20 Years of Right Stuf - Part 1By Lisa Marie, 2007
In the beginning...(there was space)
In the beginning, it wasn't about anime at all. It was about space. A Des Moines entrepreneur named Todd Ferson wanted to buy nice telescopes without paying full market price for them. So he formed what in business-speak is known as a "shell company."
A shell company is basically a company without any assets of its own which exists only to facilitate the business dealings of its owners. Todd, of course, used his "company" to purchase telescopes at wholesale prices. Feeling grandiose, he called it "The Right Stuff." Yes, with two f's. The name was in honor of the 1983 astronautical film The Right Stuff, which Todd was a big fan of. Eventually, he expanded the "company" and sold telescopes to others, bringing in The Right Stuff's very first profits.
It wasn't long after the telescope sales started taking off that Todd had another idea: Astro Boy. The series had been one of his favorite childhood shows and no matter how hard he looked, he hadn't been able to locate a copy of it anywhere. So, why not use the fledgling company to acquire it? But he'd need help doing the legwork, so he called up his friend Iowa State University student Shawne Kleckner. (Hopefully, that name sounds familiar to you from page 3.) Shawne thought it was a great idea.
In 1987, a global search began to locate the series. After visiting with the series' original US producer, Fred Ladd, Todd was able to make contact with the rights owner in Japan, and he negotiated for a license to release the show in North America.
License in hand, the company was ready to release its very first product - except for the one very small, teeny-tiny technicality. The Japanese rights holder didn't actually have any copies of the English version of the program. The version Todd remembered so vividly from his youth had been an adaptation produced by NBC from the original Astro Boy series released in Japan. So although they now held the rights to sell the series, they didn't have anything to sell. It would be Shawne's responsibility to put together something they could actually market.
But first, they decided to change the name of the company to something that would stand out a bit more in the business world: The Right Stuf, now with only one f. The idea was that the misspelling would help the new company be more memorable - and it worked, as my spellchecker never lets me forget.
Go Go Go Astro Boy!
Unfortunately, one of the first things Todd and Shawne discovered was that the original NBC masters for Astro Boy had all been destroyed in 1975. That left only one avenue of hope: that someone, somewhere, had gone against official policy and hoarded copies of the film prints (the film reels sent to local TV stations so that they could air the show). Fortunately, even before eBay was invented, it turns out people were still packrats.
In fact, it turned out that since first airing on American television stations in the 1960's, the film prints for this simple children's program had been spread far and wide - much further than either of them ever expected. During their hunt to track down every fan, collector, and TV station which might have a copy of an episode, reels turned up from countries as far away as Australia, Zimbabwe, and Tibet. It was a clear indication of the beloved global status Astro Boy had achieved, but it also wreaked havoc with the funds allocated for shipping the film prints back and forth.
Eventually, enough episodes were found to begin piecing together Right Stuf's very first release. Of course, finding them was only the beginning. There was still a lot of work to be done before the first tapes could be solicited to fans. The footage had to be organized, the film prints needed to be cleaned up, and the packaging still had to be put together. Shawne learned the hard way to never, ever, accidentally unroll a film reel unless you wanted to spend a week rolling it back up again.
Finally, in 1989 after two years of hard work, Astro Boy (and Right Stuf) were ready for the big time - or at least a couple of fanzine advertisements. Right Stuf's very first release was a VHS tape that contained two episodes of Astro Boy and retailed for $24.95. It was released in 1989 and was advertised in fanzines, film collector's and sci-fimagazines, and other places where underground fan-to-fan tape trading was already going on.
More volumes quickly followed the first, and Right Stuf debuted its mail-order catalog later that same year. Resembling more of a pamphlet than the behemoth it has grown into today, that first issue contained only four products: all Astro Boy tapes.
Fortunately, Astro Boy swiftly proved popular and sales were brisk. Fans were hungry for childhood nostalgia and Japanese cartoons, and Right Stuf was ready to give them what they wanted.
Classics and Catalogs
One classic 60's show having proven its worth, Shawne and Todd continued to acquire and release nostalgia titles. In 1990, Right Stuf began distribution of Gigantor, which had also been originally produced in the US by Fred Ladd. Tobor, the 8th Man followed swiftly on its heels in 1991. Between the three shows, there was a huge number of episodes and tapes to release, and behind the scenes, Shawne was handling almost every aspect of production alone under the title of "Executive Director."
