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The Thing That Would Not Die

Toy maker Playing Mantis had a devout online community. So why did they almost kill it?
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Model Community

This inventive toy maker has an on-line community like you dream about. So how come they almost killed it?

A short time ago, in a galaxy about 90 miles from Chicago, there was a hot little toy company that had a mysterious competitive weapon: an on-line customer community that really smoked. Only the rulers of the company didn't quite get what a powerful weapon they had. It took a gutsy employee (with a knack for being really aggravating) to show how the right interactive Internet presence could help the business generate ideas, solve problems, and tap into customer passion for its products.

The company: Playing Mantis Inc. of South Bend, Ind., manufacturer of die-cast cars, plastic-model kits, and action figures. The employee: Lisa Greco. In the physical world she is the company's customer-service manager, opinionated and outspoken despite a Fargo-like midwestern cheer. On-line, however, she is something more mighty to behold. As moderator of the bulletin board dedicated to the company's model kits, this single mom is a nurturing guide for the adult men who come to her bulletin board to talk about toys. She is Mistress of Monster Models. The Queen of Styrene.

Simply put, Greco represents a customer's pipeline into the heart of the company. That's an incredible boon to hobbyists accustomed to traditional toy makers, which guard product information as if they were Napoleon Solo protecting nuclear firing codes. Playing Mantis, on the other hand, is available 24/7 on the boards. Anyone can ask questions or find out about new products. Moreover, toy-heads can safely indulge their love of the trappings of childhood without fear of being scorned as terminal nerds.

What Playing Mantis gets is even more valuable. Through the boards it can reach the burning core of its customer base with company news, promotions, and quick-and-dirty survey questions. It can vet product ideas with real consumers before committing a dime to development. Last year alone, board members promoted new products, provided remedies for Web-site problems, and helped bring Playing Mantis to a new understanding of who was actually buying its stuff.

And to think the company almost threw the whole thing away.

Before we tell that story, let's consider a simple proposition: In this world, men don't grow up. That is no expert opinion, nor is it the result of painstaking research. It's just common sense. Ask anyone who ever married one.

Once we can agree on that, the whole story falls into place: why Tom Lowe, son of one of the world's best-known entrepreneurs, started a company dedicated to reissuing lines of toys from the 1960s; how the company became successful despite the toy industry's reputation for a competitive viciousness usually reserved for totalitarian nations; and how both Lowe and Playing Mantis discovered the secret formula (wouldn't be much of a tale if it didn't have a secret formula) for building a vibrant, successful on-line customer community -- the Holy Grail of all E-commerce companies.

Here's the thing: most American men never, ever lose their passion for the playthings of their past. That's why store shelves are packed with classic hits of the '60s -- Hot Wheels cars, Etch A Sketch, and the Duncan Butterfly Yo-Yo, to name a few. Toy makers know that parents make the big buying decisions and that fathers especially never lose affection for the toys they loved as kids. Which brings us to Lowe and his company.

Walk into Playing Mantis and you'll see drab offices, just like those of any typical light-manufacturing company, but with one exception. There are toys everywhere. Glass cases in the lobby display build-ups of the company's Polar Lights line of model kits (mostly foot-tall figures of monsters, spies, and space robots). The walls are festooned with test shots and lineups of the company's Johnny Lightning die-cast toy race cars. Employees' shelves are packed with Pezzes and other playthings.

Lowe's own modest office is especially crammed with goodies. His shelves are filled with Playing Mantis products, and the walls are covered with framed photos of NASCAR champions and muscle cars. But Lowe's real treasures are stowed behind a Cyclone security fence in the shipping bay. That's where the boss keeps his personal stash of collectibles. He has enough Johnny Lightnings and Captain Actions there to make a grown man -- should there be such a thing -- swoon.

But for all the play factor, the corporate headquarters is still basically a cube farm in the unglamorous burg of South Bend. Playing Mantis, founded in 1994 and still tiny by toy-industry standards, has only 40 employees and revenues of $15 million to $20 million. Most of the employees are locals. Half have been hired in the past two years.

