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Chase Utley as a Muppet: Matt Hoffman – Founder and CEO of Bleacher Creatures

October 14, 2015

Matt Hoffman is the Founder and CEO of Bleacher Creatures, maker of uniquely true-to-life plush figures of the greatest athletes and entertainment icons. In this episode, Matt details the twists and turns that have taken him from playing in a band to launching a successful brand. Learn how he channeled his passion into his business to realize the dream of seeing ‘Chase Utley as a Muppet’ and helping Pope Francis ‘find himself’. Ripe with insights and advice, Matt’s entrepreneur journey is exciting, educational, and entertaining. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Matt Hoffman: It was the second inning; I’ll never forget it. I was looking at Chase, and in my head, I said, ‘If Chase Utley was a Muppet, what would he look like?’

Bill Gullan: I’m sure tons of people simultaneously asking that question.

Matt: Probably, but that was the spark. That was the spark.

Bill: Welcome one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. That’s a snippet of our interview with Matt Hoffman, the founder and CEO of Bleacher Creatures. Matt is very generous with his time and with his insight talking about the moment when the idea for Bleacher Creatures struck him. As well as back across his very interesting career. Matt was early to e-commerce and also had experiences that have certainly served him well in his current role with Majestic on the licensing side, on the league and players’ association relationship side. Though he was very well prepared functionally for what would come when he went out on his own and founded Bleacher Creatures. He will take you through how that was and all you need to know to be a successful entrepreneur. So enjoy Matt Hoffman.

Bill: We are here with Matt Hoffman, founder and CEO of Bleacher Creatures. A lot of bald, really attractive guys with cool glasses in this room right now. Matt, thanks for being with us.

Matt: Thanks. I don’t know how cool the glasses are. They’re bi-focals now.

Bill: Progressives, I just got these, there’s three in mine. They would be tri-focals the old way, but there’s a bottom part of the lens. This has just happened, newly.

Matt: It’s terrible. Mine are bi-focals, so up and down are two different things you have to get used to. Getting old is not fun.

Bill: No, no, no. They told me I was going to fall down the steps the first couple of days, but it was an easy transition. We pick up things quickly. Anyhow, we’ll talk that offline, but thank goodness this is audio today.

You came at Bleacher Creatures, and obviously with the Pope, with the start of the NBA season, the NHL season, the playoffs in baseball, and the holiday coming up as you say. This is a big time of year for a brand to shine that deserves it. Tell us a little bit about you and your journey to where we sit.

Matt: Sure. I’m from the Philadelphia area, and I don’t think I could have created this company anywhere else. I’m Philly in my heart. I’m inspired by the city and the people that are here, and I really think the road that took me to Bleacher Creatures is being a Philly guy, so if you don’t like Philly, too bad.

But that, at its root, is what I’m about. Went to Temple University, and I went to school for Communications. At the same time I played in a local Philadelphia band, and the reason I bring that up, ‘Oh, you played in a band,’ well we eventually got a record deal, the band. I would say it’s an entrepreneurial experience to be in a band.

Bill: Yeah, sure. You got to do everything.

Matt: It’s a business. That is really my first taste of a small business.

Bill: Is this like Hooters, Tommy Conwell, Young Rumblers level?

Matt: Little older than those guys, though, I had played on bills with Tommy before.

Bill: Nice.

Matt: The band was called Liquid Gang. I think at one point we were written up as the loudest band in Philadelphia, which I took a lot of pride in.

Bill: There’s dignity in that.

Matt: It was definitely more of an alternative rock, like Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins style band.

Bill: Were you the singer or did you just play?

Matt: Sang a little bit, played guitar, helped song write, and I was lucky. I played with these amazing musicians. I was the worst guy in the band, which actually probably led to my personal downfall in the band. I think I had a vision. I had a good business head, knew what we wanted to do, but when you’re the worst in the band, and you’re leading the band, it leads to insecurities.

That’s the lesson from that band on how to deal with different personalities and how to manage, but we did great. We toured the country. We opened up for major bands. My last show with the band, we opened up at The Spectrum when The Spectrum was there.

It was a great experience, and again, as part of the journey to get to Bleacher Creatures, that was important, because the one thing that came out of it, that led to Bleacher Creatures, was merchandising.

We had to make money, and I said, ‘Well we should sell T-shirts and CDs and stickers, and those type of things,’ and we did. We started selling them at shows, and other bands were like, ‘Yo, how’d you do that?’ I’m like, ‘I could do it for you, too.’ It started a little merchandising business that I had, and that got me into product.

Born in Philadelphia, in the band for awhile. Meanwhile my mom said, ‘Listen, you have to get a day job and the band. I don’t care what you do.’ She was right. I worked for a Fortune 500 Company, started on the accounting side, but eventually got into purchasing, buying. With the band I’m doing merchandising with product. On the other side I’m actually purchasing product. I purchased the foam trays for supermarkets. It sounds really exciting, but I can tell you, each color tray is actually for a different kind of meat.

Bill: Interesting. That’s a sexy business.

Matt: That’s the big take-away on foam trays. At some point with the band, it ran its course. What I wanted to do and what the guys in the band wanted to do were two different things, and I think I took it as far as I could go. I have a philosophy. You never want to say, ‘What if?’ I never said, ‘Okay, what if I didn’t try it in the band?’ So I did.

At the exact same time, a friend of mine, who was working for NBC, had started in a company. This is the late ’90s. It was a catalog company called Genesis Direct, and they had just gotten the deals to run the catalogs for the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball. I had this buying background for this company, I did merchandising, and he was like, ‘You should interview up here.’ I still had a little music in my head, that oh, I could play in New York. That would be cool.

