So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #089: Vegas Vacation (Part 2)

Welcome back to Sin City, kiddos! (and if you missed last week… best give it a read so this makes sense)

Our flight into Vegas was smooth. Our check-in for our rental SUV was not only smooth… we got a free upgrade! We took the keys to our Kia Carnival, and set off for adventure — by way of rolling the dice on Unshaven Comics. 

Our first stop was at the home of family friends — who graciously offered to accept a few shipments of bric-a-brac for our booth. With said crap loaded into our spacious vehicle, we made our second official stop: In-N-Out Burger. As was demanded of us by half a dozen well-wishers, we stopped for the quintessential west coast fast food. Go ahead and cry foul now though. Matt, Kyle, and I all got standard burgers, fries, and pop. No animal style. No protein style. No 3x3s. The joke is on all y’all though: we all loved it anyways. Simple, fresh, and decently priced. Call it a win, and let’s keep driving.

With the Licensing Expo taking place the next day, our plan called for us to set up the booth. As per our usual… we parked incorrectly the first time. Our dumbass selves parked at the main Mandalay Bay parking lot ($25) and meandered throughout the restaurants before finding the convention center. We snagged our passes, and briefly walked the showfloor to locate our diminutive space. After clarifying that the convention center itself boasted its own parking lot, but would not let us sneak from one lot to the other without paying… we made the executive decision to hoof our cart of crap through the common areas of the resort anyways. Hey! $25 is $25!

Landed. Got car. Got booth stuff. Ate. Setup booth. All that was left now was to get to our room and consider the evening’s plan. I could waste an entire chapter of this saga discussing how we wound up not having the room we paid for, but will save us all the anxiety of reliving it. We were supposed to stay at the Mandalay-Bay-adjacent Luxor, but due to things happening, we wound up staying at The Orleans. 

The bad part of the Orleans? Mostly it’s old, its covered parking lot is valet only, and it’s very much off the strip. But that last negative turned out to be a positive for the Unshaven lads. Off strip meant no yearning to eat on the strip — which is notoriously over-priced (even if amazing). But c’mon, that’s not why you’ve come to this article. You want to know if we’re secret millionaires!

The Licensing Expo is comparable in size to any large comic con (say a C2E2, or Emerald City), but here your average booth is 20’ x 20’ or larger. Unshaven Comics was graciously offered one of the few 10’ x 5’ booths. As the show opened, folks meandered in — some clad in their finest suits and ties, others clearly in vacation mode. We swapped our traditional jeans and graphic tees for khakis and polos (save only a very steadfast Matt, who declared his Church Jeans to be just fine, screw you!).

Our booth boasted simpler wares than our normal Artist Alley setup. Our rack, half filled with a small handful of trades brought in, and the other half stacked high with our custom Expo-only brochure. I set up my laptop for impromptu pitch deck presentations… but from our literal first meeting at the booth, it became apparent how silly an idea that was. No one wants to bend down and squint at a screen amongst the booths touting 55” monitors.

Before getting into some of the nitty-gritty of our meetings, let me take some time to give you The Pitch™ we used throughout the convention. As folks would stop, or come at their predetermined meeting times, we’d get all the polite greetings out of the way, and soon thereafter would begin our schpiel. You know this part… “Our property is called the Samurnauts. It’s an all-ages team action-adventure series about samurai-astronauts, led by an immortal kung fu monkey, defending humanity from zombie-cyborg space pirates!” Typically after that, whoever we say it to had something witty to say or ask. We fielded their questions or stoked their excitement. Normally at a comic con, this is when we break out into the specifics of the sale (200+ page book, tons of bonus content, $20, yadda-yadda). But here at the Licensing Expo, we were selling a property not a book. 

The next stop on our pitch journey was a combination of hype and pragmatism. We detailed how Unshaven Comics is a 98% comic-con focused business — given how truly impossible it is for an indie brand to profit in the current Diamond-catalog-driven world. The upside to doing this, for us, is the ideology that we’re now pitching in a more fair marketplace. Sure Marvel, DC, and the other big boys of publishing are on the con floor with us, but at the con we level the playing field by being able to pitch our book directly to consumers (the one thing we know local comic shops can’t necessarily do regularly). With the acknowledgment of our methodology comes our biggest selling point… the single most potent fact we had that brought us to the Expo: ‘The Samurnauts’ has been sold for 10 years, and to date, boasts a 37% cold pitch to sale ratio. Or, easier said, better than one-in-three people hearing our twenty second pitch purchased the book.