It doesn't take too many strides for Lowe to reach any corner of his empire. Lanky, sleepy-eyed, renowned for his prankster sense of humor, he ambles around the building like a big kid. Stopping in his product-development department -- a couple of banquet tables pushed together -- he checks out some handcrafted prototypes from a new line of toy cars tentatively called "The Dreamboats" -- family sedans from the 1950s, real Bulgemobiles. Lowe picks up a bloated Chrysler and offers his highest praise: "Rock on!" (Well, it's a toy company, not the English-lit department at Columbia.)

Lowe, 40, is firmly grounded in the tail-end baby-boomer demographic his company serves. He grew up in Cassopolis, Mich., which everybody calls Cass, amid the richest cultural influences of the '60s: Mad magazine, monster movies, and good old-fashioned network television -- oh, yes, and social protest and the Vietnam War. His father was the well-known entrepreneur Edward Lowe, inventor of kitty litter (somebody had to) and, by a number of accounts, a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy. Lowe grew up mostly in the care of his mother, who, wonderfully, did not throw away his old toys.

Never straying from his midwestern roots, Lowe graduated from Miami University of Ohio, earned his master's in marketing at DePaul University in Chicago, and married his high school sweetheart. He sold for a food broker and did marketing work for Domino's Pizza, but the corporate life was not much fun. "I was tired of being told what to do," he says.

In 1987, in Dundee, Ill., Lowe started his first company: Safe Care Products. Financing the effort with his own savings, Lowe was the company at the beginning. From his basement he developed products he knew he could sell to mass merchandisers. He had one hit toy -- a Velcro football called the WhattaCatch -- but most of his 30-some products were anonymous, you-never-thought-you-needed-it-until-you-saw-it-on-a-store-shelf items, such as a bathtub cushion and a Nintendo video-game lock called HomeworkFirst. The best stuff was yet to come.

By the early 1990s, Lowe's generation was rediscovering the toys they thought they had outgrown. In those pre-eBay days, the bible of this loose society of arrested adolescents was a magazine called Toy Shop, filled with classifieds featuring goodies from the preceding 40 years or so. Reading it, Lowe noticed that a lot of the stuff he had played with when he was a kid was selling for big bucks.

That demand looked like one hell of an opportunity. Take Hot Wheels, for example. Introduced by Mattel in the mid-'60s ( You can tell it's Mattel. It's swell!), these little die-cast cars were engineered to roll freely and fast. They were a sensation -- and still are. Although new Hot Wheels are on store shelves, some versions from the '60s command hundreds of dollars each.

Down in his mother's basement lay all the toys Lowe had discarded back when he discovered girls, including about 50 Hot Wheels and 8 cars from the Johnny Lightning line. He initiated a trademark search. Mattel had a death grip on the Hot Wheels name, but the Johnny Lightning name had been abandoned years before.


"Polar Lights is very special to me. ...You've rekindled the joy I once felt when buying these kits. ...You're the only company who I feel a part of." --Lou H.


Through an ad in Toy Shop, Lowe says, he bought a collection that included 30 original Johnny Lightning cars. He brought the swag to Wal-Mart, notorious for being tougher than the A-Team when it comes to taking on new products. "Whattaya got here? A flea market?" the buyer roared. "I'll give ya five minutes."

Lowe explained that he was going to re-create toys from the '60s. "I was there for an hour and 15 minutes, explaining what my plan was," he says.

Wal-Mart bought in. Toys R Us did, too. Lowe was ready to rock. He sent his original Johnny Lightnings to China with a simple directive: copy these. And in 1995, Safe Care was reborn as Playing Mantis, a name he chose to be clever and kid friendly. "I always liked playing with praying mantises when I was young," Lowe says, illustrating the difference between a Cass native and, say, some kid from Brooklyn.

Lowe has always had one measure for deciding which products Playing Mantis will pursue: "If it isn't cool, we won't do it," he says. He means it, too. This is his company all the way; he owns it free and clear. There isn't even any long-term debt ("Just a working line of credit," says chief financial officer Randy Miller), so the company has the resources to choose and develop its own products. "Being private is an important advantage. We can do what we want," Lowe says.

What he wants to do is to diversify enough to fight off challenges from the Hasbros and Mattels of the world. (Playing Mantis has already survived trademark-infringement litigation with Mattel. The suit was settled out of court.) He now has 2 solid brands; he'd like to build up to 10.