I interviewed up there and I got the job, so I moved to north Jersey. This is ’97. The reason that’s such a big deal, my second week there we had a meeting with the NBA. I’m a huge sports fan, so obviously, if you know about Bleacher Creatures, it started in sports. So my second week there we had a meeting with a guy at the NBA, and he said, this was in ’97, ‘We have a big initiative for David Stern. He is really focused on the Internet and this concept of e-commerce, where you can buy things off your computer.’

I think I was 26 years old. My brain just went boom! I just moved to New York from Philly, I’m a 6’ers fan, and you’re saying I could get an Iverson jersey ordered to my house from my computer. That’s a big concept. I was in.

Bill: I was about to say, your timing on entering the catalog business was… The catalog still exists, but in terms of…

Matt: Catalog’s actually still in print, but yeah, the timing was right. It was interesting. I left the meeting with a couple of executives from the company, and I’m new. This is my second week there, and I’m like, ‘What are we doing about the Internet?’ Because I could tell nobody was really into it, and they said, ‘We’re a catalog company. We’re not an Internet company.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m into it.’ They’re like, ‘Okay. Then you’re in charge of our online business.’ I took over the NBA online store, NHL online store, and Major League Baseball online store. This is my second week there.

Now, while I did that I had to work on the catalog business, and basically they gave me no resources. So I had a friend, Adam, who I worked with, and basically the two of us, begged, borrowed and stole to make that Internet business work. We were lucky. The guy from the NBA was a good adviser on, ‘Okay, here’s what you do.’ We were partnered with ESPN on the back end, but that was ’97, ’98. In ’98, the Bulls win the championship for the sixth time, the Red Wings finally win the Stanley Cup, and I remember that month of June in 1998, we did like $1.2 million between the two sites. It was a big number back then.

Bill: Sure. Well, big cities, passionate cities, big moments.

Matt: It was a big opportunity, and we were positioned for it, so I think in July I ran a sales report on what we did. I felt pretty good about it, put it on the VP of Marketing’s desk, and about three hours later I get a call from the board room, ‘Can you please come in?’ I walk in, every executive in the company’s in there, and they’re like, ‘How’d you do this? Tell us what you did.’

They became a dotcom company six months later, from ‘Hey, there’s no future in the Internet. We’re a catalog company.’

It was a great opportunity. I always tell people, part of it is if the opportunity comes you take advantage of it, so I was blessed with that opportunity. For a sports fan who was looking to figure out their career after being in a band, I was in the right place, right time, and it worked out great. But I also knew the writing on the wall was, ‘I don’t think these guys really have vision.’

Bill: Right.

Matt: Total coincidence, a guy from the NBA had called me, said, ‘I just took a new job with this guy named Michael Rubin in Philadelphia. Would you be interested to come back home?’ Meanwhile I was getting recruited across the country for e-commerce jobs, but I love Philly, like I said when I started this podcast, and I happened to be coming down to Philadelphia. This was in ’99. Am I rambling about my career?

Bill: No, this is fabulous.

Matt: I happened to be coming to a Lenny Kravitz, Black Crowes concert in Camden. See it all comes back to music. Was going with my friends from high school. One of the executives from, at the time it was called Global Sports, connected through the guy from the NBA, and he said, ‘Hey, you should come in for an interview,’ and I did, told them what we did.

The real concept for that part of the business is called the displaced fan. It’s exactly what I was up in New York. You’re a Philly fan that lives in LA, can’t really get Philly product in LA, catalog, e-commerce works. Michael Rubin is this amazing entrepreneur that had this deal to run online sporting good retailers like Sports Authority and Modell’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods. They weren’t really focused on sports licensing, so again, opportunity knocked. I wanted to come back home, and within two weeks I started working at GSI Commerce, which was Global Sports at the time.

Bill: Wow. Now an eBay company, yes?

Matt: They spun off GSI Commerce to eBay. From what I just heard, eBay is selling that piece off.

Bill: Are they? Yeah, I drove by it over the weekend.

Matt: It doesn’t say eBay anymore, does it?

Bill: I think it does, and my wife said, ‘Wow, eBay.’ I said, ‘No, honey, eBay’s not,’ but it was, I told her, a far less concise and accurate version of the story that you were telling.

Matt: Michael Rubin, again, I’ve been lucky also, I’ve worked for some great entrepreneurs. Even the company before that, that catalog company, a couple of really smart entrepreneurs. I just don’t think that business model worked for them. But Michael wound up selling it to eBay, but he spun off a couple divisions. One is Rue Lala, which is a shopping site, but another one was Fanatics.

Bill: Fanatics, absolutely.

Matt: Which was a sports license piece that I started for him. Then he wound up acquiring two competitors, and they are the beast of the industry, so they’re a customer of ours. They’re a great company. I loved working at Michael’s company. I still feel passionately for the people I worked with there. Great culture, entrepreneurial, startup, this really fast-moving, great guy to work for.

Bill: Yeah. He has that reputation, absolutely.

Matt: Yeah, so this was the type of dotcom place you heard about at the turn of the millennium where we had scooters and were riding across the hall and just making things happen. I was lucky. I had this sports license piece. They let me run with it. We had a lot of initiatives, and wound up becoming one of the biggest parts of the company, so I was pretty successful there, too.

I found my niche, but again, a lot of it was opportunity. I’m not saying I’m the sharpest bulb. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I ran with it. One of the things I learned, though, with licensing, is you are at the mercy of the licenses, the manufacturers. It’s a little concerning when you’re a buyer if you’re not getting great service or things change.

