The following is a cross-post from Reddit. We made a thread on r/Entrepreneur on July 21, 2021, which was received better than we could have ever expected! You can find the original post here.
David Silva makes dinosaurs for a living. They’re lovingly made, extremely detailed, anatomically accurate, and built to scale.
You might think that this is an interesting hobby, but for David, it’s both a hobby and a business. Between his two Kickstarter campaigns and the pledge manager campaigns that followed them, he raised $1,371,289. Not counting eCommerce. Not counting retail.
I don’t know about you, but any time I try to do arts and crafts, it comes out looking like a small child did it.
But hearing David’s story, I knew I had to get him on the phone. I wanted to learn about how he got started, how he built the business, and what he learned along the way. What I found out was fascinating and enlightening, and I wanted to share with everyone at r/Entrepreneur!
How I met David
You might wonder how I got in touch with a guy like David. I admit that I never even backed one of his campaigns, though I’ll probably buy some of his action figures for my brother’s Christmas gift.
I’m posting from a company account here, as you might have noticed. David is a client of ours – we help him ship out dinosaurs so he doesn’t have to hold his inventory at home and live in Jurassic Park. The sales guys said, “you should reach out to this guy, might be worth doing a podcast or something.”
And so I sent a cold email, and he graciously responded and gave me an hour of his time!
How David got into dinos
David has worked for the toy industry for a long time. He started sculpting toys in 2005 and has worked for Hasbro, McFarlane, and NECA over the course of his career. In fact, he was working for NECA up until May 2021. And the only reason he left was because he was too busy with his own company. He visits his former colleagues frequently.
His early years in toy sculpting helped him to recognize his passion for creating action figures. At the same time, he was also discovering a passion for wildlife, and was looking for a way to connect the two.
In 2009, he had the idea to start creating realistic dinosaur action figures. He had a sense that there was a market for these that hasn’t been tapped into yet. His exact words to me were, “people love dinosaurs, and they love action figures.” Yet they weren’t on the shelves. That got him thinking.
Seven years of struggle
Whenever you see that some sensible idea doesn’t exist on the market, there’s usually a good reason for it. That good reason may or may not steer you away from trying to serve that market, depending on what it is.
It was again back in 2009 that David started making model kits specifically for realistic dinosaurs. He took them to trade shows and pitched them to different companies.
Many companies were interested, and over the years, several took preliminary steps to turn his craftwork into products. He even had the backing of his managers at work, who had the idea to pursue dinosaur action figures. But nothing meaningful ever materialized from his pitching. Every toymaker would inevitably back out.
Rejection upon rejection upon rejection.
So what on earth was going on? Turns out, the action figure industry at this time was really focusing on licensed action figures. Why take a chance on something risky and unknown when you can make something for Disney or Warner Bros. or some other massive franchise?
It’s at this point that many gilted creatives curse the industry. But David didn’t do that. He was understanding, and he knew these companies were trying to be financially responsible and mitigate their risks. After all, the precipitous rise in the price of oil in the mid-aughts completely changed the action figure industry to where taking on risk was verboten.
Sure, there was always Jurassic Park, but the dinos for that movie series lacked the realism that David wanted. Because of the structure of the action figure industry at this time, not only were toymakers unwilling to take on the risk of making his dream a reality, but they were unable to execute it anyway. There were vanishingly few qualified laborers capable of sculpting such realistic dinosaurs.
After seven years, David decided to strike it out on his own. He wanted to see if he was right. Thankfully, his employer NECA was gracious enough to connect him with talented people in the industry. This helped him avoid many of the manufacturing and supply chain issues that strike down hopeful entrepreneurs.
David’s twin Kickstarter successes
To say that David’s first Kickstarter campaign in 2016 was a success is an exercise in comedic understatement. Beasts of the Mesozoic: Raptor Series raised $351,753 from 2,661 backers. He then raised another $361,534 on BackerKit, bringing the total funds raised to $713,287 before the preorder store’s closure.
When he launched his campaign, he was surprised to see how quickly it grew. He wasn’t very familiar with Kickstarter, but he worked hard to understand how to use the platform. He knew there was an audience for dinosaurs, and he knew that the market was larger than the one for resin kits. That said, the sheer scale of the response surprised him.
He posted daily on his Facebook page, which helped build an audience. But other than a few basic business-building steps, much of the success came from word-of-mouth. His intuition was right – there was a real market need and he was better suited to meet it than any other market solution out there.
If you look at the popular Kickstarter analytics tool, Kicktraq, one of the things I find striking is just how steady the pledges were. He didn’t run ads to smooth out the slow middle 26 days of the 30-day campaign. He didn’t follow the typical Kickstarter arc of a heavy first 48 hours and a heavy last 48 hours. The pledges dripped in constantly, leaving him with only one day where he made under $3,000.
