A few weeks back I caught up with the creator of Nerd Block, Russ who told me about what the company is and how it works.
Hi Russ, thanks for agreeing to this interview. My first question is, for those who don’t know, what is Nerd Block?
I think that the best way to describe Nerd Block is that it is Comic Con in a box every month. So the idea is pretty simple when you were a kid the best thing in the world was getting mail because typically you’d receive mail around the holidays or your birthday and that was about it. It was really exciting. As you become an adult you quickly realize that the mail box is almost something to fear. It is nothing but bills or junk mail and we here at Nerd Block are big fans of nostalgia and we really wanted to bring that feeling of excitement back. So we decided to think of a way to take back the mail. For a nominal fee per month you can now receive a box in the mail with a t – shirt and four to six other toys and collectibles that are themed around nerdy pop culture. It is just a great way to treat yourself. We offer a premium subscription box service but you know I think people work hard and they deserve to be able to treat themselves once in a while and I think Nerd Block is a great way to do it.
It is a very interesting idea but one that is say easier to do now with the comic boom, such as comic book inspired TV shows and other nerdy things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, do you think that Nerd Block works better now in this golden age of nerds than maybe it would have at any other time?
Absolutely, you know it’s funny and I think everyone can agree that even ten years ago, being a nerd or a being a geek was something that was almost looked upon negatively. You know growing up, geeks and nerds never had the best rap and it is very interesting to see that in today’s society, in some capacity everyone’s a nerd and if you’re not then you’re sort of looked on as the outcast in a way. Nerds have kind of taken over everything, I mean if you look at all the top films they are nerd films, all the highest grossing films are based on superheroes or video games or things of that nature. Look at video games for example, video games are three hundred million dollars to produce and gross more than a movie does. All the top TV shows, you know Big Bang Theory and all these different reality shows are all focused on geeks and nerds. So I think it is a great time to be a nerd and I think that it is because of this surge in being a nerd that companies like ours are able to exist. I don’t think we would have worked five or ten years ago. I mean don’t get me wrong the internet has advanced to a point where services like ours are readily available and possible because the internet breaks down all barrier and boarders but without nerd’s being a main focus it just wouldn’t be the way it is. What’s really cool about being a nerd is that, even though nerds are the sort of number one market in the world, they don’t look negatively at anything else. Like I don’t look at someone who’s into sports and laugh at them because I fully understand what it means to geek out over something. You geek and you nerd out over your favourite sports teams, that’s totally cool. I can geek out over Star Wars and even though we’re not into the same thing we respect each other passion.
How did Nerd Block come about? Where did you get the idea for it?
So what happened was about three years ago we launched our first company which is called Shirt Punch. Shirt Punch is a 24 hour t shirt website. It’s been widely successful, we’re still running it we sell three shirts a day for ten dollars, they are all pop culture related. The beauty of a site like Shirt Punch is it is what we call a sticky audience which means every day you check your Facebook, you check your Twitter you check your Shirt Punch. So what we realized very quickly was that with Shirt Punch because we had achieved a certain sale level is that we could produce these great shirts at a very affordable rate. This allowed us the branch into the subscription box world by having a very big anchor item per month. So even though our price is $19:99 you’re getting fifty, sixty dollars’ worth in value if not more sometimes. Because a t –s shirt, in theory, if you got to a store and buy a branded t- shirt it’s going to run you, fifteen, twenty dollars not to mention your gas to get there, your time and all that stuff. With us, you’re getting a t –s shirt, that really covers the cost of subscription instantly and then on top of that plus you get everything else. There is also the fun factor of course. So you know we just wanted to create another company that would utilise the services of our current company and develop a service that we didn’t really feel was being represented out there. Yes there are other subscription services companies; you can get a subscription for anything. For your dog, your cat anything. Whatever it might be but we didn’t think there was anything representing what we were looking for. So our mantra is that we create companies that we ourselves would like to be subscribers of or customers of.
How all the different licensing that is involved with making Nerd Block work? You have a lot of different companies involved.