And he has two secret weapons. The first: customers such as the guys on the bulletin board, gleeful pseudo-grown-ups who share his child-of-the-'60s sensibility. The second: his company's ability to spin on a dime and give those guys what Lowe knows they want.

That's how he decided to revive a line of monster models originated in the '60s by a company called Aurora Plastics Corp. In those years, Aurora models were bigger than Star Trek. Aurora produced model kits of classic monsters (like the Wolf Man and the Mummy) as well as characters from television (like Batman and Superman). And did they ever sell! "Those guys were easily putting out 200,000 or 300,000 units at a run. I'm sure some of the best-sellers, like Frankenstein and Dracula, were up there with sales of 2 million or 3 million apiece," says Thomas Graham, professor of American history at Flagler College, in St. Augustine, Fla., and author of Greenberg's Guide to Aurora Model Kits. "At the time, plastic models of all sorts were sold everywhere -- in candy shops, drugstores, bicycle stores -- and I even found mention of one mortuary. They were easy to find, they were inexpensive, and pretty much all your friends were building them."

By the 1980s, Aurora was gone, a victim of bad business decisions. With it went the entire market for monster models. The models weren't missed until their original fans grew older and started searching for the icons of childhood -- a pursuit that Graham claims is healthy. "The people I know who are living long and prospering are those who still enjoy playing," he says. "Playing with toys in particular."

Take Lowe, for example. He built Aurora models as a kid and remembered one with special fondness: the haunted house from The Addams Family TV series. "I loved it," he says. So in 1995, under the name Polar Lights (Get it? Aurora? Polar Lights?), Lowe had the kit re-created, offering it as a $60 exclusive at the high-ticket FAO Schwarz toy-store chain.

The collector's market went nuts. Original Addams Family house kits were selling in Toy Shop for at least $500. A year later, when the remade kit went into wide release at less than $25, a new market was born. Make no mistake: the days of 300,000-unit runs of a monster model are over. Most Polar Lights kits are produced in runs of 15,000 units. Yet Polar Lights has been successful enough for the line to be expanded to include 60-odd kits. To date, the most successful is a new original done in the Aurora style: a model of the Jupiter 2 spaceship, the interstellar Winnebago featured on the TV series Lost in Space.

Playing Mantis launched Polar Lights just as intelligent life was being discovered in cyberspace. In late 1995 and early 1996 -- through bulletin boards on Prodigy, America Online, and other services -- collectors, craftspeople, and genre fans were discovering whole communities of like-minded souls.

Lowe and his managers caught on to the phenomenon -- sort of. In 1995 they stuck up a quick site, just some early brochureware. But for serious marketing, Playing Mantis held fast to traditional methods -- newsletters and print ads. Part of the reason for going slow on the Web was that Lowe was no fan of online customer interaction. "I would do chats and look at boards on AOL, but I found that I didn't get a lot of new ideas from them," he says. "Besides, there are some vicious people out there. Some of the employees who left would get on the boards and say things that just weren't true. There were competitors who got on there just to screw around with you. I might go on to see what's being said, but in terms of being Tom Lowe on the boards, I don't do it anymore."

But Greco had no such reservations. She and Hank Hagquist, an outside contractor who was Playing Mantis's original Web master, were old friends from Riley High in South Bend. Hagquist was running his own site, called Hobbytalk, for fans of radio-controlled car models. He talked to Greco about starting a section devoted to Playing Mantis products. "I thought they could be a good subject," he says. "I thought the people who bought or collected their products were real enthusiasts, people with a passion."

In 1998, Hagquist established a board for Polar Lights, moderated by Greco. Dave Metzner, the company's product-development manager for model kits, helped Greco answer board members' questions. But it was she who ruled the board. Judiciously leaking product news, insisting on cordial relations and polite language, Greco -- signing missives with an enthusiastic "Moi!" -- gathered a loyal cadre of fans to her cyberclubhouse. Yet even after hundreds of members had signed on, she didn't fully understand the potency of the boards until Polar Lights released that model of the Jupiter 2.

The kit, enthusiastically received, had a flaw: a hatch inside the ship was upside down. That detail would escape 99.9% of normal buyers. But this was the Internet, where obsessive behavior hangs its hat. Board members were all over the error, and Metzner, with Lowe's approval, decided to correct the flaw for the second run of the kit.