Seeing the success of Astro Boy and Gigantor, both of which appeared on Tower Records' top-sellers list in 1991, Shawne began to explore where the retail side of Right Stuf's business could go. Since customers were always asking for more anime, why not expand the mail order catalog to include titles from other companies as well? He began approaching other companies who were also dealing in anime at the time, including Streamline Pictures, Central Park Media and AnimEigo, to see about adding their titles to his mail-order business.
The inquiries paid off, and by 1992 the catalog had grown from that single-page pamphlet to a four-page fold-out spread. While that admittedly may not sound like a lot in today's market, for '92 that was pretty impressive. The product listings had grown more than 10 times their original size to reach over 40 individual items, ranging from VHS tapes to merchandise such as t-shirts, posters, and animation cels of Gigantor signed by Fred Ladd himself. There were even issues of the early anime magazine Animenonimous, which was produced by Jeff Thompson. You could pay for your goodies with your choice of check, Mastercard, or Visa, and strikingly absent was a manga or graphic novels section, as that boom had yet to reach the United States. With the expansion of the retail side of things, the 1992 catalog also proudly proclaimed the company to now be "The Right Stuf International." We were ready for the big time.
Right Stuf Graduates to University
Up until 1994, Right Stuf had been operating out of what was essentially a large closet. But with the entire industry continuing to expand and the number of products available increasing rapidly, Right Stuf was quickly outgrowing its space. It was time to move.
In 1994, Right Stuf moved into its first real office. It represented a huge step for the company, but the office itself was definitely anything but big. Located on University Boulevard in Des Moines, Iowa, the suite consisted of two fairly good-sized rooms. One served as the multipurpose work area for receiving/shipping/answering calls/ desk area while the second room was the "warehouse," and believe me when I say I'm being generous with that term. Said warehouse contained all of two shelves: one held products that were available and the other held those that had been sold. Allocations were essentially made by moving copies from one table to the other. It wasn't exactly high tech, but it did work.
In fact, at this point in time everything was still being done by hand. While computers were growing in popularity, they were still a very proposition for a company with just two rooms to its name. Shipment labels were handwritten and credit-card orders were filled out using good old carbon copy forms. No one was more excited about the advancement of technology than Shawne when he learned he would never have to fill out another carbon copy form ever again.
Hoping to spread the carbon-copy load (and to actually get some sleep at night in-between labeling shipments), Shawne slowly began expanding Right Stuf's employee pool. Previously, Right Stuf had had one part-time employee plus Shawne, who was still working part-time himself in-between his duties as a full-time college student. Kris Kleckner, today's head of production and design, began working summers in 1994. Alysia Cohee, our General Manager, started in 1995. And most notably, Jeff Thompson, Right Stuf's first dedicated producer, was hired in 1994. Jeff took over production of the company's titles and mail-order materials, and would leave his distinctive stamp on every catalog produced during the rest of the decade.
Of course, back then, it didn't matter so much what you were hired for or what exactly your job title was. There was only one real job at Right Stuf: Jack of all Trades. Everyone - including Shawne - had to know how to enter orders, put together an outgoing shipment, answer phones, and - most importantly during an Iowa winter - shovel snow. Every day, one person would take the piles of shipments to the post office and return with bundles of new orders received in our PO Box. If we had 50 outgoing orders in one a day (which back then was considered an overwhelming number), then the designated employee was truly pitied.
On the anime production side of things, growth was happening, too. 1994 saw Right Stuf's first ventures outside of "classic" anime and into more contemporary titles such as Toward the Terra, Legend of the Forest, and Godmars. Later in 1995, we also added Ai City.
The catalog was growing right along with everything else, and by 1994 the small pamphlet had been transformed into a large 64-page bound booklet. For those keeping track, that's exponential growth from those 4 little pages just a mere two years before. 1994 was the first catalog to introduce Right Stuf's now standard 10% discount. At the time, the pricing structure was available only for subtitled-releases during that year, with the explanation that we felt the pricing scheme of tapes in general at the time to be "a little silly." The next year, we would extend the 10% discount to dubbed tapes as well.
But biggest of all in '94 was the advent of the Right Stuf website. Naturally, it being still early in the internet revolution, we didn't have our own domain name, as we do today. Our first address was the memorable http://www.infonet.net/showcase/taitei (try typing that into Google). The early website was very much a product of its times, complete with a splash page, spinning graphics, and the then ever-present frames that dominated the nineties. It would eventually go through many, many redesigns before finally settling on a more distinctive and permanent setup in 1999.
