In the driver’s seat

In the driver’s seat

It all started when 38-year-old Tim Kimber saw a strange-looking toy car. Wanting to bring this car to the masses, Kimber struck a deal and his company PlaSmart Inc. was born. Twelve years later, PlaSmart is a niche player in the toy business with $11-million in revenue. It imports innovative products from countries like Wales and Indonesia, and sells its PlasmaCar to more than 50 countries around the world.

Vitals
PLASMART INC.

Ottawa


Founded in:

2003


280,000

PlasmaCars sold in 2013

Tim’s Tips
  • Listen to feedback from people who have been in the marketplace for a while. I see people with great inventions and new products who want to do everything themselves.
  • I have had some great success, but also some products that have bombed. I like to start by getting the products into small stores and building a brand
  • Good partnerships are key. I showed up to Bin Chen’s store with a $5,000 cheque and that’s what convinced him to do business with me.

In late 2002, I went into a store, in an Ottawa mall, that a first-generation Chinese immigrant named Bin Chen had recently opened. He and a business partner had this idea that they were going to go to China to find relatively inexpensive products, import them and sell them at retail in the mall.

On one of his trips, he discovered a toy car that he found really interesting. It didn’t need batteries, gears or pedals: Just sit in the car, turn the steering wheel and watch it go forward. He really believed in this car, so he bought a whole container of product, imported it and started selling it in the store.

When I got in the car myself and started driving it, I couldn’t get off. I ended up driving it around the mall. There was something unique and magical about it.

At the time, I was running a full-time e-commerce business out of my home selling highend Swarovski crystal. I told Bin that I thought the car had a lot more potential, that he could do better if it wasn’t just in one store in the mall.

We talked over the next month and came up with an agreement for the distribution and marketing rights. Bin was calling it Fun Car, but I thought it needed a more unique name. I called it PlasmaCar, because, in 2002, everyone wanted a plasma TV. We showed it for the first time at the Canadian Toy & Hobby Fair in January 2003, and it was the hit of the show. We were able to sell it into quite a few specialty toy retailers in Ontario and, because of Bin’s initial investment, we were able to start delivering products right away.

One of the biggest problems with the PlasmaCar is that it’s so unique in the way it operates that people don’t understand it by looking at it. I would ride it around at trade shows looking like a clown. Even today, stores like Indigo always have a demo in their children’s section. Kids come in and ride them and they don’t want to get off. That may not be a good thing for parents, but it’s a good thing for me.

When we started, we had the cars stacked in garages and basements and all sorts of different places. Now, we outsource our warehousing, logistics and back office to a company in Pennsylvania. We have a staff of 10 lin a downtown Ottawa office that does sales, marketing and administration. We outsource everything else, including our design, social media, marketing and public relations. We also have more than 120 independent sales reps across North America. We like to hire outside people to manage our costs.

I still work with Bin today. This has been a long-term partnership. He understands China more than I could ever understand it, so he handles the Chinese side of the business and I handle the North American side. Everything is different in China and it’s very difficult for North Americans to understand the culture, but you do need to find trading partners who are honourable and trustworthy.

We also have other products – games, colouring books and more – that I’ve found by travelling to every toy show you could think of and walking aisle after aisle. It’s just me pounding the pavement, looking for innovation in the toy business.

There’s some great product in the marketplace, and going forward I’d like to acquire some of the single-product companies that are selling them so we’re not always relying on outside inventions.

I just turned 50, I’m single and I don’t have any kids. If I had children I would have to grow up.

- Claire Gagné / Photograph by John Kealy