This is part of why his BackerKit preorder campaign did so well afterward too. It gave backers more time to spread the word, and people continued to jump in well after the campaign was over.
Fast forward to 2019, when David launched a second campaign, which raised a total of $658,002 and counting between Kickstarter and BackerKit.
You can put your phone calculator away – I’ll save you the trouble. Through crowdfunding for these two campaigns, David raised a grand total of $1,371,289. And that’s just what I know about from public data alone.
What’s even more amazing is that David’s operation is much bigger than even that. On top of Kickstarter, he’s also averaging 8-10 orders per day during the slow season for eCommerce – more during the holidays. He’s also in widespread retail distribution, too, and it’s anyone’s guess just how many sales that could be bringing in.
He’s since hired some more help and has been more active on social media. But he still markets with a light touch, and his plan can be summarized as:
- Make something amazing that people want.
- Do it better than anyone else.
- Talk about it publicly.
Why David’s dinos are unique
Given the extraordinary success of David’s first Kickstarter campaign, you may wonder what makes his business so special. What is the unique selling proposition, after all?
Well, put simply, there were no scientifically accurate, highly detailed, articulated dinosaur action figures at the time. Not one.
Figurines that don’t move, sure. Dinos that break all the laws of logical anatomy, sure. But realistic dinosaurs that look and play like a textbook come to life? That was new. And since you’re reading this, you know it sold incredibly well.
David sculpted each of the dinosaurs in the Raptor Series by hand, making castelline models. By the time he started work on the Ceratopsian & Tyrannosaurus Series, he had started collaborating with other sculptors both traditional and digital. But one fact remains – every single dinosaur in the Beasts of the Mesozoic line bears the handiwork of David Silva and his team.
These sculpted parts are then molded and cast into resin, which preserves the human touch like a fossil in amber. Factories create metal tooling molds which allow his work to be manufactured at scale.
The entire process of creating models takes 6-12 months for each individual mold, and sometimes longer depending on the figurines. Every dinosaur is carefully crafted based on real anatomy, and David himself handles quality assurance to make sure every action figure is up to his high standards.
What’s David up to now?
David is currently working on rolling out the Beasts of the Mesozoic: Tyrannosaurus line of action figures. You can see the updates on his website under the News section, along with other works in progress and paint jobs.
The Tyrannosaurus line of action figures will be launching on Kickstarter in September of this year. I’m looking forward to seeing how they turn out!
Even in the light of massive success, complacency isn’t in David’s nature. He feels like the success could disappear tomorrow, so he doesn’t take it for granted. (This is a very common experience for successful people, and you may find yourself feeling the same way someday, if you don’t already.)
What David really enjoys about his work is seeing his ideas physically manifested as reality. He particularly enjoys seeing photos of people using the action figures on social media.
What we can learn from David
While financial success isn’t David’s primary motivation, it’s clear that success has changed the way he perceives time. He says that it was during his Kickstarter campaign in 2016 that he first started to see time as currency. He began to ask himself “what am I getting in return for these 5 minutes?”
It’s not necessarily a question of finance, but rather of impact.
David won’t tell you to read 7 Habits or 4-Hour Workweek, but he’s clearly absorbed many of the productivity tips that you see passed around on r/Entrepreneur.
His routine, in particular, is very telling. He wakes up at 6, sculpts for an hour and a half, exercises, and has breakfast. He doesn’t use the internet until 10 – he starts his day with an act of creativity (and productivity) and takes care of his well-being before using the computer.
He then handles whatever he needs to from there. All the small business tasks you’re probably well familiar with – customer service, social media, and so on. He might do some model painting if he has a gap in his day.
Asked for advice, David gave me a few tidbits which we could all learn from:
- Treat your campaign or product launch like an event (which it is)!
- Don’t do something for the money. Do it because you want to.
- Try something before you know how everything is going to work.
- When you do well, reinvest into the business.
I learned a few other things that he didn’t explicitly say too. For one, box off time for what’s critical and do it first. Delegate whatever you don’t specifically need to do yourself. Watch how you start your day, because a few nasty emails can really mess up your mood.
Most of all, whenever you feel like you’re not good enough, take a moment. Stop and think about what you’d rather be doing, and if you feel like you’re on the right path, keep going. Sometimes you’ll feel like a fake, and that’s just life. That’s why it’s important to do something you love, or at least like and find useful, in addition to making cash.
Thanks for taking the time to read this whole post. I hope you found it useful and inspiring! If you have any questions, ask me anything and I’ll do my best to answer.
And, of course, if you want to check out what David’s made and maybe buy some yourself, you can find all his action figures here.
EDIT 1: The more I read the comments, the more clear it becomes that there’s a whole other element to David’s success: his customer service. He’s very proactive about make sure that every product is quality and that every customer is satisfied. “Be nice to customers” may not be earth-shattering advice, but not enough companies do it, so the ones that do stand out!