomorrow.

 
 

The elder of two children, he describes his technician father and housewife mother as typical Singaporean parents who wanted nothing more than to have him and his sister do well in school so that they could land good jobs.

"But I wasn't very bright from the get-go," says the former student of De La Salle Primary and Hillgrove Secondary self-deprecatingly. "I much preferred to do stuff outside with friends."

He remembers a teacher who used to send him out of the classroom for not paying attention.

"It got to a point where some of my friends and I would automatically get out of the class when the teacher came in. We reckoned that since we were sent outside so often, we might just as well be outside," he says with a laugh.

By the time he was 15, he was convinced his future lay in the creative industry. He put in enough effort to pass the subjects - including art and English - needed to qualify for a design course in the polytechnic.

"I took just 10 minutes to complete my science paper for the O levels because it was not necessary for what I wanted to do," he says with a grin.

"But I also took art lessons for two years so that I could pass the subject. Have you heard of people taking tuition for art? I did and fell in love with painting in the process."

In 2006, he entered Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) where he studied digital media design. He enjoyed some of the modules but it was not plain sailing.

"I was not good at taking instructions and I had problems creating stuff envisioned by the tutors and lecturers," says Mr Aw who graduated in 2009.

Asked if he was plagued by self-doubt or worried about the future, he says: "No, national service was a buffer. I told myself I had two years to think about what I was going to do next so the pressure was not that strong. You see that in a lot of guys."

In the meantime, he took on different part-time jobs - including stints at a CD shop, Toys R Us and design agencies - to earn pocket money as well as to find out what he enjoyed doing.

For a spell, the photography fan even worked as a wedding photographer's assistant.

"I'd wake up at 4am and stay up until 1am editing videos and photos. You could earn up to $5,000 each session, which was a lot of money but after a while, I knew I could not do it for the long term," he says.

It did not take him long to realise that being self-employed was his best bet.

"Because that meant I could manage my own time, and wear whatever I wanted. I can't do long-sleeved shirts, I just can't," he says.

In a TEDx talk he gave, he reckoned that playing Lemonade Tycoon - an online game where the objective is to sell lemonade for a profit - probably helped to plant the seed of entrepreneurship in his head.

During his national service days, he started thinking about creating businesses. One involved selling old film cameras which he would repair, clean up and sell for three or four times more than what he bought them for.

One day, a Ukrainian dealer whom he met on eBay told him about a couple of hundred of old unused cameras sitting in an abandoned factory in Kiev.

"He said he could help me negotiate a good price for them, and he would make sure they were all in good working condition. Each camera cost $40 or $50," he recalls.

Mr Aw decided to buy them, repackage them under his own brand Red Army Camera and sell them for about $250.

 
 

The idea worked. The cameras - which he peddled at bazaars - sold like hotcakes. "I could easily make $10,000 or $20,000 a month."

He laughs when asked how he found the money to buy the cameras.

"I've never told this story before but my uncle had lent me $5,000 to build a website for commercial photographers. I spent $1,000 building it but it didn't gain much traction."

Without telling his uncle, the young entrepreneur used the balance to buy the cameras.

"But I repaid my uncle's loan, with interest."

Things went well and a camera store came onboard Red Army Camera - renamed Darkroom Army - as a business partner not long after.

Flush with cash, Mr Aw started splurging on fancy meals, toys and cameras.

"I was 20 years old, never had so much and blew about $30,000 in three months," he says, shaking his head. "It was dumb, especially when I had to borrow $20,000 to start Mighty Jaxx later. But I believe in retrospect that it was a necessary lesson for me to learn the true value of money."

The business partnership went south barely a year later. He had an intern and a full-time staff member under his employ then and having to let them go traumatised him.

"My full-time staff member was older than me and said: 'Life happens. I'm okay and can take care of myself but make sure you do so too.' That made it even worse."

For a month, he wallowed in depression and did nothing except lay in bed watching videos on how things - from hotdogs to mannequins - are made.

On a whim, the avid toy collector decided to wing it to Shenzhen and visit several factories to find out all he could about toymaking.

"Toys have always been a big part of my life. I've been collecting them since I was in school," he says.

He returned, and decided he too wanted to create toys.

"I wanted to make things I would buy myself," he says.

Because he had frittered away the money he made selling cameras, he turned to his parents who helped him secure a $20,000 bank loan.

He then approached his visual artist friend Eman Jaman - better known as ClogTwo - to help him come up with a cool toy figure: A skeleton meditating on a lotus known as Hell Lotus.

"I told him I could pay him only after the toy's been made," he says.

The $20,000 was spent on producing 200 figurines from a hand-sculpted prototype and launched at the Singapore Comic Convention in 2012. Mighty Jaxx was born.

Mr Aw harboured high hopes that he would sell all 200 pieces at $250 each. "We sold only 20 pieces," he says. "I was telling myself I probably needed to find a full-time job to repay my loan."

In the meantime, he continued peddling Hell Lotus. To his surprise, all 200 pieces were sold over the next few months.

"I was emboldened. I told myself it could be done. I did two more figures and rolled from there," he says.

Those were challenging times. "We were always one release from bankruptcy," he recalls.

But he counts himself lucky that he had the help and support of Ella Mesenas - then his fiancee, now his wife - and good friend Gilbert Wong. Both were his course mates from NYP.

"Both were paid only $500, and I paid myself $300. It takes great strength of character and trust for people to help me like they did. I've had a few benefactors in my life," he says, adding that a collector let them use his toy storage space as an office by deducting rent from pieces that he bought.

Things took a positive turn in 2014 when all 200 pieces of Bad Apple, a masked Snow White holding a bomb, sold out online within 15 minutes. The figure was based on a famous graffiti artwork by French artist Goin.

Things grew from strength to strength. Three years after it started, Mighty Jaxx crossed $1 million in revenue.

In 2015, things took another turn when Warner Bros' global head of toys replied to an e-mail he sent and agreed to meet him in Burbank, California.

Mr Aw pitched him what is now known as the XXRAY concept by America artist Jason Freeny: Toy figures of superheroes such as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman with dissected bodies.

"He loved the idea, and liked the fact that we were young. He threw his weight behind us, gave us contacts," he says.

The collection was a huge success and soon, Mighty Jaxx was working with other big players like Cartoon Network, New Balance and Casio.

The company's latest triumph? It is one of several start-ups selected to be part of the Ubisoft Entrepreneurs Lab, a programme which helps entrepreneurs and start-ups get access to world-class facilities and expert assistance.

Although he has not taken any management courses to help him run Mighty Jaxx, Mr Aw spends a lot of time reading the biographies of successful entrepreneurs like Richard Branson.

On the advice of friends, he attended the Landmark Forum, which is a personal development programme by a company headquartered in San Francisco.

"I was very sceptical, it sounded very cultish," says Mr Aw who will be a first-time father soon.

 

But the course, he says, is probably the best thing he has done for himself. "It teaches you to be in touch with your feelings, it trains a state of mind to help you solve issues and it teaches you to have different perspectives."

What he does now, he says, would have been inconceivable for the Jackson Aw who used to be sent out of the classroom.

"But it's a path I have chosen. I love the challenges, they really get my adrenaline going."

Even if it means 'adulting' and junking his bermudas to wear proper trousers.