Singaporeans making a living out of creating toys and selling them

Some Singaporeans are making a living out of creating toys and selling them

Toys are children's playthings, but some people never outgrow their love for them. In fact, some Singaporean grown-ups are making a living out of making toys and selling them.

Some have even collaborated with overseas companies, and their works - available here and abroad - are valued at hundreds of dollars.

They say it is passion, not money, that drives them.

Take Singaporean Daniel Yu, 30, a business management graduate from Singapore Management University who became a full-time toy- maker last year. He sculpts, produces and paints his own original figurines. They include Gourd-Like, a figure in a black outfit and a pumpkin head, and the Sai Kang Warriors, a group of blue-collar job figurines such as construction workers and grasscutters. Prices range from $30 to $120 a piece.

So far, he has created 20 designs and his pieces are available from his website and also at Ozzo Collection, a shop selling designer toys in China Square Central.

He also has a few distributors in Taiwan and the United States.

Mr Daniel Yu and Mr Jake Lee have turned their toy-making hobbies into careers. Singapore company Flabslab also produces toys, such as this figurine The Ghost Of Kurosaw (above), which was designed by Philippines based toy designer Juanito Maiquez. PHOTO: JUANITO MAIQUEZ

To survive on making toys, he says "you really need to put your heart and soul into it".

He started customising action figures in secondary school.

"When the toy companies didn't create the characters I wanted - or I felt the models were not up to standard - I'd make them myself."

First, he swopped the figurines' heads and arms. Then, he learnt how to change a figurine's expression, hairstyle or the colour scheme of its clothes from online tutorials and forums.

His decision to turn toy-making into a full-time career initially surprised his civil servant father and doctor mother, he says.

"They assumed I'd work in a bank. But they supported my decision because they want me to be happy."

The only child, who is in a relationship, lives with them in a four-room flat in Neptune Court.

Not all toymakers here are sculptors or designers like Mr Yu. Some fund the toy's creation and see it through from initial concept to final product.

Former bank operations executive Jake Lee, 34, for example, started toy design company Pobber in 2009, which has since created about 30 original toys priced from US$35 (S$50) to US$499.

They include an 8-inch tall doll called Pin-up Girl, which he created in 2011 in collaboration with renowned sound production studio Two Steps From Hell and South African toy designer Kris Hewitt. It is selling on the studio's website for US$69.

Another of his toys, a 9-inch tall ape-like figurine called Bad Ass, was created in 2013, comes in six colours, and is priced at US$95 a piece.

Mostly available from the company's website, Pobber's toys are also selling at the Studioape toy store in Upper Thomson and a few toy shops in the United States and Britain.

Mr Lee has already recouped the $25,000 he put in to start the business. Sales, he says, have also grown steadily and are expected to double this year compared to last year.

He says: "Making toys might not be as lucrative as working in a bank, but it's more meaningful and fulfilling."

Working from his Toa Payoh four-room DBSS flat, where he lives with his senior tax consultant wife, he collaborates with toy sculptors, designers and factories in China to manufacture the toys.

While he hopes that his company will do well, he says that "it's the intangible feeling that my toy has brightened someone else's day that keeps me going".

He recalls that two years ago, a United States Air Force personnel serving in Afghanistan chanced upon one of his toys in a magazine, and ordered it to cheer up orphans he had encountered in the war zone. Mr Lee says: "I felt proud that, in my own small way, my toys made a difference to the orphans."

For some, toy-making is not a full-time gig - at least, not yet.

Since 2011, Mr Jeffrey Koh, 42, owner of advertising agency Nerf Creative, has been using his office to run a creative collective that is essentially a private toy and art gallery.

Called Flabslab - short for "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" - the company has five staff conceptualising and producing customised toys, from sculptures inspired by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to figurines drawing on pop culture icons such as Astro Boy and Star Wars. They usually come in small batches of 30 to 50 pieces.

He says: "We do it not to make money, but because we enjoy it.

"We don't face pressure to sell our toys. Neither do we have to answer to any clients. We just create what we like, and if it makes money, great."

Although his advertising portfolio consumes 70 per cent of his time, the rest goes towards his passion.

Flabslab has been creating about five original toys - priced from $400 to more than $3,000 - a year.

For example, in 2013, it made 88 pairs of cheeky "stone lion" figurines for social influence marketing agency Goodstuph, which gave some to its clients as Christmas gifts and sold some for $688 a pair.

The figurines - made from resin - are parodies of Chinese guardian lions, which are believed to have mythical protective qualities. In Flabslab's version, the male has a bottle and a soccer ball at its feet, while the female wears fake eye- lashes and has a cigarette in its mouth.

Says Mr Koh: "We wanted to make our stone lions hip and cool. They are flawed, but they will protect you when you need them."

Goodstuph's founder Ms Pat Law, in her 30s, says: "We love the lions. They are a cheeky rendition of the traditional stone lions and I think they embody the spirit of Goodstuph.

"They also make much more interesting Christmas gifts than logcakes."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'Toys 'R' them'. Subscribe