Anime (and Right Stuf) on the Rise
During the second half of the 90s, anime continued its exponential expansion as more and more companies popped up and acquired new series for US release. Akira was burning up the best-sellers' lists. Shows like Evangelion and Escaflowne were redefining expectations. The hentai boom was huge and giving rise to some early misconceptions about what this "Japananimation" thing was.
All the while, the Right Stuf catalog continued to evolve and change right along with the industry. Its only constant was Shawne's introductory letter on the front page, which in every catalog to this day mentions the steady growth of the industry - and the increase in the number of our product listings along with it.
It was obvious that times were changing, and signs of it were filtering into the catalogs' FAQs. There were questions about the early-yaoi title Kizuna (yes, we were carrying it), TV series (outside of Ranma ½, very few companies had any, but we'd carry them if they did), and Mobile Suit Gundam (no, it wasn't licensed, but we'd carry it when it was).
With the entire market booming, 1996 saw Right Stuf already needing to move again. This time it was across town into the back half of a suite on 104th Street in Urbandale, IA. Over the course of the next nine years, we would cannibalize the rest of the suite front of us, then the suite next door, the one next to that, and so on, until we had maxed out our space once again. We had long since outgrown those original two little shelves, and the enormous number of products going in and out each day had increased to the point where we gave up taking everything to the post office ourselves and paid them to come to us.
By 1996, Right Stuf was firmly established as the premier resource for fans looking for their anime fix. Along with general questions about orders and whether their cards had been charged, we were getting a lot of questions about products from other companies as well. Seeing an opportunity, Shawne approached some of the smaller companies (actually, most of the anime companies were still small at the time) and proposed that they outsource some services to Right Stuf, such as customer service. That way, customers would still get knowledgeable representatives, and the other companies could focus on what they did best - producing anime.
Over the years since then, we've taken care of a multitude of services for a number of different companies. (If you were wondering why Geneon's email address ends in "righstuf.com," now you know.) And it hasn't all just been answering customers on the phones, either. Between answering mail, handling data entry, creating webstores, and processing fulfillment, we've done just about everything at some point for one company or another in the business.
And of course, by now the catalog had taken on a life of its own. It had reached a massive 144 pages with over 2,200 individual items listed for sale, and was generating serious eyestrain for its poor proofreaders. But with the use of the internet becoming more widespread, even that monolith was starting to have some competition. Online shopping was becoming more popular and our web store was taking more and more orders all the time. In September 1996, our website moved from its previous long domain to its current and final home: www.rightstuf.com.
Captain Tylor Arrives!
With the advent of 1997, Right Stuf reached its ten-year birthday, and celebrated the milestone with new licenses! First up that spring was Leda: The Fantastic Adventure of Yohko, an OVA series. But Leda would be quickly overshadowed that fall by what is still Shawne's favorite anime series: The Irresponsible Captain Tylor.
Tylor was a big announcement in many ways. It was the first series for which we launched a dedicated website to go with the show: www.tylor.com. It was the first TV series (as opposed to the shorter OVAs) that we would produce an English version of ourselves, instead of relying on previously created materials. And in a very unusual move, we announced a "fansub amnesty" program, wherein anyone could send in a copy of their VHS Tylor fansubs for a 50% discount on the first volume of the show. This program has never been duplicated by any company and likely never will, thanks to the advent of the digital era.
Rare for the anime industry, Tylor even spawned a record label. Always ready to fill an empty niche, Right Stuf had been producing merchandise to go with its titles all along (Astro Boy shirts, anyone?), but in 1997 we expanded further, this time into the realm of music. Creating the label "Stuftoonz," we released two of the soundtracks for The Irresponsible Captain Tylor.
A Bright Outlook
And so the first part of our narrative concludes with Right Stuf celebrating its tenth anniversary and a full decade of satisfied anime customers. Meanwhile, the anime star was shining brighter than ever. Internet forums and Usenet groups were taking off as anime fans discovered each other online and congregated. Anime conventions, such as Anime Expo and Otakon, were growing every year, as were the number of sailor scouts cosplaying. DVDs were poised on the horizon to finally end the eternal dub-versus-sub wars that had raged since the VCR was invented. Manga was slowly working its way into the comic book stores as carefully colored versions of Akira and Oh My Goddess were published.
It was a very good time to be a fan (and anime retailer), but even better times were just around the corner…