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Superplastic Founder and CEO Paul Budnitz, pictured in the startup’s headquarters in Burlington, Vermont.
The future cultural center of the Metaverse might be 3,000 miles away from Hollywood and Silicon Valley, in a century-old brick and timber warehouse in Burlington, Vermont. On the shores of Lake Champlain, Superplastic founder Paul Budnitz and a team of designers have spent the last five years creating a roster of digital characters and complex storylines built to attract millions of fans—and potentially billions of dollars—across entertainment, music, fashion, NFTs and crypto in the fledgling world of Web3.
Walt Disney harnessed early cinema to launch his entertainment juggernaut. Marvel pulled off the same trick with comic books. Budnitz, a 54-year-old serial entrepreneur, has built a content studio of zany, multimedia characters designed to thrive in the coming metaverse. The noir-themed world of Superplastic feels more like The Matrix than Wonderland. Its colorful inhabitants have gained millions of their own social media. They’ve also made $20 million from selling tens of thousands of NFTs with Christies and others. They party with Paris Hilton, hang out in Fortnite, collaborate on physical collectibles with rapper-singer J. Balvin, and even get paid as Gucci models.
“Our company is a universe of characters that’s constantly growing,” Budnitz says. “As they become popular, they can live in any digital market. I’m willing to do anything in any market where I can understand and care about the audience and I can make something that is awesome.”
Inspired by newspaper comics from the early 1900s, Superplastic debuted its first characters in 2020 even before NFTs became part of the mid-pandemic zeitgeist. But unlike comics, the metaverse nature of their origins allows each to travel back and forth between various places both online and offline through both digital content and physical collectibles. Janky, a cat-like character, likes pop culture, music and sneakers. Guggimon, a rabbit known to have the vainest personality, is into horror movies and fashion, but also posts content about controlled substances and downward spirals. Later came Dayzee, a rapper who knows all about commerce and tech.
“Our stuff is very contemporary,” Budnitz says. “The characters evolve. And also I’m too edgy of a person to sit still for too long.”
Investors across tech, entertainment, commerce and fashion are betting on Superplastic’s uniqueness. Since its seed round in 2018, the company has raised $46 million from a mixed bag of backers that includes VC heavy weights (Google Ventures and Index Ventures) and showbiz angels (Ashton Kutcher, Justin Timberlake, The Chainsmokers and Jared Leto).
Now, Budnitz tells Forbes that Superplastic has received another $4 million in strategic investments from Amazon, Sony Japan, Animoca and Kering—the parent company of Gucci and Balenciaga. The new backers bring cash, cache and critical access to global media and commerce pipes.
The deal with Amazon will help develop longer-form shows and comics. Sony will be key to music and movie distribution in Asia. Animoca is already collaborating with Superplastic on NFTs inside of Rev Racing and The Sandbox. Kering—which has already collaborated Superplastic on NFTs and handcrafted porcelain sculptures of characters via Gucci—is exploring new types of digital and physical products.
Superplastic is just one of several startups Kering has backed in the past year to explore disruptive business models without over-exposing luxury brands like Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent. Other recent investments include the second-hand fashion platform Vestiaire Collective, British luxury handbag subscription platform Cocoon.Club, and the shoppable streaming platform NTWRK. Gregory Boutté, Kering’s chief client and digital officer, says early experiments have shown there’s already a “huge appetite” for NFTs and that their exclusive and creative nature aligns with the characteristics of luxury goods.
“We see this trend coming up and potentially having multiple implications on our industry,” Boutté says. “We’re not quite sure exactly how, so we want to get situated in the house.”
Janky, Guggimon and Dayzee are three characters in Superplastic’s growing universe of characters for the metaverse.
A serial entrepreneur, Budnitz founded the toy and entertainment company KidRobot in 2002 before selling it in 2013. In 2014, he cofounded Ello—the ad-free social networking platform—and a decade ago began Budnitz Bicycles, a bike shop in Burlington that closed during the pandemic.
Next to his desk is a poster on a wall that reads “Death To Nostalgia,” a rallying cry that he carried with him from his KidRobot days. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t inspired by the past. His characters have been inspired by the past comics like Krazy Kat and Ignatz—which ran as a newspaper strip from 1913 to 1944. He also likes the Belgian comic duo Asterix and Tintin.
In some ways, Superplastic is a second act for Budnitz. Under his leadership for more than a decade, KidRobot did deals with a wide range of shows and brands alike. It made figurines for The Simpsons, Iron Man, South Park and Family Guy. They also collaborate with brands as varied as Volkswagen and Louis Vuitton along with shoes for Nike and snowboards for Burton. A dozen of Budnitz’s characters are still on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Experiences with KidRobot also taught him a key lesson that’s now an anchor for Superplastic: To never give away intellectual property. He remembers creating new KidRobot characters that were optioned for future shows that were never made and shelved by some studio or another. Instead, he says he still gets royalty checks for a movie that was never made 12 years ago.
“If you look at how animated media is traditionally created,” he says. “An artist often has a great idea, they end up selling it to some big studio, and then the studio makes all the money, controls it, and generally often ruins it.”
Budnitz is also inspired by Walt Disney himself from the 1950s when Mickey’s maker controlled all of his own intellectual property. That control allowed Disney to “do his kind of weirdness and create a really transformed vision of a new world” across movies, TV shows, physical products and theme parks.
An image of one of the NFTs made by Superplastic in collaboration with Gucci.
Digital celebrities and virtual characters have been increasingly popular. In March, former Disney CEO Bob Iger announced he’s investing in and joining the board of Genies–a startup with a $1 billion valuation that lets people create their own 3D avatars. Meanwhile, top Hollywood talent agencies are signing on to represent a range of digital characters born from popular NFTs like Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), CryptoPunks and Meebits—each collection with its own network of brands, fans, content and commerce.
“This space we’ll look back on it like we look at social media,” says Sarah Early, a marketing executive at UTA. “Everyone will need to have a role in it and jumping in without a strategy isn’t enough.”
With Superplastic, the plan has always been about the characters—and all the movies, music, stories and sponsors that come with them. But growing interest in digital collectibles is perfect timing for Budnitz, who has a long history of creating and selling limited-edition physical items.
Bryan Rosenblatt, a partner at the San Francisco-based venture capital firm, invested back in 2019. When Superplastic announced its Series A round, Rosenblatt told Forbes that Budnitz is a “creative genius” with a track record of “building these cult-like brand followings and having a good eye for art and entertainment and business.”
“It was a totally different vibe from any tech company that I’ve ever been invested in or worked with or at,” said Moshe Lifschitz, managing partner at Shrug Capital, which also invested in Superplastic’s Series A round. “There was something about the way Paul was approaching building a company and taking a swing that was exhilarating.”
Real-world ambitions also help set Superplastic apart. It recently debuted a new vinyl art toy collaboration with BAYC. In June, it plans to open a store in New York City that will sell physical merchandise and have a secret room for NFT owners. It’s also working with a partner on opening a sushi restaurant and with another on an animated “comedy-hip hop-horror” movie starring Janky and Guggimon.
The big question will be whether Janky and Guggimon’s fans follow them to the box office, listen to their albums, buy their merch and travel deeper and deeper into their metaverse—wherever the rabbit hole might lead.