What I really wanted to figure out was, what’s the manufacturing side of this thing? I was at GSI Commerce, or Global Sports, for five years, and I had the opportunity to work for Majestic Athletic. So, Majestic Athletic at the time was a family owned business, official outfitter of Major League Baseball. I was able to go in as the Vice President of Merchandising and Brand Management, working with the leagues on licensing, working with our design team and factories on manufacturing what’s worn on field and new innovations.

Another awesome experience. I worked for some of the classiest people you could work for, great family. I worked for them for three and a half years. I was able to stay on as they sold the company to VF Corporation, which is the biggest apparel company in the world. They own brands like The North Face and 7 For All Mankind and Timberland, and Lee Jeans.

It was really interesting working for a family business. They were innovative as well, but also, it’s tight because you’re working for a family. When you work for a big Fortune 500 company, you get exposure to big people. I was in meetings with Kmart and Walmart and big retailers, and I got to be part of initiatives with the president of the company and the chairman of the company. I’ve been really blessed.

Getting up to Bleacher Creatures, I’ve worked for some great entrepreneurs, great, smart people, and got in front of great retailers, and that led me to Bleacher Creatures.

Bill: All of which comes in handy now, yeah.

Matt: Yeah. It all led up to that point, so I always tell the story for Bleacher Creatures, on the business side that led me there, but the inspiration and the influence were my three daughters.

I’m a father. That’s the most important thing to me, and I have three kids. I would go to ballparks for my job with Majestic, and I’d want to bring my kids back stuff. Once it got past a t-shirt or a jersey or a pair of socks or a poorly made mascot, there was nothing.

One of the sweet parts of Majestic is we had awesome Phillies tickets, front row. August 2010, I’m at a Phillies game with some friends, in those seats. My seats were right by first base, so Chase Utley, Ryan Howard. It was the second inning; I’ll never forget it. I was looking at Chase, and in my head I said, ‘If Chase Utley was a Muppet, what would he look like?’

Bill: I’m sure tons of people simultaneously asking that question.

Matt: Probably, but that was the spark. That was the spark, and a lot of people have always said, ‘Hey, you should go into business. You should start a business,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know what I would do.’

But within that game, I took out my Smartphone, I looked at the toy industry, looked at the plush industry, it was a multi-billion-dollar area. I looked at licensed product, which back then was a big part. Now it’s even bigger. I said, ‘These are iconic athletes, whether it’s LeBron James or Sidney Crosby, or Mike Trout, or Peyton Manning, that people are connected to.’ I knew there was something there. That’s really how I got led up to Bleacher Creatures.

Bill: What a story. The idea comes to you, you’re sitting in these seats. We’re recording this, by the way, on the morning of game three, Dodgers/Mets, so Utley is a name that isn’t as revered maybe as he was forty-eight hours ago, but we’ll see what happens from here.

Matt: Mets fans aren’t thinking of him as a Muppet right now.

Bill: No, nor as anything that’s cuddly. Tell us a bit about the process of building the company, from the idea. My own personal experience, and when I talk to folks who have either been or moved in an entrepreneurial direction, oftentimes an idea becomes implanted and you can’t stop thinking about it. So what happens? You still have responsibilities, obviously, at Majestic. Talk about the process from being a team member with all of a sudden an idea percolating to doing it, making it happen.

Matt: Well, I’m lucky. I had people who were supportive on the business side coaching me on how to do it. Faust Capobianco, who was the President of Majestic, I told him what was going on, and he was encouraging. A good adviser of mine, Greg Weinberg, who I worked with at GSI, so I had these people coaching me a little bit, because I’ve never done it before. I told my wife, I said, ‘Look, I’m going to be spending a lot of extra mornings and evenings at Starbucks working on this thing.’

I did. I tell people I should do a commercial for Starbucks, because every morning, every afternoon where I had free time I was working there. With three kids in the house it’s hard to do.

Bill: That is true.

Matt: The first thing I wanted to do was to make sure the market size and the business made sense. It’s a billion-dollar industry in the US alone. Everything pointed to it being an opportunity. I talked to some of my retail partners, ‘What do you think?’ They got it, so I knew I had something. I had to get designs. I had to find manufacturing. In 2010, while I was still at Majestic/VF, I was working with factories trying to figure out who could make this, who could be a partner. I worked with a designer I knew to design the first prototypes and it came out okay. They really did look like Chase Utley if he was a Muppet.

The other part was raising money, and that wasn’t fun. It’s never fun. You have investors and everybody loves the idea, but then you don’t hear from them for three weeks, and I had raised a bunch of money.

Then the other part is I had to get the licenses. Once I got prototypes, put the business plan together, I was lucky I had relationships with the sports leagues and the players’ associations. For Majestic, they do a really good job of focusing on players. When a player gets hot, they’re turning around jerseys or t-shirts and that business is big. Since I had those relationships with the leagues and the players’ associations, they knew I respected that and that was important to me as a core function.

End of 2010, beginning of 2011, it happened pretty fast. I got approval from all of the sports leagues. They wanted to partner with me. I had raised some money. I happened to have a meeting in New York with Major League Baseball, and that afternoon I was meeting with another licensee, so for people out there, another company that makes sports licensed product.

A friend of mine ran sales there, and I wanted to figure out what kind of salespeople were out there. They didn’t know that. They thought I was looking for a job, so the President of the company came in and thought I was looking for a job, and I told him what I was up to, and he said, ‘Well, let me see the product.’ I said, ‘I need you to sign a NDA, I happen to have one in my bag.’ He signed it, I showed it to him, he was like, ‘I want this.’ Basically over two weeks, he was saying, ‘Listen, I get the business. I’m going to be a good partner to you,’ which he’s been. ‘You’re better off partnering with me, instead of other people who don’t understand the business.’

