Our Head of Global Business Development and avid toy enthusiast, Rodney Ramlochan, continues his ongoing series on the action figure community, highlighting key independent toy lines, manufacturers, retailers, and YouTube podcasters. In a recent interview, Ramlochan sat down with Bobby Vala, the owner and operator of Valaverse, the powerhouse behind Action Force, a line of modern military-inspired action figures.
From Dreamer to Action Figure Maestro
Dreamers abound in the realm of collectibles, but few transform those dreams into tangible action figures. Meet Bobby Vala, the visionary behind Valaverse and the creative genius behind the modern-day Action Force line. In this exclusive interview, Bobby Vala invites us to trace his path from a childhood passion to his triumphant entry into the world of collector-based action figures.
A Dream of Comics: Art Meets Industry
Bobby’s remarkable journey doesn’t begin in a typical toy store but rather with a dream of illustrating comic books. After completing high school, he embarked on the path to becoming a comic book artist, enrolling at the prestigious Joe Kubert Art School. His undeniable passion for comics and art soon collided with the competitive nature of the comic book industry, resulting in a growing collection of rejection letters on his bedroom corkboard. Yet, as often happens in great stories, success arrived when he least expected it. Bobby discovered his break when he stopped actively pursuing it, and fate steered him toward a career in the toy industry that would shape his future.
Balancing Design and Engineering
Bobby’s love for toys was no secret, and a friend’s suggestion to explore toy design marked a turning point. When Bobby decided to return to school to pursue a career in toy making, the curriculum wasn’t solely focused on artistic design. While attending the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), Bobby gained valuable insights into the engineering aspects of toy production. Courses on methods, materials, plastics, tooling, and production became part of his arsenal of knowledge.
However, FIT’s emphasis leaned heavily towards the design aspect, and Bobby, always the well-rounded enthusiast, desired a comprehensive understanding of the toy industry. He recognized that to excel, he needed design skills and engineering expertise. His passion drove him to seek wisdom from industry veterans during internships at Hasbro.
Learning from the Pros
With the assistance of his friend’s brother at Hasbro, Bobby entered the world of toy design during the Transformers movie frenzy of 2007. His time at Hasbro wasn’t just about being a designer; he became a sponge, eagerly soaking up insights from seasoned professionals. To him, the invaluable knowledge these veterans possessed couldn’t be found in textbooks or training modules; it was acquired through years of hands-on experience, and he was determined to tap into it.
He admits to being somewhat of a nuisance, bombarding these experts with questions, but that relentless pursuit of knowledge would prove to be his secret weapon in the competitive toy industry. Armed with insights from the old guard, Bobby left no stone unturned in his quest to understand the industry’s inner workings. His artistic talent and passion for action figures quickly caught Hasbro’s attention.
GI Joe Dreams
His journey at Hasbro was remarkable, with stints on iconic brands like Marvel, Star Wars, and Transformers. While Bobby’s commitment to Hasbro’s flagship toy lines was evident, his heart remained devoted to one toy line in particular – GI Joe. He was even entrusted with creating the first-ever six-inch GI Joe action figure line, a dream come true. However, a GI Joe movie cancellation led to the project’s discontinuation, a setback that couldn’t diminish Bobby’s passion for the brand.
In 2018, a massive layoff at Hasbro reshaped Bobby’s path once again. Undeterred, he decided to pursue his toy passion independently. A friend’s suggestion to create his own toy line ignited a new dream – to resurrect Action Force, a classic toy brand lost in obscurity. Action Force, once a rival to GI Joe, had faded into the shadows when Hasbro acquired its parent company, Palitoy. In 2005, Hasbro stopped renewing the Action Force trademark, leaving it dormant for years. Bobby saw an opportunity to breathe new life into this iconic brand. For Bobby, GI Joe is not just a competitor; it’s a lifelong love affair. He maintains a 300-square-foot room in his house dedicated to GI Joe, filled with every figure, prototype, and unreleased gem. His deep appreciation for GI Joe led him to purchase the trademark for Steel Brigade, ensuring its legacy lives on.
Resurrecting Action Force
In 2019, Bobby launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the revival of Action Force. The campaign exceeded its initial goals, unlocking a plethora of action figures and accessories. Unexpected delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic tested Bobby’s resolve, but his dedication to the project never wavered. However, Action Force was more than just action figures for Bobby; it was about building an immersive brand. Comics, merchandise, and events were all part of his vision. His commitment to engaging with the community, signing legendary figures like Sergeant Slaughter, and ensuring Action Force remained relevant spoke to his passion and determination.
