In 1997, Mr Ben Ang and his brother Ang Seng took $1,000 meant for polytechnic school fees and invested it in Xenomorph, a collectible toy store at Bras Basah Complex.
It was a big step for the pair of comic-book fans, who had dreams of one day making a mark on the pop culture scene. But the dream flickered for more than a decade and nearly went out. Mr Ang Seng had even settled on a life of driving a taxi if their plans failed.
Instead, the brothers today run an award-winning global luxury collectibles business that has attracted the interest of Heliconia Capital, a subsidiary of Singapore investment firm Temasek. Heliconia has taken a 9.2 per cent stake in the business for an undisclosed amount, regulatory filings show.
The Ang brothers' creation, XM Studios, was launched in 2012 together with their oldest brother Clair and two business partners. The company designs and produces handcrafted, porcelain statues of characters from various pop culture brands, including Marvel and DC. Each statue is individually painted by hand.
It took more than 20 years and tens of thousands of paint jobs for the brothers to hone their skills. The co-founders knocked on every door until they secured a Marvel licence to produce collectible statues for South-east Asia.
Today, it has 12 main licences, including for Star Wars, Batman, Justice League, Mickey & Friends and fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons. It is also producing collectibles of iconic Japanese characters ranging from Godzilla to Ultraman to those from Sanrio.
"We've known the company for quite a while," said Heliconia chief executive Derek Lau. "And each time we invest, it's about timing and inflexion point, and whether there's strategic value. Whether it's because of the pandemic or not, global consumer spending has shifted from services to products."
Consumer wallet size has expanded and affluent consumers have been spending on luxury items for years, Mr Lau said. With XM Studios having helped intellectual property (IP) owners to capture this market, he believes the company now has the experience to expand to other IP verticals, such as sports and entertainment.
Mr Ben Ang, who is XM Studios' CEO, said there was a surge in demand during the pandemic. According to filings, revenue doubled to $16.9 million for the year ended last December while profit after tax was $4.2 million.
Some of XM Studios' collectibles, with prices ranging from $1,000 to $6,000, are known for selling out within minutes.
Mr Ben Ang said about 30 per cent of revenue comes from the US and Europe, with another 30 per cent each from China and South-east Asia. A potential expansion of licensing rights could mean entry into the Middle East and India.
The Covid-19 outbreak was hard on XM Studios. With comic conventions around the world cancelled, the group lost a critical marketing channel. But it quickly expanded its online presence through Instagram, Twitter and Weibo to engage its community of fans. It is also venturing into producing podcasts.
"There's a long tail of customers we have yet to target - casual buyers who just want to buy one piece of artwork to display," said Mr Ben Ang.
With the "premium mass market" in mind, XM Studios is in talks with its partners to come up with products at a more affordable price range of $200 to $300.
The bigger opportunity could be expansion beyond comic books and movie collectibles.
Mr Lau said: "The world is so dark sometimes that people just want to live a life of looking at their heroes. These heroes can be extended to a second vertical like sports heroes - US basketball legend Michael Jordan and Europe football star Ronaldo - and pop culture celebrities like South Korean group BTS."
In fact, Heliconia has made an introduction between XM Studios and its other portfolio company One Championship, which manages several personalities in the mixed martial arts scene. XM Studios is also close to signing a contract with a major sports league.
Heliconia plans to help bring more strategic investors on board the company, while leveraging Temasek's global network in consumer lifestyle and technology. It could aid XM Studios as it ventures into the hot market of non-fungible tokens.
In November, XM Studios will open its first experiential concept store and office at Kitchener Complex, spanning 19,000 sq ft.
And with films such as Wonder Woman and Frozen igniting the female consumer market, the company is turning its attention to women-centric collectibles. Currently, about 95 per cent of its customers are male.
Asked how it intends to scale its production as the company expands, Mr Ben Ang said: "We are currently working with nine contracted factories and they are still not fully utilised. We have an internal process regarding production, which we can easily replicate with new factories to increase our production scale."
THE BUSINESS TIMES