The online critics felt as if they had spoken and the company had responded. True enough, says Metzner. "If it hadn't been for people telling us about it, it wouldn't have been fixed," he says. It was the kind of action that converts loyal customers into devoted fans.

As the online community jelled, its members got very comfortable with one another. Their exchanges strayed way beyond toys. In the course of a limerick contest initiated by Greco ( There once was a monster named Frankie, in the mood for a little hanky-panky... What say we just don't go there?), one member posted a message revealing that his wife had left him. "Why share it out here like this?" he wrote. "I don't know. Thanks for the support out here, you guys."

Greco responded immediately -- "We're here for you" -- and the board members pitched in. It brought home for Greco just how much this community meant to its members. The board was a sanctuary that connected them to the company and to one another far more deeply than she had realized.


"As I reflect back on my hobby experiences for the year, one of the most satisfying has been the relationship formed by a large number of us with Polar Lights. It is not their products that, I feel, sets them apart from other model companies. It is their devotion to the consumer." --PCModeler.com


Unfortunately, Lowe was not frequenting this board (or boards that were set up later for Johnny Lightning and Captain Action fans), so he saw little of all that. What he did see was that Greco and Metzner were spending an awful lot of time on the Internet. It didn't seem as though their involvement with the boards was adding much to the business. "That's what they were doing with their time?" Lowe remembers asking. "Talking to people about their problems, which have nothing to do with model kits? So we took a very hard look at that."

At the time, in 1998, Playing Mantis was already reexamining its entire customer-service function. By 1999 some customer-service staffers were being asked to do more active selling.

That's how it happened that the boards almost died. It started with Hagquist, who was still hosting the virtual community on his site. "At some point I was saying that here we have this multimillion-dollar company building its name for free," he says. "C'mon, guys, feed a little back." So he gave Greco a deadline: By the end of February, start paying him $50 a month for each of the three boards.

Greco filed all the appropriate paperwork, never imagining there'd be a problem. But Miller wouldn't approve the expense at first. Look at it from his point of view. For one thing, it is often his job, as with any CFO, to be the one who says no when it comes to using company resources. For another, he and Lowe were already wondering what the true cost of the boards was and whether they were worthwhile. "It wasn't really a financial decision as much as a decision regarding use of time," Miller says. "Intangibles like that make for the toughest decisions."

As the deadline approached, Greco grew nervous. If the boards shut down, it would be a disaster -- and not just for the company, which would lose a resource that she felt hadn't even begun to pay off. "This community, and I think most communities, are built on trust," she says. "These boards are a refuge for the guys, a place where they can be themselves. Shut it down, even for a day, and you create an uncertainty from which the community might never recover."

She went to Metzner for advice. Of all people he best knew what was happening on the boards. Together they decided that even if they had to pay the fee themselves, they'd keep at least the model-kit board running. But first Greco wanted to reach out to Lowe directly. It wasn't politically correct, and it would anger her managers, but it wouldn't be the first time she had gone right to the top. (Greco was once a guard in a prison for men, and she prides herself on being pretty tough.) "I felt I owed the fight to the guys out there," she says.

On February 22, Greco posted a new topic on the Polar Lights board. Under the title "Hypothetical Question" she wrote, "Good morning, guys! Everyone have a cup of coffee? Anyone bring the donuts Time for a little sidebar discussion. SUPPOSE, just suppose, this BB would cease to exist. How would you all feel about that?"

That week the boards hummed. Members figured that something was going on in South Bend. Member Steve Iversen, who under the nom-de-Web CultTVMan operates a popular site for builders of science-fiction models, E-mailed his list of 700 subscribers, urging them to register their support. In post after post, members expressed their need for the board:

"Polar Lights is very special to me. ... You've rekindled the joy I once felt when buying these kits. ... You're the ONLY company who I feel a part of." --Lou H.

"It helps us to be kids again. ... It's easier to be a kid again when you see there are a bunch of other people doing it: you feel less guilty/silly!" --David Redknap

"As I reflect back on my hobby experiences for the year, one of the most satisfying has been the relationship formed by a large number of us with Polar Lights. It is not their products that, I feel, sets them apart from other model companies. It is their devotion to the consumer." --PCModeler.com

Last updated: Mar 1, 2000




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