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Burlington's Superplastic Turns Playthings Into Social Media Influencers


Published October 20, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 20, 2021 at 11:00 a.m.

Paul Budnitz - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Paul Budnitz

Janky and Guggimon are BFFs, though Guggimon likes to torture Janky. He'll drive an ax into Janky's head or slap him around or light his face on fire. Janky is a goof who gets into his own messes. In a video posted on TikTok in August, he jumps from the roof of a building holding a wimpy umbrella and wearing only underwear and a helmet. He lands in a wood chipper, and his rainbow-colored blood spews everywhere.

Janky and Guggimon are animated characters created by Superplastic, a 3-year-old toy and entertainment company based in Burlington. It is the latest venture of local entrepreneur Paul Budnitz, founder of the successful Kidrobot collectible toy company and the Ello social media platform, which connects artists and other creators. Budnitz also had a bike business, the now-shuttered Budnitz Bicycles.

Janky and Guggimon started out as toys, vinyl collectibles designed by an international roster of street artists, including illustrator Mcbess, Japanese manga maker Junko Mizuno and Huck Gee, who is Superplastic's director of art and production. In late 2019, the company's team of 18 animators and computer-generation experts, many of whom have worked for powerhouse production studios such as Pixomondo and Disney, brought the characters to virtual life on social media with the goal of turning them into "synthetic celebrities."

In an age of Instagram influencers, YouTube sensations and TikTok teens dancing their way to fame, the company is bypassing the traditional means of marketing animated characters through studios and production houses. It has big plans for turning its roster of "talent" into pop culture phenomena, with all the exposure and e-commerce that brings.

Janky vaguely resembles a cat, with whiskered cheeks and, in animated form, eyes that turn to hearts when he wants something. Guggimon is a tall rabbit with shark teeth and a sinister grin. He smokes cigars, wears fashionable clothing such as snakeskin pants, and treasures his ax collection.

"We really wanted to make cartoons, 3D animated characters, and tell stories," Budnitz said last week from his office at the Karma Bird House on Burlington's Maple Street.

"The idea was, like, what if we use social media to make our characters famous?" he said. "And not only that, but the fans can talk to them directly. So we'll treat them like they're already celebrities and let fans just connect with them. And they got really fucking famous, and it's really working."

The social media profiles of Janky and Guggimon and their newer female compatriots, Dayzee and Staxx, collectively have more than 8 million followers, Budnitz said. As of last week, 3.5 million TikTok users followed @reallyjanky.


AYO TAG UR FAVORITE WASHED UP CELEB IN THE COMMENTS ##jankywasfirst ##OneSliceChallenge ##ourtable

♬ original sound - Tik Toker

Sponsorships have followed the followers. Dayzee and Staxx have modeled Gucci sneakers on Instagram. Janky has hawked Red Bull, Prada and, strangely, Purell hand sanitizer on his feed. Hip-hop artists J Balvin and Rico Nasty collaborated with Guggimon and Janky on toy designs.

This summer, Guggimon and Janky appeared as playable characters in new releases of the blockbuster video game Fortnite. Its maker, Epic Games, contacted Superplastic and worked with the Burlington team to design the characters' wardrobes and imagery. Gamers can pay or "power up" to use them as avatars or "skins." Janky fights with dead-fish nunchucks.

A Superplastic movie is in the works, too, starring Janky and Guggimon as "psycho killers," Budnitz said. Superplastic is making the "animated, hip-hop horror movie" in-house and plans to release it in a couple years.

This year, Superplastic also dived into the burgeoning market for NFTs, or non-fungible tokens: digital representations of an actual or virtual item — often a work of art or fashion design — that collectors can purchase. The consumer gets a unique creation and an unchangeable record of the transaction, usually made via a virtual currency such as Ether.

The company rolled out its first NFTs in February. In July, it teamed up with Christie's, the venerable auction house, to sell nearly 10,000 more NFTs and promoted them with a video called "The Janky Heist."

Janky, designed by Mcbess - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Janky, designed by Mcbess

In the video, Janky and Guggimon attempt to break into Christie's to steal artwork, including their own toy creations, and mistakenly blow the whole collection to bits. Pieced back together, those digital bits became the NFTs for sale. Buyers received one-of-a-kind artworks that also give them access to special Superplastic events, online content and an exclusive store on the company website.

The NFT sales have generated almost $7 million for the company, Budnitz said. About 6,500 collectors paid prices ranging from $250 to $250,000.

Coming soon: Superplastic's own cryptocurrency called Jank Koinz, digital tokens that give the holders special privileges in the Jankyverse.

"We're at this space where experience matters more than the thing, and the thing doesn't necessarily have to be physical anymore," said Elaine Young, a professor of digital and social media marketing at Champlain College. "What Superplastic and groups like this and brands and others are doing is, they're creating an experience ... or opportunities for people to connect around something that is, for lack of a better term, not real."

For those more interested in Superplastic's hard goods, about 30 stores around the globe — including Underground Closet, a streetwear shop on Burlington's Church Street — currently carry Superplastic toys and apparel. In the spring, the company has plans to open a store in New York's SoHo neighborhood, where it will sell its own products along with other luxury brands. A special room will allow visitors to interact with the characters' holograms, Budnitz said.

If it sounds like the company has a lot of balls in the air — perhaps too many — Budnitz would agree. Normally, he said, a budding business at this stage would be retrenching — that is, shifting from spending to making money after testing an array of concepts or products to see what works.