That’s right. So because of our success with Shirt Punch we had already established lots of licensing relationships and once you do that, what’s really nice, is that they will share with you who their other licensors are so we were able to find out who was making this product, get direct contact with them and go down those avenues and get really great products. Now when it comes to the custom stuff we make, that boils down to a standard licensing agreement. Now that is a very difficult world. One on its own. In fact, just last week I was in Las Vegas for the licensing expo and it is just huge, you know such a big world. Truth be told a lot of brands are coming around quite often they are really starting to see that what the audience wants is fan produced, fan made stuff. The audience wants products made by fans as well. The studios have really recognised this and companies like Shirt Punch and Nerd Block are really taking advantage of this because we are some of the first few companies to colour outside of the box. So it works out really well for us because we get to produce these awesome shirts. Now the challenge with Nerd Block, because it is only twelve shirts a year it means that these have to be twelve spot on shirts each shirt needs to be A ++. I mean we have to work for at least sixth months to get to proper approvals and procedures done to print these. It’s a challenge but the end result it always a lot of fun and then you end up with an item that is a licensed item within that world which means you have entered part of that universe. Whether it is Adventure Time or Star Trek it is really cool to say “hey! We did that”.
What do you think Nerd Block offers that other, similar services don’t?
Well we are a premium subscription service there are others out there that try and go for the lowest price and that is very respectable in its own right. We offer a premium service, yes you are paying a little more but you are receiving quite a bit more for that small increase. Now in addition to that we guarantee a t – shirt in your size every month and we offer a wide variety of shirts. Whether you like the unisex cut, whether you like the fitted cut. So for us one of the big strengths is that you are always receiving that shirt; you are always getting that value for money. 95% of our products are manufactured, licensed products. Very rarely will we make an in house item unless it is really cool. For the most part everything you receive in our blocks are things you could get from comic book stores or Toys R Us or comic cons and you would find them for sale there. So for Nerd Block while you might not always love what you will receive you will certainly respect the value and you may know people in your lives who would really love those items. So say if you see a Star Trek item and you’re not into Star Trek, that’s okay because you’ll still appreciated that it is a licensed item, you know it comes with value regardless of whether you would have bought it or not you might know a friend who would really love that.
What do you think the future holds for Nerd Block?
That’s a good question. We’ve just released Horror Block which is themed, just like Nerd Block, but based around horror. We are also releasing another themed block in a couple of months’ time. I think the future is just to grow bigger and better. I think we are, as a society, truly feel geeks and nerds are just coming into their own right now. We are sort of at the centre of the media universe but it is pretty early stages for all of this and I just think that it is only going to get bigger and bigger. I mean eventually you will see a nerd network on TV. You know we used to have G4, but then that shut down but you will see something like that rise again and you will start to see the emergence of these sort of nerdy celebrities coming to the fore front. So I think that the future is going to hold a lot of fun things. I also think that what you are going to start to see companies designing products specifically for subscription services because of the volumes. I mean we’ve got tens of thousands of subscribers and the volumes in which we order make a big, big impact on companies. So they are now starting to look at their year and say “Okay, these are the products we’d like to produce but these are the ones we’d like to produce just for Nerd Block”. I think it is only going to get better and better and you’re going to see that. You are going to see these are very sought after items in subscription boxes and the only way to get them is through that subscription box.
Who do you think Nerd Block appeals to most? Is it just particular fandoms or do you think it has a wide ranging appeal?
That’s a good question; I think it has a very wide appeal. I mean if you were to have asked me that when we started, almost a year ago, I would have guessed it would have been more male skewed, around eighteen to thirty five but to be honest our experience is that we have a strong female base who absolutely love our product. In addition to that we get people very, very young and we get people, very old I mean we’ve got a customer who’s in his eighties and absolutely loves it so I just think that it is one of those things that just appeals to that inner child within all of us. We all sort of remember those days of being a kid and running down those stairs on a Saturday morning, grabbing your bowl of cereal and watching cartoon all morning and I think Nerd Block brings back a little bit of that excitement, a little bit of that fun when you were a kid and regardless of where we end up as adults we all remember those innocent times. So I think Nerd Block has a wide appeal. It is just a service that is meant to be a lot of fun. I mean every service in the world is going to have its critiques but we just want to bring enjoyment to people and you know everyone wants that type of enjoyment it just seems to appeal to a lot of people and it’s very interesting as well. It is actually introducing people to a lot of lines and products that they didn’t know even existed. For a lot of people it is an introduction into these lines.
