How Malaysian animation cracked the global market

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Inspidea co-founders, CJ See (left) and Andrew Ooi.Inspidea co-founders, CJ See (left) and Andrew Ooi.

By Tan Wai Fong

It’s a magical tale of bravery, stealth, ingenuity and Eastern martial arts. Yet, far from being a blockbuster Western movie with a rating of PG-13, it’s an adorably charming animated TV-series, Kobushi where sushi, maki and temaki come to life every night after the closing hours of a Japanese restaurant.

Launched in France in 2012, the series has since spread to South Korea and Australia, where fans lapped up the tale of sushi samurai who valiantly defended their fishy friends by outwitting the arch-nemesis, Neko, the hungry porcelain cat.

CJ See, co-founder of Inspidea, the local animation company which co-produced Kobushi with French production company, Zagtoon, said Kobushi (pic) offered the world something “wacky and fresh.” Indeed, what could be fresher than sushi?

Also inducted into Inspidea’s hall of fame was Boo & Me (pic below) which focused on green education. The collaboration with KidsCo UK, which is part of the NBC Universal Group, starred an orange coloured baby orang utan, Boo, and two green-conscious children, Aiman and Yasmin. Commissioned out of the UK, the show premiered worldwide in 80 countries and 16 languages.

In addition to highly successful international collaborations, Inspidea’s work book to execute animation ideas currently “is overflowing”.

“Our investments in time and relationships are bearing fruit now as customers keep insisting that we do work for them even though our capacity is full. We are also working on some projects with clients in the U.S. Growth will be exponential compared to a few years ago,” says See.

How Inspidea become one of Malaysia’s most successful animation studios

In 2013, Inspidea’s turnover was reaching close to RM10 million. The company expects a revenue of RM17 million this year. Some 99% of the sales come from foreign markets, with the top three being France, the United States and Hong Kong. The 200-people company will also soon evolve into a 250-strong team.

There is a huge potential for Inspidea (Inspiring + Idea) as the global animation and gaming market is expected to grow from US$122.20 billion in 2010 to US$242.92 billion by 2016.

Not bad for a company of just two entrepreneurs back in 2002. The company actually started with four friends but two parted ways when the business did not take off. See’s partner-in-crime, Andrew Ooi, town planner by training, stayed on and assumed the position of Managing Director.

How did Inspidea become one of the most successful animation studios in Malaysia?

“Are we?” See laughs. “There are lots of things that we haven’t achieved, and we are still a tiny company regionally when compared to India, Japan and China.

“Actually, we never saw this far. We just wanted to make a difference back then. We looked at the local market, and saw an opportunity to improve the products that were available. We said we can do a better job. And that was what kept us going”.

Inspidea’s first production was Johan, the Young Scientist which was aimed at stimulating a love for science in children. Available for sale in 2004, the series was produced when the government introduced the teaching of maths and science in English in schools.

See looks back at their naivety ruefully. “We thought we could crack the market. It took us a year and a half to produce Johan, and we tried to pitch (unsuccessfully) to local broadcasters. We thought we had a chance of success.”

Yet, in a twist of good fortune, Inspidea’s office then was located next to a travel agency. See says they were good buddies with the owner of the travel agency and often went for lunch together.

“One day, we asked him where would be a good market for our business. He said Cannes. It turned out that there is an Audio/Video market in Cannes twice a year. I still remember the cost of our first air ticket vividly – RM2,400 per person. Andrew and I just went without knowing a lot of things including the highly competitive landscape. There’s a lot to be said about naivety,” he adds.

The rest, as they say, is history. Although it was extremely tough in Cannes as most of the major players were present, Inspidea managed to make its first sale – Johan, the Young Scientist – to Dubai.

With that, the doors to the global market opened up. Soon, Johan was going places – Estonia, Portugal, Macau, and Qatar. A total of 33 countries purchased Johan, the Young Scientist before TV3 brought it for NTV7, followed by Astro.

“That broke us into the international market. We never saw the overseas market until then. Cannes opened our eyes. If not, we will still be katak di bawah tempurung,” See says.

After Johan, came the 2006 World Cup. “We invested in Mustang Mama Football Fever as we thought we’ll have a laugh at ourselves. The investment was not as heavy as Johan but it was very successful as everybody loves football. Many channels were interested.

“When Mustang Mama was rolled out just before the World Cup, we already had buyers in France, Japan, and the Middle East waiting for it. Mustang Mama built our reputation in the international arena,” he adds.

Soon, the foreign broadcasters started calling; Cartoon Network Asia, Kidsco in UK, BBC, and France terrestrial TV.

“Our business model has now evolved to include original productions, collaborations/ partnerships which includes executing animation ideas, and merchandising with partners.

“The model evolved with our understanding of the industry; who to make a deal with, how to make deals. Eleven years ago, we were blur-blur,” See candidly admits.

A philosophy of nurturing and growing people

See and Ooi’s model for people management also evolved with time. “We were smaller, closer to each other and tightly knit. This is not quite possible to replicate when you have 200 people, and growing.

“However, we believe in nurturing and growing people. We invest about 4-5% of our revenue yearly in our people. I am a firm believer that money cannot buy experience,” he says.

To help Inspidea’s employees gain new experiences, the company organises an annual overseas trip. “Our mission is to go to a new place every year. We started with Langkawi, then Phuket, Bangkok and Bali. For our 10th anniversary, we had 10 different teams visiting 10 countries. Everyone then came back and shared their experiences.”

Asked how the 12 years have been for him personally, the workaholic 43-year-old says: “It was tough, especially the first five years. And when two of the partners, including the creative guy decided to pack it in, Andrew and I came to a crossroad. If we have parted ways, there will be no Inspidea. Things take time to mature and you just need the patience to see that through.”

Indeed, the world of animation is all the more zany with Inspidea’s productions. Those interested can catch the French-version of the sushi warriors, Kobushi on YouTube.

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