“I’m not the best artist. I’m terrible,” said Jackson Aw with a sheepish laugh.
That may seem ironic, given how the 32-year old is the founder and chief executive officer of Mighty Jaxx, a designer toy company from Singapore.
But to Aw, acknowledging his own shortcomings has helped him turn his start-up into a multimillion-dollar international toy business.
“It’s that realization that … I should pick people who are way smarter than I am. I collaborate with them and I work with them,” he told CNBC Make It.
“If this artist dedicated their career to building that craft, then they’re better than what I can ever be.”
Mighty Jaxx, which was founded in 2012, has partnered with some of the biggest global brands and visual artists, producing trendy collectibles that incorporate pop culture and design.
Since then, it has sold “millions” of toy collectibles to people in more than 80 countries, said Aw.
It all started when he started watching many “how-it’s-made videos” on YouTube, which he found “fascinating.”
“Those videos that tell you how chicken nuggets are made, like how hot dogs are made … the process that goes into that. As I watched (them), I looked at my shelf of collectibles that I have,” he said.
“Could I create something physical, with my own hands and craft it?”
Aw, who has been an avid toy collector since he was 17, decided to book a one-way flight to Shenzhen, China, where he visited factories to learn about the toy production process.
His curiosity quickly turned into amazement, as he learned about techniques such as hand-sculpting and molding.
“I thought there would be just a couple of machines that would spit (toys) out. And that was honestly very naive,” he said.
“I got a shock when I saw hundreds of people … just crafting and painting on that one piece of item, on what our perception will be a mass market product.”
Inspired by what he saw in China, Jackson returned home after one month to create his own designer toy with Singaporean graffiti artist, Clogtwo.
Together, they created Mighty Jaxx’s first collectible, the “Hell Lotus.” With the help of a $20,000 loan, he produced 200 pieces of the toy, which he launched at Singapore Comic Convention in 2012.
Aw sold the inventory in six months and there was no turning back. “It’s as if we never felt that fear again. So we took the money, and we rolled (with) it.”
Over the years, Mighty Jaxx continued to partner with visual artists from around the world to create unique, limited-edition collectibles, while remaining “cash flow positive,” said Aw.
“We never took external money until much later,” he added.
The tide truly turned for the company in 2015, when Aw scored his first licensing partnership with Warner Brothers’ DC Comics.
He recalls emailing Julian Montoya — who was Warner Brothers’ vice president of global toys at the time — on a whim, hoping to “restyle” Warner Brothers’ creative intellectual property like the DC Comics characters.
“His secretary replied, (saying) we do have 30 minutes this Friday, you can come by and just chat with us.”
He flew to Burbank, California, where he showed Montoya the potential designs and 3D prototypes of the DC toys. “At the end of it he was just, ‘Alright. We’ll shake on it,'” Aw said.
“I went out of the room, I thought, ‘Nah, that can’t be real.’ The next day, they sent over the contract and it was for a global deal.”
That deal, which Aw said was “a massive leap of faith” on Montoya’s part, quadrupled the top line for Mighty Jaxx.
According to Aw, his company made $1.7 million in 2015, four times more than the previous year.
“And that was when, (I realized), holy crap, something’s happening,” he said.
From DC to Netflix
Since then, Aw has doubled down on collaborations with renowned brands to reach fandoms all around the world, from Adidas, Hasbro and Nickelodeon, to Formula 1, Sesame Street and Netflix.
Those collaborations allowed Aw to produce collectibles on a wider scale and at lower prices, making them more accessible to fans.
The DC collectibles, for example, were sold at $10 each. That’s affordable compared with other Mighty Jaxx toys that are produced in much smaller quantities, which can cost as much as $1,200.
In 2020, Aw also started producing blind boxes, which contain figurines or toys unknown to buyers until they’re unpacked.
He partnered with American designer Jason Freeny, who is known for his anatomical art.
“We applied it on a lot of our license partners and they all love it because it’s such an alternative look to things … And now it has become a staple line for us.”
Aw’s keen eye for what’s trendy has certainly paid off. According to Mighty Jaxx, the company’s revenue grew at a compounded rate of 71% from 2019 to 2021.
To date, Mighty Jaxx has raised around $40 million, valuing the company at over $200 million. Its investors include Chinese conglomerate Tencent, KB Investment and East Ventures.
Aw also made it to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia list in 2018, at the age of 28.