It worked out, he did. We were incorporated and up and running by February, 2011. It happened fast, and I was lucky. There wasn’t a big gap in regards to doing this without having funding and moving forward. There was a couple months that you’re like, ‘I hope this comes together.’ But it did.

Bill: But for those in our audience who are thinking about balancing ideas for businesses with their day in, day out responsibilities, everyone’s obviously in a different position when it comes to their network, their knowledge level, certainly their financial capability if they wanted to bootstrap something, but what were the triggers for you to know that it was time to hang up the cleats, so to speak, at Majestic? You mentioned incorporating. Obviously you were raising funds. There’s a lot of moving parts here, the licensing, everything else, but when you were talking with your family or thinking about it yourself, what was the moment at which that balance was going to shift, and this was what you were going to be doing for a living?

Matt: I’m going to be honest with you. There was some ignorance on my part in regards to it. I told you my story. I was pretty lucky, right place, right time. The career moved pretty quickly. I was a young executive at VF and GSI, and I said, ‘I’ve had success everywhere. How hard could this be?’

I just thought it would be easy. If I knew what I knew now, I’m not sure I would have done it. Maybe that was good that I didn’t know, but I think people are more sophisticated now than they were four or five years ago, with the Shark Tanks of the world and everything, it’s a different environment. So I’m not sure those triggers were there.

I really confidently thought, ‘This will be easy because I’ve done it and I’ve been successful.’ It is and was much harder than I thought, so I’m glad I did it. It’s made me a better person. It’s made me grow up in some ways, but I don’t know if I’ve had the triggers that other entrepreneurs had, because maybe I wasn’t bright enough to know.

Bill: Well, it seems like a dose of ignorance has helped a lot of the great entrepreneurial stories, because as you say, especially at the point in your life with responsibilities at home, with a great job, around people towards whom you felt warmly and felt responsibility, maybe it’s good you didn’t know all the hurdles or else maybe we’d be here in a different capacity. But, so fast forward, here we are almost five years in for you.

Bleacher Creatures began in sports, obviously has a tremendous presence in sports, but hit the consciousness of the world recently for another reason, which was the papal visit. The Pope obviously came to the US, and spent time throughout the northeast, but the major meat of that stop was here in our fair city. One of the indelible pictures from that visit was, I guess he was on the tarmac either here or, I don’t even know.

Pope Francis Meets his Bleacher Creatrure

Matt: JFK.

Bill: JFK? Someone brought to him a Bleacher Creature of himself, of His Holiness. How wide his smile was holding this doll, this likeness of him, one of the images that I saw everywhere after this, and obviously the business, it’s a great hit. It’s a great moment. Could you tell us a little bit about the story of both the conceiving of, and then executing to this degree, the Pope doll?

Matt: Yeah. As part of our initiative as we grow, international is a big part of what we do. I would say within the next two years, international will be bigger than our US business, and it makes sense. There’s more people. When I talk to people who don’t look that way, you’re missing a huge market. There’s more people internationally than in the US. There’s a lot of disposable income out there. Even if 5% of the Chinese had the type of disposable income it’s big. The reason I’m bringing that up is we have European distributors, and one of them said to us we should do Pope Francis.

I was like, ‘Yeah. We like Pope Francis. He fits what we do, put your passion in play, and we love his message. We should do it.’ This was a year ago, and we sampled the Pope Francis Bleacher Creature and it sat on my desk. We were looking to figure out, especially in Europe, which has different intellectual property rules, what we could or can’t do. Meanwhile, I’m working hard and good opportunities are happening, they announced that Pope Francis was coming to the United States, and coming to Philadelphia.

Bill: Of all places, yeah.

Matt: My town. I was like, ‘Okay, this could be a cool opportunity. We’ll have to figure out how to make it work.’ Every year in February is the International Toy Fair in New York City. We had a meeting probably in December, figuring, ‘Okay, what’s our big story going to be at the toy fair?’ We had our PR people, my marketing people, partners, all on the phone, and we couldn’t really come up with a wow, because we wanted a wow. We got off the phone, but meanwhile, sitting on my desk, looking at me, is that Pope Francis Bleacher Creature.

Bill: Is the prototype, yeah. That’s great.

Matt: Maybe later in the day, it’s staring at me, I’m like, ‘That’s a story.’ I mailed everyone back. I said, ‘What if we say we’re really getting into historical and political and inspirational figures, and we announce that we’re launching Pope Francis?’ Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.’ Full disclosure, I’m Jewish. The press release went out, though, and the Toy Fair happened to be on Ash Wednesday, total accident.

Bill: Wow.

Matt: The story got picked up by over 300 local news stations throughout the United States, so we knew we had something. It was interesting, because the trade show itself, people liked it, but nobody really was like, ‘Okay, I’ll buy it.’

Bill: Right, right.

Matt: Because when you live in a society now with buyers, everybody’s afraid to try something new and take a chance, so in a category like that they didn’t know. But that’s okay. We got a lot of press, and right after that, we spoke to the World Meeting of Families, that brought the Pope here, and they loved it. They showed it to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and they wanted us to carry it. They were finalizing who was going to sell it, so it happened to be another Philadelphia based company, Aramark, who we do a lot of business with, and I have a great relationship with.

Bill: Big company, yeah.