"NFTs, crypto, toys, movies, TV, streaming, fashion — that sounds pretty insane," he admitted.

According to a Superplastic announcement planned for Wednesday, October 20, a group of investors is putting $20 million behind that insanity. GV (formerly Google Ventures) and Craft Ventures led this round of funding. Their fellow backers include actors Jared Leto and Justin Timberlake; the investment team of hip-hop artist the Weeknd; and the entertainment mogul Scooter Braun. Budnitz said the founder of Twitch, a streaming service for gamers, and the founder of the Tinder dating app have also invested.

Janky put up a Tinder profile for a hot minute, and people tried to date him, Budnitz said with a laugh.

A shelf in Paul Budnitz's office, holding Guggimon and other Superplastic toys - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • A shelf in Paul Budnitz's office, holding Guggimon and other Superplastic toys

Investors at Craft Ventures believe virtual characters have a lot of potential, and Superplastic has the creative chops to take advantage of today's social media and animation technology, said Bryan Rosenblatt, a partner in the firm. "What's more scalable than a human celebrity? A virtual one, where you can have a team of people working on it," he said.

Rosenblatt noted the enthusiasm of Janky and Guggimon fans, as well as the big reaction he gets when he introduces people to the characters. "With this type of stuff, that's what you want."

While cutting-edge technology has fueled Superplastic's growth, Budnitz insisted that its concept is fundamentally old-fashioned.

"The way to think of what we're doing is, we're making, like, a really fucked-up version of Disney 1956," he said. "That's kind of my model."

Walt Disney's company was plenty innovative for its time, Young agreed: "One could argue Mickey Mouse was an influencer."

Think of Janky as the modern Mickey, dressed in brand-labeled colorful sweatshirts and board shorts. The often violent dynamic between him and Guggimon has its roots in the comedy duo of Laurel and Hardy and Looney Tunes cartoons starring Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner. The murderous duo of Itchy and Scratchy from "The Simpsons" also comes to mind.

"I don't think what they're doing is necessarily new," Young said of Superplastic. "It is leveraging a set of technologies and systems to create something that can take advantage of the platforms we have today in some really interesting ways."

Budnitz, 54, studied fine art at Yale University and graduated in 1990. He made a few films and started a business or two. Then came a 2002 trip to Tokyo, which left him fascinated by the collectible-toy scene and inspired by the goth fashion trend and wave of street art there.

"I grew up loving comic books, animation, Japanese streetwear," he told this reporter in an interview several years ago.

Guggimon - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Guggimon

Soon after returning from Japan, Budnitz launched Kidrobot in California with that urban-art vibe in mind. To create its toys, he worked with many of the same artists, including Gee, who design for Superplastic today. Kidrobot developed a cult following. Its signature characters, Dunny and Munny, are on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 2012, Budnitz sold Kidrobot to a longtime investor in the company; he left soon afterward and moved with his wife and daughter to Burlington because they thought it would be a cool place to live, he said. After dabbling in a few other ideas, he founded the Ello artists' network, which he turned over to his partners two years later.

He was still running Budnitz Bicycles, which he'd started while at Kidrobot, when he and Gee brought Superplastic to life in May 2018. They used a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to finance an initial run of Jankys and a few other toys. It blew past its $25,000 goal to $80,000 in a couple hours, ultimately raising more than $500,000. A year later, another Kickstarter brought in more than $460,000.

With the inclusion of the funding announced on Wednesday, total investment to date has reached $38 million, according to the company's statement. Although he declined to disclose sales figures, Budnitz said Superplastic is profitable.

The toys sell out quickly once they're released, sometimes within minutes. Superplastic makes limited runs of certain designs, partly because scarcity drives demand. On the website, the toys range in price from $15 for a mystery pack of a dozen or so 3.5-inch Jankys, each designed by a different artist, to $250 for a 15-inch Janky or Guggimon, to $5,555 for a glossy, white-painted Ginormous Janky or Ginormous Guggimon sculpture.

The company has 30 full-time employees; some work remotely and others in an open third-floor space inside Karma Bird House. Many workers come directly from the University of Vermont or Champlain College, drawn by the opportunity to learn alongside experienced, top-notch experts in their field, Budnitz said.

He describes Superplastic as a management company — a creative team supporting the characters, aka the "talent," who are creating their own stories.

"Their life mission is really to become as famous as possible," Budnitz said of the characters.

On social media, "fame" correlates with influence, which isn't determined by the number of followers, Young said: "That's a fake metric, because you can inflate those."

Influence, she continued, is "when physical products are selling for over $5,000, when virtual products are selling for a certain amount of money and people are buying them, when there's engagement — so not just 'likes' but actual conversations and chatter about when that product does something, drops something, does involve itself in something, is part of a meme or some other pop-culture reference."

Ultimately, Superplastic's success depends on the influence that Janky and friends wield. That's what translates into sponsorships, endorsements, collaborations and the income those deals generate for the characters.

"There are kids dressing the way Janky dresses on TikTok and copying how he dresses," Budnitz said. "There are whole memes of people copying the clothing they wear. Really, the whole thing about this company is that these characters, they can do everything a human can do."

Superplastic's influencers might not be real humans, but their influence is as real as it gets.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Twisted Toy Story | Cartoons, movies, cryptocurrency, NFTs: Superplastic turns playthings into social media influencers   "