Has Nerd Block grown more than you would have first thought it would?
Absolutely, if I’m being honest we didn’t know what to expect. When we started we were throwing round ideas of fifty subscribers, or a hundred subscribers in our first month we had no idea and we were well over five thousand subscribers in month one and it has systematically doubled since then. We’ve sold out every single month and we’ve had to go back. This market, people think it’s easy, you order product in it comes; you put it in a box and then ship it out. Actually it isn’t like that because nobody is sitting around with ten thousand of any one product and you learn very quickly how the toy industry and the product industry work and in all fairness it is a beast within itself. Of course you launch it and you want it to go as well as possible and it goes better than expected, it does start open up new problems. You suddenly realise “I have to secure product for all this and that product might not be readily available”. We’ve had to learn fairly quickly how to properly analyse our numbers and to get it all ready and release product early enough. You know it has been way better than we anticipated. Where we are right now, we didn’t think we would be until the third year of our business. At the same time we grew at a rate that was almost untestable. We had a few scary moments and we were able to overcome them and get to where we need to be but boy was that a challenge.
I can imagine, I can also imagine the shock you had when people started doing the Nerd Block unboxing videos on Youtube. What was your reaction to that?
Well, what a blessing that is, God bless all our amazing fans. They are so interested in promoting us to their audience and we can’t say enough about how important that is. I mean if you really like a company regardless of what that company does it is in your best interest. The more you promote them the better they are going to get. So for example the bigger are numbers are the more able we are to work pricing down.
Are there any items that aren’t currently in Nerd Block that you would like to add in? Comics or posters for example.
Yeah there are. I really love this question because this gets me really excited because it is something we have been talking about internally now for a while. Once you start to surpass twenty, thirty thousand subscribers what happens it that you’re having to manufacture these products with the companies. So let’s use Funko for an example, we love Funko they make great products. Now likely if I said to them “I want a Disney Monsters Inc Funko Pop” they likely don’t have forty thousand of those so they have to manufacture it and ship it directly from where it is being manufactured. Well the effort put into the manufacturing that one item is the same regardless of which character we chose. So what’s really cool now is we’re able to look at past items that they might not make anymore and since our volumes are so high that they are able to go back there and manufacture them again. It used to be an issue, looking at those products and saying “Boy, we sure do like those products but they don’t make them anymore” but now with our volumes we are able to go to these companies and say “Hey, can you revive these products for us because we want to put in an order for forty or fifty thousand” and there always jumping on this. I mean it is the same amount of effort. I’m pretty excited to say that in the next couple of months we’ve got some product, some really good product that was only offered for a very short time, a long time ago and it’s just an incredible product we are reviving because it just really fits with what we are doing. We are moving into that phase were all those products we once dreamed are becoming a complete reality. It is just a really fun time, I was just saying to my partners yesterday that the products we have from now till Christmas and they just get better and better. I can’t wait for the product to arrive so that I can personally get one into my office.
Do you think that Nerd Block is just going to get bigger and bigger?
I think so yeah, I think it is only something that is going to increase over time I think if I can be honest subscription boxes are really hitting their stride right now. Subscription boxes are doing really well. Could that market turn? Sure, sure it could turn very quickly I mean you see products coming out all the time the truth is though only recently have I seen commercials on national TV for various subscription boxes which lets me know they are only just coming into their own. Let’s look at North America on its own which has got about 600 million people. Out of those 600 million people I’d wager that at least 50 million of them would be interested in a nerdy, geek subscription service. Which says to me that the challenge isn’t so much keeping up the numbers, the challenge is to find a way to get in front of all those people’s eyes so that you can let them know that you exist. I think that what stops a lot of people from subscribing is that they simply don’t know that we are out there. So I think the future is up and it’s only going to grow.