Matt: We lined it up with them, so on our website is where we first started selling the Pope. We knew it was going to be good, because even pre-selling it, it was one of our top sellers. People were into it, and then we were getting calls from Catholic gift shops at churches and religious schools, so we had a good feeling about it. Then our PR agency did a really good job seeding the product. It got picked up, all the local Philly papers, USA Today, Fortune Magazine, so the momentum was already happening.

That momentum built, that more people were buying it, it was selling online for World Meeting of Families, and then sure enough, there were different schools that were buying it. What happened was, the day that the Pope got to New York, this school teacher from Brooklyn, I actually spoke to her afterwards, they had a Pope Bleacher Creature that somebody gave them, and they were praying to it at their school.

Bill: Wow.

Matt: Which is cool in itself, and she was going to the airport to see the Pope, brought it with her just in case, and sure enough he gets off the plane. I think about it historically. When I think of JFK, I think of the Beatles coming to New York and getting off the plane at JFK. Well, honestly, Pope Francis’s first visit to New York is pretty close.

Bill: He’s a rock star in a different way.

Matt: Yeah. He’s walking around, but I’m not watching it, so it’s the end of the day Thursday. We’re already handing all the demand for the Pope, getting product out, and then on my computer around 5: 30, I’m starting to get these emails. ‘Do you do a Pope Bleacher Creature?’ ‘Hey Dude, I think the Pope’s holding your Pope.’ I emailed a couple people like, I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ It’s like, ‘It’s all over the news.’ I go to CBS News.

We were on CBS This Morning, Sunday morning, that Sunday previously, so I had that link up. They have a live news broadcast that you can rewind, and I brought everybody in my office from the company. Sure enough, he’s walking around and the school teacher handed Pope Francis the Pope. But the way it went down, you see his reaction when he sees it in the crowd. He actually blesses it. Then he picks it up and the smile is amazing.

Then he holds it up and does a selfie for somebody with it, right? Of course, that was it. It got picked up by every news station. The next day it was on The Today Show, it was on The View, it was on Good Morning America, it was just everywhere. Then even the next week it was on Colbert, and that’s all great, and the sales are great, but honestly, at its core, we made a product that made Pope Francis generally smile. That’s what our product’s really about.

The idea, we tell buyers this when they buy, that our buyers for retailers, or people walking by, whether you sell one or not at first glance, you have product in your store that are going to make people smile.

Bill: Absolutely.

Matt: That’s exactly what happened, so it was a great success for the brand. It was a great selling success. We’re still selling them, and everybody blew out of the product. They had the product on the parkway in Philadelphia and they sold out every piece.

Bill: I’ll bet.

Matt: But to see that we could give the Pope the same reaction we want from everybody else, and to generally make him happy, that was everything.

Bill: Yeah, well, it’s quite a story, and I remember, obviously, knowing you and seeing it, and being like, ‘Oh my goodness. That’s unbelievable.’ To your point, and you mentioned the line earlier, ‘put your passion in play.’ Obviously Bleacher Creatures deals in characters or athletes, or whomever, teams, around whom your customers are passionate, yet because it’s a doll and it’s a plush toy, it has to do with play. It works across the family, but with kids certainly.

When you think about brand development, and this is a branding podcast after all, obviously the intellectual property that you possess, that you leverage, that you license, all has their own brand appeal. They think of their business as brands, be it athletes, entertainers, characters, or whatever it is. Yet Bleacher Creatures has its own distinctive appeal. How do you balance these recognizable licenses with building your own brand for Bleacher Creatures? How do you think that through?

Matt: It’s a lot. Luckily with my licensing background, I thought a lot about intellectual property, because that’s a piece of it. We’ve been able to create some intellectual property around how we make the dolls, but also, it’s artwork. I do consider it an art, and that goes back to my band days, in regards to it’s art. We have copyrights on all our designs. The reality is we’re not the only people who can make a Pope Bleacher Creature or a LeBron James Bleacher Creature, but anybody else who makes it, it has to look distinctly different than what we’ve done.

There can’t be confusion in the marketplace. That’s part of it, and that’s part of it both ways. I don’t think I’d go to licensors and say, ‘Hey, listen, we jut want to make a plush of blank’ I get this all the time. Pokemon, or who was the other one that somebody came up to me the other day about? The Smurfs. People say, ‘Do you want to do Despicable Me?’ I’m like, ‘There are plenty of other people that could actually do that.’ We could do it, but that’s not really what Bleacher Creatures is about, because those guys are already built for plush or cartoons.

Bill: Yeah. Sure, sure.

Matt: But LeBron James is not built to be a plush doll. It’s a unique thing, so that’s part of it, is we have a unique look now. It’s not Muppety anymore. It’s how do you turn real people into what we call plush figures, and make them recognizable? That’s the first part. Then we have to understand our customer. We did a great survey with Finch Brands, which was very insightful. That told us that half our customers are kids, which is who the business was built for, but half our customers were adults, and what we knew of those adults, half owned at least three.

This was still early on in our development, which tells us adults like them, adults collect them, and it connects to their passion. The other fun part about our product is, we’re lucky this way, in the social media age, it’s a great product, because it’s great for photography, selfies. It’s easy to carry. There are people out there, there was a little Pope Francis Twitter page, there’s this lady who takes J.J. Watt everywhere she goes every week and posts where she is with J.J. Watt.

Bill: There’s an Utley one, too, right, I think locally, yeah, little Chase.