Beyond Action Figures
Bobby’s diverse expertise has allowed him to wear many hats as an independent toy entrepreneur. At Valaverse, he’s not just the creative mind behind the products; he’s also the head of marketing, social media, engineering, and production. This multifaceted approach sets him apart from those who focus solely on design. His journey from being a Hasbro designer to running his enterprise might seem like a leap, but it’s a testament to his resilience and adaptability. Bobby has embraced the challenges of entrepreneurship with open arms, and his results speak for themselves.
The Multifaceted Entrepreneur
Bobby’s entrepreneurial journey hasn’t been without its fair share of hurdles. Toy entrepreneurship is a multifaceted endeavor beyond just designing action figures. Issues like supply chain challenges, production delays, and the intricacies of marketing and shipping can’t be underestimated. He emphasizes the importance of understanding the nitty-gritty details, from ocean freight costs to tooling changes and cost sheets. For Bobby, it’s about being prepared and knowledgeable, traits that can only be honed through real-world experience.
Navigating Entrepreneurial Challenges
Bobby Vala is vocal about his concerns regarding newcomers entering the toy industry without the necessary education and experience. He believes a genuine commitment to the industry should include a deep understanding of its intricacies. Starting a toy line isn’t just about hiring a sculptor and crowdfunding; it requires a comprehensive grasp of all aspects, from manufacturing to marketing.
Advocating Responsible Entrepreneurship
His unwavering passion for action figures and collectibles drives him to advocate for responsible entrepreneurship within the industry. Bobby emphasizes that being “all in” makes all the difference in toy entrepreneurship. Those who are genuinely committed and passionate about their creations, like Valaverse, stand out. It’s more than just putting out many items; it’s about pushing them, creating a vibrant and thriving brand, and connecting with the community.
For collectors, nothing is more frustrating than feeling squeezed dry by rising action figure prices. Bobby Vala, himself a collector, understands this all too well. He firmly believes that the industry shouldn’t exploit its consumers. As he aptly puts it, you can squeeze a sponge as hard as you want, but eventually, it’ll run dry. So why squeeze the consumer? When he launched the Action Force line through Kickstarter, some critics deemed the $32 price tag too high. However, Bobby has remained true to his commitment to affordability. Even years later, his prices haven’t budged. In contrast, major players like Hasbro continue to increase their prices, with rumors suggesting even steeper increases on the horizon.
Setting a New Precedent
One of the most remarkable moves by Valaverse has been the recent announcement of price reductions. Bobby isn’t doing this because his company is struggling; it’s quite the opposite. His increasing quantities have led to cost reductions, and rather than pocketing the extra money, he’s choosing to give back to the fans. Valaverse is setting a unique precedent in the industry by being the only company to drop prices, prioritizing the consumer experience above all else. Bobby’s goal is to offer a wide array of products, from gear packs to weapon packs, basic Troopers to regular figures, all at prices that make collectors feel like they’re getting real value for their investment.
The Complete Package
Bobby’s commitment to value becomes evident when comparing Action Force to other major brands. He points out that even other brand’s popular deluxe figures, priced at $34.99, come up short when compared to Action Force offerings. Valaverse figures come with stands, extra hands, and a variety of accessories that rival or surpass the competition, all for a $30 price point. He emphasizes that the key is providing consumers with a complete package that makes their investment worthwhile. While other brands may release deluxe figures with fewer accessories at higher prices, Bobby seeks to provide an all-encompassing experience for Action Force fans.
Quality Control and Transparency
Bobby understands that maintaining product quality is crucial in building trust with collectors. He acknowledges that Action Force hasn’t been without its hiccups, with production issues in Series One and a mold defect in a Series Two figure. However, he highlights the importance of addressing these issues promptly and transparently. For Bobby, holding the factory accountable is a non-negotiable principle. It involves rigorous sample inspections, communication with the factory, and meticulous attention to detail. He believes a robust quality control system and an efficient feedback loop are essential to delivering top-notch products.
Gratitude to Collectors
Bobby Vala deeply appreciates Action Force fans for their steadfast support. Whether you’re a seasoned collector or a newcomer, Valaverse remains committed to a collector-centric approach. Action Force isn’t merely a toy line; it’s an immersive experience, and Valaverse is devoted to ensuring that every collector feels valued and satisfied.
In closing, Bobby Vala leaves us with a clear message: Action Force is the line where collectors come first. It’s a journey that continues to unfold, innovate, and captivate, one meticulously crafted figure at a time. Whether you’re a seasoned action figure aficionado or just embarking on your collecting odyssey, Valaverse promises a thrilling adventure for all.