Before he was CEO or known later as the Dark Lord, Shawne was like everybody else. He attended Iowa State University as a computer engineering major, and was already working in the computer industry with a partner named Todd Ferson. Right Stuf at the time was a shell organization which sold telescopes. The company’s name is a reference to an space movie from the 1980s, “The Right Stuff.”
“I was working in the computer networking business at the time along with a partner who was interested in old cartoons he watched when he was young. He had been collecting film reels of the old shows to watch. If he was interested, we thought, maybe others would be as well!”
Todd was a fan of “Astro Boy” (broadcast by NBC syndication in 1963) and remembered the show with great nostalgia. But to proceed forward, the first big step was to acquire the actual video license for Astro Boy.
The original producer of the program was Fred Ladd, who directed the pair to contact someone overseas for the content. Working with parties outside of the US presented Shawne with a crash course in international business learning how to interact with Japanese Licensors. It also required juggling his time as full-time college student, full time work in one business, and this new venture all at the same time.
“I had some challenges due to my age at the time. The anime industry in terms of licensing was very different and was still wrapped around the film model. Video was more for rental than for sale at the time. We had limited funds as well. So I did my best to work well with one company and network to others through references of our quality and work.”
As Rightstuf Anime became more established in the early 90’s, Shawne began making frequent trips to Japan. For someone who grew up in a small town in Iowa, an international trip was an exciting and nerve wracking experience. It was an opportunity for Shawne to step out of his comfort zone and see a different perspective that was helpful for business decisions.
“I had been to NYC before, but Tokyo was even more intense in many ways, and there was some culture shock. Not having actual street addresses for businesses made finding places a major challenge if you hadn’t been there before, relying on hand drawn maps; there was no luxury of GPS. Fortunately, I was working with many people who had a good working knowledge of English as my Japanese was extremely basic. Japan in the early 90s still didn’t have a great deal of foreigners, so you were always met with some level of curiosity – today there are tons of foreigners in country so it’s just a normal thing.”
The 90’s was a period where anime titles such as Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Evangelion, and Cowboy Bebop redefined the industry. From Sailor Moon ‘s influence on girl power to Cowboy Bebop’s unique hyperspace jazzy comedic themes, western audiences continued to be introduced to anime.
1997 was the launch of Irresponsible Captain Tylor, the first series to be produced in English from Nozomi Entertainment.
This same year also marked Right Stuf Anime’s 10th anniversary! The company that had started from a single attic room moved to a new office building to keep up with the consumer demands for these and other popular titles. With business growth and expansion, Shawne made the decision to extend the customer service area. He approached larger anime companies to offer his customer service by sending out emails, contacting clients, and being available for consumers. In this way, they could focus more on the large mass market retail sales versus engaging individual consumers. Right Stuf also operated websites for all of the major anime publishers at one point in time.
“I attribute our success to customer service. We look for ways to take care of the customers from how we communicate in our call center, through email, and all the way to designing the shipping carton that arrives to their door. Everything about running a business is making sure you provide the best service to your consumer. Service is KING.”
Then in the late 2000’s came the Anime Bubble. Declining DVD sales, entertainment/retail companies like Sam Goody filing for bankruptcy, and nation’s economic difficulties was the perfect storm to the anime industry. To preserve, Shawne learned to adapt to the changes in the market.
“I had continually watched the cost of programming skyrocket and with the majors playing off the popularity of mass market programs like Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, and Pokémon. There was a rush to market of as much content as possible. Release schedules were incredibly full and there was a giant amount of product in the marketplace. We had paused our licensing efforts simply because the cost was just not economical in my estimation and I just didn’t feel that the return on investment was there. I focused more efforts on our e-commerce and consulting business. At that time, home video (in multi disc releases) and TV was the primary sales mechanisms; legal streaming hadn’t really come into its own.”
“It was sad to see these issues in the field, but we did all we could to help the vendors push the product through with sales and promotions. I didn’t have a concern with survival, to be honest, as I knew there was definitely a continuing market for anime; I just didn’t feel that there was a market for this much product being put out all at the same time and at the price points that were required to license them. Or that the customers could absorb this much material at once given their own budgets. Business can be cyclical. At present, there is another run up in licensing cost and a large quantity of product being produced. There’s more competition for the viewer’s eye, but also more mediums where content can be consumed. You have to adapt to the marketplace as it changes. Some companies in the bubble era simply didn’t have the ability or will to do so.”
By adapting to change, providing a wide variety of services, and through service to customers, Rightstuf Anime was able to weather the storm. Today it continues to provide fans with Anime, Manga, Figures and More! Although the anime business continues to be a difficult competitive market, Shawne believes that the company core focus, service, is still the key to securing and growing the business for the next 30 years.
“We have an excellent staff and they’re really dedicated to our customers. We’ve been working to add new merchandise product lines and have updated our website to give us new capabilities that we didn’t have with our legacy systems. Internally, we’ve grown our merchandising staff to more quickly add products to the site and get more information to the customers so they can make good buying decisions, and have looked to grow our marketing group to increase our customer outreach. Our growth is dependent upon internal efficiencies and taking care of our customers so they know that we are here to help them and get their purchases to them timely and in good condition. That’s our focus.”
For last 30 years, Shawne Kleckner overcame challenges to make his business work. The work ethic to see the business grow might be an inspiration to some of us. Maybe we are looking to start a business, switch careers, ask for that promotion, or wanting to learn a new skill. Whatever our goals may be in life, The Dark Lord wants leave a few words of advice before we make that step.
“Create a plan. It will give you a guide of what your challenges will be and a basis to compare your goals and adjust your strategy based on performance. Test out your plan and if you fail, re-strategize. When you put yourself out there, you are going to fail sometimes and you have to be comfortable with that. That's what being an entrepreneur is about, having the ability to rise above those failures is what really makes you become a leader for your business.”