Matt: Little Chase Utley. He got traded, he’s still up there, and reporting to the Phillies. We love that. We love that there are these guerrilla, I don’t want to call them marketers, but fans, that have created these stories. Knowing all those things and what our brand is, we’ve really become more focused on how do we make these plush figures great that really hit the core? Then what licenses do we get? There are some situations where we’ll take a license that doesn’t necessarily fit into our core, like there’s a partner of ours that does subscription boxes called Horror Blocks, and we’ve done Freddy and Jason. We have some new ones coming up, and that fit their box, but I don’t know if I’d put that in our universe as well.

Bill: Right. Sure, yeah.

Matt: But what we try to do is pick licenses that the passion hits all ages. When you talk sports, kids love LeBron, adults love LeBron. When you talk comic books, kids love Batman, adults are passionate about Batman. Talk about the Pope, kids love the Pope, adults are passionate about the Pope. That’s really the core of what we do for the most part, and there are going to be exceptions, but we want to make sure we’re hitting the range and we’re maximizing it.

Bill: Right. Well, you mentioned the art and the artistry of this. Bleacher Creatures seems to be at its very best with individuals, be they athletes or otherwise, that have something about their look, whether it’s hair or some defining characteristic, and being able to replicate that in a way that can’t help but make one smile, but is also faithful to the thing that makes them them, as opposed to just, Smurfs are plush. Anybody can do Smurfs. But there seems like there is a Bleacher Creatures way to do this versus a just a nondescript plush way to do this. Yeah, it definitely comes through. You mentioned early in the process how important the prototyping and design phase was, and it makes a lot of sense.

Another thing that you mentioned that I kind of wanted to ask your take on, you’re an e-commerce guy from way back, accidentally, but from way back. Bleacher Creatures operates in a multi-channel environment, and you certainly have through the web, this incredible ability to connect directly through social media and other ways with people. They know where to come and to get these. That said, you talked about that smile factor when one is in a retail environment and sees this, and people just want to pick it up, and just want to look at it, and want to smile. When you think about, in your own career, but also here we are with Bleacher Creatures, the differences, as well as the cooperative nature of the direct and the retail, wholesale side of the business, how do you think about channels?

Matt: I think hard about channels. It’s a big deal. There is a lot of work and care and cost into what Bleacher Creatures does, so you have to get paid for it. Our retailers have to get paid for it. It’s interesting. I was just at another toy trade show last week, and getting feedback from retailers, and so much of what works for us, when it works well, is merchandising and displaying it, so a really good partner for us is Target. Target has beautiful stores.

Even though they’re considered a mass retailer, it’s beautiful, and why they’ve been successful and their sell-throughs are really good is we worked with them and discussed how are you going to display this product, and that is everything. There’s another major retailer, and I won’t name them on this podcast, that doesn’t have a dedicated section. They’re really not organized on how they put their product out, so when I go in their stores, they’re underneath a shelf, and they might be blocked, and the sell-throughs aren’t good.

Bill: Sure. I wonder why, right?

Matt: First of all, as I’m talking to retailers now, that is a conversation for us as we grow. How are we going to support this? We’re happy to support it with you. We’ll give you fixturing, we’ll give you signage, but what are you dedicating into the space to tell the story? Because that’s what it’s about, is the storytelling. Again, Target does a really good job of it.

The other part of it is there is a business out there for perception on plush. You could go to a crane machine in a Walmart, put a quarter in or a dollar in, and win a plush toy. It’s totally different quality than Bleacher Creatures. We have to educate people on the craftsmanship of what we do. We actually do have another product line, which is a different brand name, for lower price point plush, because there are retailers out there and business to be had. So very much like at Majestic, we segmented the business that Majestic was what we called upstairs. Then at the mass, they don’t sell Majestic Athletic to a Walmart. They have a different brand. We looked at the business the same way, and we’re really particular on who gets what.

Bill: When it comes to the relationships that you create with consumers directly through social media, or email, or whatever it is, through the direct channel, obviously the economics of wholesale selling and sell-through versus direct and fulfillment are different. Do you look at the customer journey when it comes to interacting with Bleacher Creatures as a linear thing, across channels? How do you think about making this, in addition to telling the story obviously in a way that really evokes and unleashes the passion of the consumer? How do you think about their journey as a marketer?

Matt: We’re still learning it, so our Director of Marketing was at Comic-Con this weekend. I didn’t get a chance to go, and what was encouraging for us is people were walking by – we were there with one of our customers who has a display there. People were walking by and saying, ‘Oh, check out the Bleacher Creatures.’ They actually said the name.

Bill: Wow, that’s cool.

Matt: That’s really new for us, because I think people are still learning the brand. A year ago at this time, I’d say we had about eight or ten thousand Facebook followers, maybe twelve thousand.

Bill: Yeah, something like that.

Matt: We’re up to close to eighty thousand now. It’s grown really quickly and there are brands we look at to see how we measure and brands that we have a lot of respect for. Funko is a huge brand now, and we’re at about a third of their Facebook followers. We interact with them every day, and it’s not so much about selling product, it’s the same concept, making them smile.

What we’ve learned from the social media part, which is really the big marketing push for us, is we’re connecting with people every day, telling our message, and that gives credibility to retailers out there saying, ‘How do I carry the product?’ Then we’re really careful in regards to how often we’re hitting our e-commerce base with emails. We don’t want to overburden it, so it’s pretty much once every other week, but what we see is the bump. It’s engaged, and I think because we’re not beating them over the head with it, and we’re not just saying, ‘Buy, buy, buy,’ but we’re telling a brand story. It converts better.

That’s really what we’re trying to do right now is tell our story. We’re in business, so we want to sell product, but we just want to tell people about this Bleacher Creature universe and what it’s about and how they can be a part of it.

