by Ryan Magnon | 20 Aug 2021
The Bloom Report
What is your claim to fame in the industry?
I’m the president of Panda Mony Toy Brands, and we created the 2021 Toy of the Year nominated Alter Nation brand of action figures.
What are you working on now?
Right now we’re working on a Kickstarter for Alter Nation’s second wave of toys. 2020 was a rough year for a lot of people. For our company, we’d just hit the market when the shutdowns happened. It left us with a bunch of inventory we couldn’t do anything with because conventions and niche toy shops were closed. We opted for the Kickstarter to bring another wave of toys out for the fans that were asking where the new characters we promised were. After that, we’ll have some other brands we’ll be bringing working on and raising capital for.
What trends do you see in toys or games that excite or worry you?
I’m excited to see an end to continuous licensing of old brands. I think some of the mainstream movie and TV failures are a sign of things to come, and that kids and adults are going to demand more from the entertainment industry. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but this formula of reviving 30 year old brands isn’t going to work forever.
What advice would you give a young adult graduating from high school or college today?
I would discourage high schoolers from going to college unless they would be studying engineering, certain sciences, or professional fields. The cost of college has skyrocketed and decades of legislation hasn’t helped; some would argue it’s made things worse. It’s foolish to take on a huge debt to earn a degree unless that degree will offer a return on investment. There’s the retort that education itself is its own reward. My response would be there are less expensive alternatives, and some are even free. Employers used to look at college education with the rationale that the person holding the degree has proven he or she has enough tenacity to voluntarily put four years of effort devoted to some goal. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I don’t personally look at degrees unless it’s my doctor or lawyer or something really technical.
If you’ve already graduated college and just starting out, expect to have to pay your dues. You may have to take entry level jobs. Determine the long-term career position you want. To get it, you’re going to have to commit a large part of your efforts right after college. That means giving up some free time and using your willpower to become great at what you do. Given all that commitment, be sure it’s the job you want before you put the time in because you can’t get your youth back! Once you are committed, network. Networking helps 1) open doors to new opportunities, 2) find collaborators if you decide to venture out on your own someday, and 3) learn how others got to where they are and how your industry works.
Lastly, for all young people, I’d stress open-mindedness. Not in the sense that every idea is valid, I mean that there’s a wonderful mixture of passion and arrogance that young people naturally have, and this arrogance is great, but only when it’s warranted. Ben Franklin said something to the effect of “never trust a young doctor or an old barber.” In matters of style and trends, young people absolutely have the advantage. In matters of wisdom and experience, these are things that generally take time to develop. Therefore, recognize the things you’re certain about, and if you’re not, wait until you understand those matters more.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had and what did you learn from it?
I did building maintenance for my family’s real estate company. That in itself wasn’t usually bad, but I did have to deal with situations that people might find pretty disgusting. Probably the most remarkable one that didn’t involve a clogged toilet was the time I had to clean an approximately 500 square foot roof completely covered in 15 years worth of bird poop.
What I learned from it was that I’ll never forget the smell, there are unrelated things that have similar smells that take me right back to it, but, more importantly, it taught me to have no shame in honest work. This job, and jobs I had in the construction field, taught me to appreciate office jobs where I get to sit in air-conditioned buildings with indoor plumbing. It’s incredible and sad when I see the poor attitude some people carry about their job, especially when it’s a job others would fight tooth and nail to get.
What inspires you?
Artistically, I’m inspired by anything that’s unusual and appealing. I got into toys because I can crank out ideas by the dozen and I saw a lot of the same old stuff that’s been around since before I was born on the toy aisles. It was disheartening, honestly. When I was little, there was a new kids brand sweeping the TV stations and toy aisles every week. Now, it seems like reboots of the same stuff we’ve been seeing for decades. I understand why people have a passion for those old brands. They were fun! The point we’re at now though, it’s gotten to be embarrassing how we’re all perpetually stuck in the past. Artists should be inspired by that fun, but make their own art instead of a bad imitation of someone else’s ideas.
Who is the person you most admire?
Based on reputation and secondhand accounts, mind you, I really admire Issac Larian and Jeremy Padawer. I’ve met both of them once or twice at industry functions, but I’m not close with either.
I admire Larian because he says what he thinks and he builds popular, quality, original toy brands instead of licensed junk. In fact, he did what I set out to do with Panda Mony, albeit he did it in a different toy category and he was actually successful at it! I also admire people who are mentally tough and not afraid of a fight. Obviously, his battles with Mattel are well-known.
I admire Padawer for being a good guy and uncynical. I’ve worked with plenty of people who’ve worked with him, and I see him routinely offer help to young people trying to find their way in toys or entertainment. He’s incredibly reputable as a friendly and honest guy that’s sensible about business.
These are both people I look at and say, “hey, I’d like to be more like that guy and learn from him.”
How do you recharge or take a break?
I don’t really like taking breaks. I get pretty restless not working towards something or doing what needs to get done. I have to very carefully allocate time to work, family, home, and my personal creative projects each and every day. When I’m not devoting time to those things, I’m sleeping.
What words describe how you think or how your brain works?
Nebulous...ly? When I think about a matter, I consider all the details that seem important no matter how broad or granular they are. It then becomes frustrating in collaboration because, since presumably no two people think the same way, I have to take the time explain or defend ideas that I’ve already considered thoroughly, and that’s time that could be spent on the matter at hand. My solution was just to present my ideas in writing organized by topic. I’d, of course, then get super duper annoyed to discover no one bothered reading the thing I spent time detailing!
