During the last half of the 20th century, collecting and collectibles have exploded in popularity and, in particular, collecting around pop culture. But even as the demand for collectibles grew there still wasn’t a digital platform for collectors to congregate, catalog what they have and what they want and find the items to make their collection complete. That is, of course, until Gary Darna created CompleteSet.
CompleteSet started with a simple idea – to transform printed books about collectibles into a beautiful website and app. So when he was a student at Northern Kentucky University Gary and his Co-Founder, Jaime Rump, built CompleteSet. Gary sat down with us to talk about his company, the collecting industry and what he likes to collect.
Gary Darna: CompleteSet is an interactive guide to collectibles. With the help of our community, we’re building comprehensive archives of every collectible ever made from all your favorite brands, characters and franchises. These archives provide detailed information about each collectible’s unique history including the release date, manufacture, country of origin, and more. With CompleteSet, collectors can create an itemized catalog of their entire collection using our website or iPhone app.
I co-founded the company in 2012 with Jaime Rump. Since then, we’ve grown to a community of collectors in 41 countries.
CF: Is there a way to transact? I was looking at Magic The Gathering cards and I wondered if there was a way to buy cards through CompleteSet or does it just go into my profile so I know what I have and what I want?
GD: Currently we’re focused on building the demand side of the market place. People are telling us what they have and what they want and that gets added to their profile as a user. There’s also a feature called shelves where you can organize things into different buckets on your profile, similar to Pinterest boards. But, right now, there is currently no way to actually buy those items through CompleteSet. That’s something we’ll be doing in early 2016. The goal is that if someone wants something and another person comes and lists that for sale then you would be notified about that specific item being available.
Most collectors look for very specific items. They’re not just looking for an action figure, they’re looking for a G.I. Joe from 1982 made by Hasbro from a certain country. The criteria that needs to be met in order for a purchase to happen is very specific.
CF: What kinds of items are on CompleteSet now?
GD: Right now we’re focused on pop culture stuff. Toys, posters, lunch boxes, stuff that you had as a kid. We hope to be the place you go to feel like a kid again. That’s really what drives a lot of collectors – their nostalgia.
CF: Are you a collector?
GD: Yes. I mainly collect vintage Stars Wars memorabilia. I started collecting Star Wars in 1995 when I was ten. 20 years later, I still collect Star Wars stuff and with the new movie coming out in December it’s kind of overwhelming. The amount of stuff available is crazy but that’s why you need something like CompleteSet so you can have a very specific set of items you have and want. It allows collectors to focus so they don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of choices out there.
CF: I imagine it helps you be a little more thrifty and focus your investments too.
GD: Yeah, I mean, truthfully, most collectors don’t think about the cost of things. They just buy it because they want it or they’re missing that item. Often times the emotional need for the item, the attachment to it, outweighs the cost.
CF: What drew you to collecting Star Wars?
GD: I saw Empire Strikes Back for the first time when I was ten and I was mesmerized. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. At the time it was a fifteen year old movie but I didn’t know that as a ten year old. I just thought it was really cool. I think I saw it at the perfect age too. And, at the same time, Kenner, a Cincinnati based company, started re-releasing toys for the movie. It was that line of toys that got me collecting.
To this day I remember the first action figure I ever got, C-3PO. I got that and then realized ‘Oh, there are all these other figures available’ so I started getting those. And then I found out there was all this vintage stuff made before I was even born. I saw those things and thought it was even cooler than the modern stuff because you couldn’t get it anymore. You had to hunt for it.
It was like fishing, you would go to a toy show and rummage through a dusty bin to find this figure then you had to find the parts for it. It really is like a hunt and becomes addicting. You start thinking ‘I have 80 of these and theres 92 of them so I need to get the other twelve.”
CF: You’re about to reach a million items collected, what does that mean?
GD: When a user joins they tell us what they have and want. When someone clicks have or want that’s an item collected. That’s happened almost a million times. Our goal when we launch the marketplace is to convert wants to haves. We want people to find that thing that they want then we want to tell them here it is and then convert that from a want to a have without them leaving CompleteSet.
CF: How many users did you start with and how much have you grown since 2012?
GD: When we started it was just a prototype. CompleteSet was very basic and, honestly, pretty terrible because there was just two of us working on it. We had no funding and a MVP – that was pretty much it. We started out with just one brand on the site, Johnny Cupcakes, which is a collectible t-shirt brand in Boston. They make limited edition t-shirts and hoodies and things like that. We started with them because it was an accessible audience so they made a good set of test collectors. And we saw good performance with them. We got a couple thousand people to join from that community and then we decided to open it up to more brands and franchises, things like Star Wars and Marvel and Disney.