Bill: Right. Yeah, and so on social media you’ll say, ‘Hey, there’s a Monday night game between the 9ers and the Giants,’ and you’ll have an example of this, and that’ll be it. It won’t be like, ‘Hey, you got to get your Eli Manning before the game starts.’ Seemingly it’s about being part of the overall conversation that people have about the things that they’re passionate about. I don’t know how many ‘abouts’ I can have in that sentence, but being part of that ongoing conversation about sports entertainment and other things is content driven rather than promotional.

Matt: Yeah, what I’m encouraged about over the last year is we’re becoming part of the culture. That’s really the job. We’re becoming part of the culture, even though we’re still small. But as people are picking up, there are enough people that are attracted to us, that we’re becoming part of their day and their culture, so the Pope was the big event. Even last week, TBS ran their commercial for the playoffs with Joe Maddon, and he voiced it, and it ends with them showing the Joe Maddon Bleacher Creature. That’s a commercial.

Now again, it’s not a selling point for us, but we’re now becoming authentic as part of the Cubs’ journey in the postseason, and we see that every week now, and the fact that people are taking their pictures every week with the product. Everywhere you go, whether you’re at the airport, you’re going to a sporting event, comic book store, you’re seeing our product. As we get that stickiness and people start learning more and more, we’re going to be more successful.

Bill: Right. Well, it definitely seems to be for certain athletes who are pictured with it, it’s a sign of their arrival. It’s a sign of you made it, because you don’t have everybody. We had Joanna Cline from Fathead on a few weeks ago. Fathead because its imagery has the ability to be super fast and to put anything on it that people want to buy, whereas you guys, the manufacturing journey here, and both in terms of timing, which I’m sure is a bit of a challenge in terms of timing the market right, but also making good choices about the assortment is a big deal. It means something when an athlete reaches the point that their likeness is available in plush.

Matt: They reach out to us, so I have two good stories on that. One just happened. I don’t know how to pronounce his last name, Dallas, the kid that pitched last night.

Bill: Yeah, Keuchel?

Matt: Keuchel. I thought so, too.

Bill: Cool beard on that guy.

Matt: He’s going to make a great Bleacher Creature.

Bill: Yeah, he is.

Matt: We were already working with the Astros for next season on doing it, but his girlfriend tweeted us the other day.

Bill: Oh, nice.

Matt: Where’s Dallas’ Bleacher Creature?

Bill: When’s it coming?

Matt: We actually reached out to the guy at the Astros, who responded and said, ‘Here’s the artwork. I think there’s a chance that we’ll be making it next year, like 100%.’ That’s what he sent. When we get those, and we get those regularly now, that athletes are reaching out that aren’t ones, and then we’re engaging with them.

The best story was two, two and a half years ago, an agent called us, and we get calls from agents from time to time, and he says, ‘My client plays for the Seahawks and he wants to be a Bleacher Creature.’ I said, ‘Well, what’s his name?’ He said, ‘Richard Sherman.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know him.’ This was before everything happened.

Bill: Sure.

Matt: He was like, ‘No, trust me. People in Seattle really like him. He’s great.’ I said, ‘I’ll call the team.’ I called the team, and they’re like, ‘Oh, we like Richard.’ They were already doing Lynch and Wilson. ‘We’ll add Richard to it, why not?’ Sure enough, he became the biggest thing in the world, and not only that, he does a podcast, a videocast, and he had somebody with a Bleacher Creature on, and then it made Monday Night Football and we blew out of it. To me, why I feel really optimistic about our business is these things happen now on a weekly basis.

Bill: Right.

Matt: Those opportunities keep on happening. That means we’re doing something right, and there’s something core to what we do that’s getting to be part of this conversation.

Bill: No, absolutely. It just seems, you have the data, but from afar, just the collection of anecdotes and it seems the frequency and intensity with which you see them just as a consumer and as a fan, is increasing. We have some sirens outside the window.

Matt: At first it sounded like an alien invasion.

Bill: Yeah, coming to apprehend us.

Matt: I was excited about it, but now…

Bill: Maybe we should duck down. In the spirit of respecting your time and aiding your getaway here, your career path and the twists and turns, the choices, the good fortune, the strong ethic, all these different things, for someone who’s listening to this and finds some inspiration in what you’ve done, your entrepreneurial story and everything else, what are some advice that you’d share? You said earlier one of the maxims is you never got to ask ‘what if.’ Answer those questions for yourselves. Any other things that are an important part of Matt the guy, and Matt the businessperson as you look forward?

Matt: The ‘what if’ thing is important, and I would tell anybody if you really have a passion for something, at least if you don’t succeed, you’ve got to try, because you’ll kill yourself, kick yourself, if you don’t do it.

But I also think of Eminem, you get one chance. You get that one chance in life, so if you’re going to get the one chance, aim big. Aim big. Why aim small? See how big it gets and see where it gets you, because some of my major influences include Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, and I know a lot of people say that. But if you really look at both those stories, they both dreamed big, thought big, thought differently, and changed culture. I’m not saying Bleacher Creatures is going to be Apple or Disney, but those are good role models in regards to that piece of it.

Bill: No doubt. Forgive my ignorance. Do you have a Jobs Bleacher Creature?

Matt: Not yet.

Bill: A lot of momentum around it with movies and everything else.

Matt: I know. People have asked. Look, he’s, again, he’s an influence for me. I think historically he would fit in. I think we have to figure out where that goes. Whenever we create a Bleacher Creature, the conversation is where do we sell it? Who buys it? I hope Steve Jobs is on the radar down the road. It’s just everything has to line up properly.