It’s why I end up preferring to keep a tight nit group of people I find reliable and intelligent with whom I can collaborate. I also eventually realized that my approach to collaboration probably alienated people. I think I failed at times to recognize that others want to actually have input on a project and not just execute someone else’s vision.
Now, this nebulous way of thinking seems like a blessing as a useful resource for project planning and creativity, but I definitely need to balance it with people who are more pragmatic and focused. Creatives want to present a wedding cake after being told they’re supposed to make a Twinkie.
What was your favorite toy as a child?
It went from GoBots to M.A.S.K. to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’ve always liked toys where I could imagine the story and characters getting into adventures. As a teen, I was really into Megaman NT, Batman Beyond, and Men in Black. I think all of those brands can be seen in what we did with Alter Nation.
I also have to add that I really like Lego both as a toy and as a company. I still buy Lego sets. It’s incredible in all the years I’ve bought them, in all the sets, in all the thousands of pieces, not one box has ever had a missing piece. I bought an unused set from a thrift store once that was damaged and they replaced the broken pieces, no questions asked. Their free Lego Club magazine inspired the Alter Nation Agent Auxiliary we did.
Most people outside of toy production or who’ve never bought a cheap imitation of Lego probably wouldn’t appreciate the quality they put into their product. Hands down, Lego’s production standards are the standards to which I’d like Panda Mony to aspire. Incidentally, if we grow big enough and have the means, I’d like Panda Mony to oversee the production and engineering first hand rather than through a third-party factory. There’s so much more we could do that way creatively and quality-wise.
Where were you born? What was your life like growing up? Where did you grow up and how did that influence who you are today?
I was born in Riverside, California. I grew up in a suburb not far from UCR, right next to a golf course. Where I lived had no kids in the neighborhood for the first 8 years of my life. It was honestly a bit lonely. I was the youngest of a big family with lots of siblings, but the nearest one in age to me was 5 years older and she really wasn’t interested in watching Saturday morning cartoons with me or setting up backyard action figure battles. Both of my parents also worked, so I’d often have to hang out at my mom’s fine dining restaurant. Again, no kids. It was also a bit stuffy, and there were a lot of areas off limits because they didn’t want me getting burned or annoying customers. All this meant that I had to make my own entertainment and toys were a way to imagine an adventure.
When kids finally did move into the neighborhood, the adventures got a bit more sophisticated and organized. We’d build treeforts, which were pretty elaborate in their design considering we were like 9 years old. We’d also explore the roughs near the golf course and regularly get yelled at by golfers if we were spotted. In hindsight, in hindsight it’s pretty incredible we didn’t get attacked by any animals doing that. The roughs were really thick, overgrown woods with creeks running through them and hid all sorts of coyotes, black widows, rattlesnakes, and… well, not so dangerous, but smelly, skunks.
What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?
The biggest mistake of my life was the incredible number of years I spent living by other people’s standards.
I’m glad I stopped before I became too much of an old fart who wasn’t being the person I wanted to be because I kept listening to sophomoric nitwits. The direction of my life and my attitude turned around almost instantly. The imperative then became to really be honest with myself about matters of ethics and purpose. What did I really think? It took some time to really understand that, and the learning never stops, but that part of my life was when my beliefs started synchronizing with my actions, which led me to a more content life, and more self-respect.
This is advice I would absolutely recommend today’s young people heed. It’s more relevant now, in this age where every single stupid idea everyone has ever is broadcast to the world through social media and lasts forever. Develop your own standards though reason and careful, thorough, honest, fearless consideration and live by them.
How do you jumpstart your creativity when you find yourself stalled on a project?
Ideation. It’s a trick I learned in screenwriting. People tend to get stuck on one solution or creative path and when we discover it’s not working, we tend to get tunnel vision. I think it’s an emotional bias or based on the sunk cost; we have invested so much time into one direction or plan that we forget that the first solution isn’t always the best.
When I need a solution, a new story beat, or just a new idea, I write down a list of as many as I can think of. My lists have no fewer than 15. When I’m making it, I uncensor myself. No idea is bad. Thinking of bad ideas often breaks the constraint of the tunnel vision. Usually, I end up doing more than 15 ideas because the ones later in the list end up sparking more and more great ideas because the process works so well. That’s part of the reason Panda Mony doesn’t really take outside submissions for toy brand ideas. We have too many of our own to develop and we’ll never get to do them all.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I really like low-budget 80’s and 90’s movies. Honestly, I’m not even ashamed of that, so maybe it doesn’t count as a guilty pleasure. I’ve also really gotten into golden age cinema and pulp stories from the 20’s and later.
All of these things are a source of inspiration for the art I end up making. I tend to recognize when things get cliché, oversaturated, and annoyingly trendy sooner than most. I tend to want to look to the past to get away from a current trend. Kind of like smelling coffee after you sampled a bunch of purfume.
What’s the first thing you usually notice about people?
Their attitude. How they carry themselves. I remember it more than even what they look like. There are small indications people give off very quickly for the kind of person they are. Do they talk about themselves a lot? Do they ask a lot of questions? Are they not talking much at all and, if so, is it because they’re shy or because they’re uninterested? Are they friendly? Are they cynical to the point of being arrogant? Are they naive? Are they adamant about something I know they’re factually wrong about? These are all things I often find myself thinking about after I meet someone. I know that because, now that I’m married, I check with my wife to see if she got a similar impression when we both meet someone or if I’m having a subjective experience.
Those impressions then become linked to a feeling inside me the person gives off and it returns the next time I see them. That’s why it’s stronger than any visual characteristic they have.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
A good dad for my girls. I’d also like to contribute something to philosophy. I have more hopes for the former.
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions thoughtfully and with a sense of play!
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