Our Head of Global Business Development and avid toy enthusiast, Rodney Ramlochan, continues his ongoing series on the action figure community, highlighting key manufacturers, retailers, and YouTube podcasters. In a recent interview, Ramlochan sat down with Ted Yeakel and Aaron Yancey, the co-founders of the e-retailer Hella Dope Toys, to delve into the expansion of their online store and their associated podcast.
Childhood Friends Redefining Toy Collecting
In a world where nostalgia blends seamlessly with the thrill of the hunt, childhood friends Ted Yeakel and Aaron Yancey, from Columbus, Ohio, embark on a journey to rewrite the rules of toy collecting. They are the dynamic duo behind Hella Dope Toys, a unique enterprise in the ever-expanding world of collectibles. As we sit down for an exclusive conversation with them, it’s evident that their story transcends toys – it’s a tale of enduring friendship, entrepreneurship, and unwavering passion.
Aaron and Ted’s middle school encounter sparked a lifelong friendship that endured through shared experiences. Over nearly three decades, their bond strengthened, and they became each other’s confidants, even standing as best men at each other’s weddings. Their journey eventually led to their mutual passion for toys, but first, let’s explore their Ohio roots.
Aaron and Ted grew up in a northwest Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood that had seen better days. Despite the challenges posed by a shifting landscape and increasing crime, they were fortunate to have spent their formative years in a relatively safe environment. Their enduring friendship was rooted in shared interests, starting with a love for cheese pizza and professional wrestling. Aaron recalls a pivotal moment, saying, “I visited his house, and he was enjoying his usual cheese pizza. Surprisingly, WCW Nitro was on, and I exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, I love wrestling too.’ That’s when our friendship solidified.”
Their enthusiasm for toys also played a significant role, especially because access to toy stores was limited. Aaron explains, “Toy stores were a rarity for us, mainly limited to Christmas and birthdays. So, we spent our time outdoors, channeling our youthful energy into creating adventures with neighborhood kids.” While their love for toys would re-emerge in their adult lives, let’s save that part of the story for later.
Clearancing and the Birth of Hella Dope Toys
Hella Dope Toys had a surprising origin, rooted in what Ted calls “clearancing.” It began with selling discounted items from big-box stores to finance a coveted big-ticket item: the Hasbro Marvel Legends Sentinel figure. Ted’s resourcefulness came into play as he sought affordable toys due to limited spending capacity. He realized he could buy cheap and sell for a profit. However, what truly transformed their venture was the heartfelt gratitude from customers. Ted remembers, “People were thanking me, which struck me as odd. Mothers would say, ‘This figure was hard to find, and my kid wanted it for Christmas.’ People were genuinely appreciative.” Aaron chimes in, “We came to realize we weren’t just flipping toys; we were providing a service that brought happiness to people’s lives.” This newfound sense of purpose fueled their passion.
The duo lives by three core principles from the inception of their business. First, they seek to address issues within the toy-collecting community. This problem-solving mindset drives them to offer unique products, often at competitive prices, meticulously packaged and swiftly delivered. Second, they prioritize customer value. It’s not just about selling toys; it’s about providing a holistic experience beyond the transaction. Exceptional customer service makes purchasing enjoyable and satisfying. Lastly, they embrace continuous improvement, recognizing that excellence is an ever-moving target. They relentlessly refine their operations to surpass customer expectations.
Power-Con and a Turning Point
Power-Con, the annual celebration of all things He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, became a pivotal event in the Hella Dope Toys story. What started as a fan’s trip quickly became an opportunity to network with prominent toy companies. Aaron recalls their experience at Power-Con 2022, saying, “Our original intent was just to go as fans. We didn’t have any toys to sell.” But his fearless approach to networking changed the game. “We walked up to some tables and introduced ourselves, explaining what we were trying to do.”
Their interactions with influential toy companies like NECA and Spero Studios opened doors and initiated conversations that would change their trajectory. Aaron emphasizes, “It took a lot of talking to make people understand that we were serious about this, not just setting up an eBay store.” Ted adds, “We planted our flag at Power-Con and walked away with a stack of business cards. It was the turning point. Suddenly, we had conversations with people we idolized and those who were creating remarkable figures.”