Each time we added an archive we appealed to a wider audience because new people that collect something started joining CompleteSet. At this point, we’re growing 20% month over month. So we’re adding users every day from all over the world.
CF: I feel like collecting is pretty universal.
GD: It’s really human nature if you think about it. People, depending on the generation, want to save things. And they’re not just objects to many individuals. There’s always a motivation for keeping things around whether it’s a toy on a desk or a book on a shelf. It’s often times more than just a thing – it’s a memory in a physical form.
CF: What would you say the hottest brand is in terms of what people are looking for?
GD: Funko Pop! is the most popular brand on CompleteSet. We have over ten thousand people collecting those
CF: They’re a relatively new brand right?
GD: Yeah, in terms of collectibles, Funko is new. In particular, Funko Pop! is definitely new. They really didn’t come around until 2010. That’s when the Funko Pop brand was started and it was originally called Funko Force. They unveiled at San Diego ComicCon that year and after some changes to the packaging and the name they were able to take off.
What makes those so appealing, I think, is the price range. They’re typically $9.99 so its accessible to a lot of people. It’s a good entry level collectible for most consumers. The other thing that appeals to people is the fact that they’re characters from movies, TV shows and books. So when you get a Lord of the Rings character or a Star Wars character or a Marvel character in a little vinyl figure that’s ten bucks, you might buy a couple of those. Plus they’re small and they stack easily. It can be a slippery slope and before you know it, you’ve got 20 of them.
CF: When you collect things do you like to keep them in the box or do you take them out?
GD: I almost always keep it in the package. If it’s a toy or an action figure or a Funko Pop!, I keep it in the package. It keeps the dust off it and they’re easier to take care of. You can move them around and pieces don’t get lost. The thing is, most collectibles that are made for adults, like Hasbro’s Black Series of Star Wars figures, they’re about 6 inches tall and come in a box that displays nicely so you don’t have to un-package them to display them. You can just keep it in the package and it still looks as good as if it was outside the package.
With collectibles like that, you’re definitively targeting adult collectors. They know their audience and they know people would rather have something they can display without removing the packaging. Plus, in the case of the vintage stuff, you dramatically devalue the item when you remove it from the package.
Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of the vintage Star Wars stuff in the package.
CF: I imagine some of that can be astronomical when it comes to price.
[pullquote]It wasn’t really until Star Wars was released and Kenner toys that movies were highly merchandised.[/pullquote]
GD: Yes. There are common Star Wars figures that are hundreds of dollars. The hype of the new movie has, of course, driven a lot of those prices up. But their age drives the price too. These things are almost 40 years old now so they’re increasingly rare. Because of that, the value increases tremendously over time.
So, for the most part, I keep things in the box. A lot of vintage stuff can be graded too so even if it’s loose you can send it away to a grading authority and they will give you a score.
CF: Like baseball cards?
GD: Yeah. Those grading authorities also put them in a nice plastic container so you can see the figure through it. Most of my stuff is in a glass cabinet anyway so it’s organized and kept clean.
CF: How do you think collecting has changed over the years?
GD: I think people originally collected coins, stamps, military stuff – things like that. It wasn’t really until Star Wars and Kenner Toys that movies were highly merchandised. Even movies that aimed at families prior to Star Wars didn’t have the merchandising power that Star Wars does. Star Wars was described by someone at Kenner as “toy-etic”. It was something made to be toys. If you think about a character like Chewbacca, the ability to turn that into a plush toy is incredible.
I think once that happened other movie companies saw that they can make more money off merchandise than the movie. Look at something like Frozen by Disney. They made more money off the merchandise than they did off the movie and that tends to be the trend now. People are making more money from the licensed products then they are off box office results. That’s what caused a shift to toys and the internet has transformed collecting tremendously.
[pullquote]People are making more money from the licensed products then they are off box office results. That’s what caused a shift to toys and the internet has transformed collecting tremendously.[/pullquote]
Prior to eBay, you had to go to a comic shop or a toy show or a flea market or garage sale and hunt down these things that were no longer in stores. That made collecting fun and people still do that but it also limited you to a geographic area. Now you can buy things that were originally released in Japan or the UK or Canada or wherever. You also have access to more information as well as a global market place. There are collectors that specialize in figures or items from certain countries. For instance, a collector may only buy Star Wars stuff made by Palitoy, a company based in the UK that had a licence to make the Kenner figures. Just an example of someone buying something because they have access to stuff that was never released in the US.