Some of the other things is it is really tough to run your own business. It’s literally walking on a tightrope without the net. It’s important to surround yourself with good people, not just working for you, advisers, friends, people who have been through the journey, because if you don’t know the journey, you don’t have people telling you what’s going on, it can be scary, but if people tell you that scary is the norm, it makes it less scary.

I’ve been lucky, and I try to pass the same thing along. I talk to other business owners on the challenges, and it makes it much easier as you go through it in cycles of years, to say, ‘Okay, this is regular, and I understand it’s regular, and I can live and I can survive, and I can get better and stronger.’ It’s really important to base that network to do it.

The other part is you’re not going to be perfect. I heard somebody say the other day most people in life are not A’s and they’re not F’s. They’re generally B pluses to C minuses, somewhere in there. Now, you can achieve to be an A, and I’m trying to be an A. I want to be the best, but you’re not going to be perfect. Even the As aren’t perfect. Bill Belichick’s probably one of the best coaches of all times, but sometimes he makes a stupid mistake too, right?

You have to accept the flaws of what you’re doing to succeed, but at the same time, achieve how to get better every day. I always tell people who work for us, and I think this is true in business, attention to detail, sense of urgency, critical thinking. If you do those three things, those are recipes to succeed.

Bill: It often doesn’t take anything more. It’s an interesting thing. You talk about this transition to the entrepreneurial realm, and we’ll close with this. Thank you so much for your insight and your time.

Matt: Thanks for having me.

Bill: Our pleasure. The difference in mindset between a big job and an important job at an established company versus leadership in an entrepreneurial venture, you talked about some of the terror associated with that. You talked also about some of the blissful ignorance. Could you speak a little bit about just how it’s different to be the guy, and how that feels when it obviously extends across the entirety of your life, and it’s a big shot you’re taking. You’re going to try to make it count. How does it feel?

Matt: In some ways it’s the difference between being the quarterback and being the coach.

Bill: Sure.

Matt: I would say the other part of it is, when I tell my career story, I think in some ways I was given opportunities that – it’s like being the athlete that has all the skills and playing against smaller players, right? Not that I’m the bigger athlete and I have all those skills. The opportunities were those bigger skills.

I’ve been humbled a lot over the last four years. It’s been humbling, and in some ways I wish I was humbled sooner. The difference is when you work for a big company there is a safety net, right? You can get lost in the shuffle in some cases, and unless you aim too big, you’re not going to go out of business. Things will move on.

Now the difference in that is when you work for a smaller company, you can innovate. If you work for a bigger company, it’s more iteration because of that. That’s why small companies can flourish. For us, in the fastest moving technological time ever, in a time where retail’s changing, production’s changing, marketing for sure is changing.

Bill: No question.

Matt: Not only are you walking without that net, but you have to be focused on changing all the time. There is no let up on evolving. It’s about adapting. It’s not about who’s the biggest. It’s not about who’s the strongest or the fastest. It’s the one who can adapt. That’s the biggest, I would say pressure, is that you have to adapt every day, and it’s tiring. It’s tiring for everybody out there, but that’s the society we’re in now.

Bill: Yeah, well, and it’s an interesting balance again between letting things work, because some things take a little while to materialize, demand takes a while to gather. You’re possessed of all kinds of different metrics. Every part of your business can be studied and can be analyzed, and I guess there’s wisdom in knowing when and what when it comes to taking action and you don’t have the opportunity, as you say, to be patient quarter after quarter simply because you believe something seems logical, and ultimately it’s going to click.

What a set of skills, you came into the Bleacher Creatures with the functional experiences, theoretically in place. You knew e-commerce, you had relationships with leagues and players’ associations. You knew the licensing piece; you knew the product piece. You knew wholesale distribution through retailers and then, but this incredible wave of learning, and thankfully achievement. What a story.

Matt: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, I said the head coach analogy earlier. It’s the same thing when you start a business. I probably had some skill sets where maybe if you consider what I did offense, sales, product. Those things, and then a lot of times offensive coordinators will become head coaches, well maybe they don’t know defense or about the team’s conditioning. I think it’s the same thing. Now you’re taking all those on, and you’re in charge of every aspect. You might have had a background in the one aspect, but you’re learning other parts. I think that’s true when you start a business. You start taking on whether it’s finance, whether it’s operations. That’s defense, right? That’s special teams.

Bill: Sure, sure.

Matt: Yeah, it’s taken on a lot of different parts, but it is the truism. If you work hard – I’m not the first one to say this, the opportunities happen – good things happen when you work hard, and we see it. We’ve seen it at Bleacher Creatures, and that’s been the blessing.

Bill: Wow. Absolutely. We have maximum control over that, certainly. Matt Hoffman, five years into Bleacher Creatures, great story behind, certainly a great story ahead. We will be watching. Grateful for your time, your friendship, and your insight.

Matt: Thank you for having me. It’s good to see you.

Bill: Many thanks to Matt Hoffman for his time and insight. One topic that we didn’t ask about in the recorded podcast but spoke with Matt a bit afterwards was what’s next, in terms of major kind of world figures. We talked about the Pope and Matt was happy to report that it looks like, not only Donald Trump but the two major party candidates and Trump maybe one of them but who knows. If not two major party candidates as well as Donald Trump are slated as the election season gears up to be, imagined and delivered as Bleacher Creatures. So we will all have to be watching to see what that ultimately looks like and to make our allegiances known by having a plush doll representing our candidate of choice on our desks as we get into high gear election season come the end of this year and early next.

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