From there, we got to our ask. As detailed last week, we pitched how our fans throughout the years have always seen the Samurnauts as more than a comic book series. I’ll denote that we too agreed with the sentiment, and it absolutely was part of why we started the series in the first place. Let’s not throw shade; The Samurnauts is, was, and forever will be our love letter to the properties that bound myself, Matt, and Kyle together in a now 30+ year friendship. That includes Exo Squad, Ronin Warriors, Transformers (classic and Beast Wars), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, and the list could go on. With that said, we then turned to whomever we were pitching to say that we came to the Expo to seek out licensees who could help us attain that cartoon series, video game, and/or toy line that we truly believe could take our little series to the larger audience it deserves.

In total, we wound up pitching The Samurnauts to about 75 people over the course of three days. 27 of them were predetermined meetings I scored by-way of the Expo’s blind-date-style meeting request app. As we figured… about a third of our meetings died on the runway. The licensee in front of us either wasn’t currently scooping up comic book properties, or they themselves weren’t in the business of cartoons, video games, or kid/tween/teen/collector merchandise. No harm, no foul. And hilariously we wound up selling (!) copies of the books to two folks who literally demanded to purchase one because they themselves wanted to read it, even if they couldn’t license it. Score!

The next third of our meetings yielded what I would label as “mild interest” or “could help us, but want us to pay”. Mildly interested licensees would often hear the pitch, nod in agreement to our larger points, and meander around the notion of working with us. In some cases, these folks were direct manufacturers — businesses producing their own widgets and buying licenses to do so — and the rest were agents who had relationships behind the scenes to coordinate. These folks were all placed into my follow-up spreadsheet, to keep tabs with post-show. As far as the “could help us, but want us to pay” crowd… they were saved too, on a different tab. These folks all had great services — like a 2D animation studio with a DIY component, or a video game company that licenses out their fully-developed Roblox game, and then in turn licenses your property — but they required Unshaven Comics had some financial skin in the game to proceed. Suffice it to say, they are all in our rolodex should we take things in an interesting direction. More on that in a future article.

The remaining third would be classified as “definite interest”. These folks were those that heard the pitch and lit up immediately. Be they agents, manufacturers, vendors, or some hybrid of those classifications… it was clear that there was a desire for next steps. In all these cases, we did as we were told; capture the lead information, ensure they had our information, and agree to follow up soon after the Expo. It didn’t take long to sus out (especially with conversations with our neighboring booths) that for those of our size at this show… the likelihood of a signed-deal on the show floor was slim-to-none. And that makes sense. Unless an agent is very specifically walking in with a quota of licensors to sign, or a manufacturer is carrying a literal checkbook on themselves with a post-it note that declares “spend $1,000,000!”, the majority of what happens at the Expo is networking and promises to follow-up

With that covered, Unshaven Comics packed up its belongings, returned our Kia to Budget, and flew home on the last flight out to Chicago on Thursday night. Our half-full plane allowed us some extra legroom and space to ruminate on this gambit. As we saw it, there was an overarching feeling to our exhibiting at this costly convention. Above all else… we didn’t feel out of place. If there is a spectrum of licensibility (we should trademark that term…) we recognized at the end of three days and 75 pitches that The Samurnauts (and Unshaven Comics by proxy) was just above that minimum viable line. We never kidded ourselves: we’re not viral, we don’t have tens-of-thousands of fans on social media, and we’re just-a-barely-scraping-by small business. But we have ten years of solid data that proves our idea has legs. Because unlike some amazingly beautiful creators we share artist alley with… we know we ain’t selling Samurnauts due to our good looks. WINK.

So, did we follow up with all the following-up folk? Did we partner with any would-be vendors? Have we signed a mega-million-dollar deal and I’ve just lured you into another to-be-continued trap?!

Stay tuned to next week when you (and I) find out…