CF: As the Internet became more popular, did the price of collectibles shift?
It definitely did. In one way it drove prices up because things like eBay made it more competitive to get certian items. Even though there might be more available, there were a lot of people trying to get it so that drove the price up. There’s also the flip side to that which is things people thought were rare became so common place that they became essentially worthless
CF: Do you have an example of that – an item that had the value pulled out from under it?
GD: Not specifically. There are certainly cases where that happened but it’s hard to pinpoint an exact item where that occurred. eBay and other market places online showed that there were a lot more of these than people thought. In the case of the vintage Stars Wars figures that I collect, there were hundreds of thousands of those produced – millions really – and people didn’t realize that until they were all over the internet.
The thing that really differentiates and drives price is the condition. If something looks like it just came out of a box and it’s 30 years old, that’s going to be more valuable than if something looks like its been played with.
CF: What would you say is the most exotic thing on CompleteSet?
GD: That is hard to say.
CF: What about the top five or ten? Exotic in terms of strangeness or specificity towards collector?
GD: We have a lot of really expensive items that make you wonder who’s buying this stuff . There was something like a watch, some kind of giant clock and it was a combination of the USS Enterprise and other science fiction spaceships. It cost something like $50,000.
CF: Did someone actually log on and say I want this?
GD: People have said they wanted it.
CF: Has it ever converted to a have?
GD: No. I mean the people who are buying those, I don’t know who they are, but they’re out there. Besides that clock, you also have life size busts of different characters. One example is the Alien from Alien – the Xenomorph. There are life size busts of those things that are tens of thousands of
dollars. It’s insane. And people are manufacturing these things and there may only be five hundred to a thousand pieces available but they do get manufactured and they do get sold.
There are lots of examples like that that will blow your mind. I can’t believe there’s a market for them. I mean they think they can sell seven hundred of these things for $5,000. Those are the things that have always astounded me.
CF: What’s the most expensive thing on CompleteSet?
Probably that clock I mentioned. It’s not really a watch or a clock, it’s kind of like a coffee table.
We have really old stuff too like some of the original Mickey dolls.
GD: Yeah, Disney is probably the second most popular archive on CompleteSet. We have over ten thousand Disney collectibles archived so far and about five thousand people collecting them. There are these original Mickey Mouse dolls and, talking about something that’s unusual, some of those are kind of creepy. The way they look it just kind of gives you the creeps. Also, vintage Halloween masks, Halloween must have been really scary back in the 1960’s and 1970’s because some of these masks made by a company called Ben Cooper, they looked just realistic enough to creep you out.
Overall, we have a very diverse set of items Everything from modern stuff to things dating back to 1925.
CF: What’s the oldest thing you have?
GD: Probably one of Disney collectibles from the 1920’s. Most collectibles are from the 20th century on. Prior to that people didn’t necessarily collect things but they did save things so before that it was stuff like collecting currency or military uniforms and patches.
CF: Are you planning on getting into things like numismatics?
GD: We haven’t done anything like stamps or coins yet but we may eventually. That audience tends to be older and therefore they’re more difficult to acquire. As a startup you want to go for the low hanging fruit and acquire people who will give us feedback on how the product works. You also want people who are OK with trying something new that may have some bugs. Typically people that are teenagers or in their twenties are going to be the most responsive in terms of feedback.
CF: So what kind of market would you go after next?
[pullquote]When I think about collectibles, I don’t think about any one particular spot so CompleteSet wants to be that place.[/pullquote]
GD: Probably sports memorabilia. music memorabilia, bobble heads, super bowl rings stuff like that.
CF: How do you get the lists of collectibles?
GD: It’s a lot of research and hunting down good images, having users provide the information. There’s really no one way to do it.
CF: So whats next for CompleteSet?
GD: Without naming too many specifics, the main thing will be additional funding to maintain and increase our momentum as a company and expand our team. We also plan to launch CompleteSet for Android. Right now we only have a website and an iOS app. Besides that, just creating an experience for users, having more content and adding new features. Just making a product better for everyone that’s using it.
CF: 25 years from now where do you see CompleteSet? What’s your big vision?
GD: The ultimate vision is to become the place that everyone associates with collectibles. You think about Etsy and you think about handmade crafts and individuals creating and selling in a market place. When I think about collectibles, I don’t think about any one particular spot so CompleteSet wants to be that place. The ultimate guide to collectibles, the stories behind them, the information behind them, the place to buy and sell them, discuss them. One place that has everything to do with the fascinating hobby of collecting.