Challenges on the Road to Success
As with any entrepreneurial journey, Hella Dope Toys encountered its share of challenges. Aaron admits that their biggest challenge was the financial aspect. “We started with nothing and relied on our own money to fund everything. Our business model didn’t include a buffer, a safety net.” Additionally, the timing of their acquisitions posed challenges. Smaller retailers often received sought-after items after larger chains like Target and Walmart. Aaron explains, “By the time we get these items, they’ve often gone on clearance at bigger stores. It’s a race to stay ahead.” Another challenge they faced was building brand awareness and trust. Aaron and Ted took the initiative to send gifts to YouTubers and toy enthusiasts to introduce their store to a wider audience. The pivotal moment came when the 3POA Podcast, a popular YouTube channel, featured their products and promoted Hella Dope Toys. This endorsement significantly boosted their credibility and visibility.
Building Trust and Transparency
Aaron and Ted emphasized the vital role of trust-building with their customers, particularly as a small company in a competitive market. Transparency stands as their cornerstone strategy. They’ve humanized their brand through platforms like YouTube and social media, sharing their journey, experiences, and occasional missteps. This candid approach has eased potential customers’ comfort in interacting with Hella Dope Toys, instilling confidence in their brand.
Aaron and Ted initially didn’t see themselves as “YouTubers” when discussing their channel. Their early episodes followed structured scripts, but they soon discovered that the most captivating shows embraced spontaneous, unscripted conversations. In their initial episodes, they sought guest speakers to boost visibility, much like they did for their toy store’s promotion. However, as they delved deeper into podcasting, they recognized the need for a more organic approach. Ted explained, drawing parallels to wrestling events that require a draw to fill seats, “We needed to borrow some clout.” Initially, having guests ensured content, but it became evident that the formula grew stale.
The Hella Dope Toys Podcast underwent an evolution, shifting towards organic, unscripted discussions with guests. They aimed to engage with individuals beyond their toy-related endeavors, making their YouTube channel more enjoyable and strengthening their connection with viewers. Key to their podcast’s success is the interaction with the audience. They emphasize acknowledging and engaging with viewers and listeners by actively participating in chats, mentioning names, and recognizing contributions, fostering a sense of community that keeps people returning. Ted highlighted their desire for the audience to feel appreciated, setting them apart and nurturing a loyal, engaged community.
Looking to the Future
Aaron shared his forward-looking perspective, admitting to living day by day while outlining short-term goals. Their primary focus remains on continuous business expansion, learning from each year’s experiences to enhance their offerings. Approaching the crucial fourth quarter, especially during the Black Friday shopping rush, they’re gearing up for increased demand. Additionally, they’re determined to engage with their audience directly by participating in more conventions and toy shows, having found Power-Con to be a significant event. They’ve expressed interest in exploring other conventions in the future.
Hella Dope Toys’ long-term vision goes beyond their podcast. Aaron envisions creating a unified toy enthusiast community, uniting various sub-communities under the Hella Dope umbrella. Their goal is to establish an inclusive space where toy lovers of all interests within the toy world can coexist and collaborate. Aaron believes that their shared passion for toys unites people, both as kids and adults. He hopes to merge different toy-related communities and offer a platform for everyone to share their enthusiasm.
Aaron and Ted are aware that juggling their full-time jobs, family responsibilities, and their passion for toys and podcasting can be challenging. However, their unwavering passion, love for the toy-collecting community, and willingness to adapt drive them to continue. Aaron emphasized that when you genuinely love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work, and that’s what keeps them going. As they look ahead to the future, they understand that success requires providing value, embracing failure as a learning opportunity, and keeping an open mind. They’re excited about what lies ahead and remain committed to their goal of building a thriving and inclusive community of toy collectors. Whether you’re a toy collector or simply curious about their journey, it’s clear that Hella Dope Toys is a company to watch in the coming years.
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