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Steve Cober: On Quitting Your Day Job & Building A Business With Heart

After a three-year career working as an Art Director for an international ad agency, Steve Cober was let go. 9/11 had just happened, dot com 1.0 was crashing, and advertising budgets were drying up. But instead of searching for a company that would finally put his creative ideas to work, Steve decided to create one.

Inspired by the toy-crazed Japanese and a young-at-heart outlook on life, Steve used his agency severance package to start Magic Pony, a Toronto-based studio, gallery, and retail space that has become a beacon for artists, designers, and collectors.When we met, Cober greeted me at the door to Magic Pony and quickly pulled me inside for a breathless mini-tour:

“These mushrooms are beautiful! They’re by Tania Sanhueza. She actually started doing the mushrooms as an experiment where she was taking antique  furniture and sewing in these angora or cashmere mushrooms into the cracks of sofas and curtains as nature’s way of taking the space back.”"Some other cool things are… oh! Maybe it’s a Canadian sense of humor, but check out these Plants You Cannot Kill! They’re these crocheted cacti by an artist named Shannon Gerard.”

“Our current exhibit is called Venus Cake by Junko Mizuno. It’s the first in a series of three shows all about food obsession and putting food in your body. In this piece she cut the breasts off to fan the pancakes out of her heart flame.”

Needless to say, Steve’s enthusiasm for what he does is infectious. We went on to chat about the perils of diving into retail without a business plan, why collectors really collect, and how Dungeons and Dragons can guide your hiring process.

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Cat Sculpture by Ginette Lapalme

Have you always been a collector?

Oh hell yah. I’m interested in collecting things and I’m interested in making things and I’m interested in objects as culture. When I was a kid my favorite toys were a Japanese line called “The Interchangeable World of Micronauts,” a predecessor to Transformers. They were based on magnets and interchangeable pegs, a little bit like Lego in a way, and you could buy 3 Micronauts and make 10 new toys out of it. That became the premise for how I thought about toys.

What’s the value in collecting?

For me personally, collecting is in part a way of remembering. I can remember people and times and events because of objects. When I see a comic book or a ticket from a movie it instantly snaps me back, like a catalyst for your life. Collecting helps you explore who you are or what you’re into. I never collect for money, that’s not really interesting to me. I collect for the object itself and the moment in which you collect it.
That said, at a certain point it becomes a burden and you start to be weighed down by just the physicality of it all. So it is important to cull everything – I just recently threw out all my clothes from high school because I had to face the fact that I’m never going to wear this Jane’s Addiction t-shirt again.

But I’m not one of those people that is obsessed with youth culture. I think getting older is far more interesting.

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“Plants You Cannot Kill” by Shannon Gerard

That seems counter-intuitive since Magic Pony seems to be all about playfulness and youth.

Getting older doesn’t necessarily mean getting serious. It’s about the fact that as you get older you get wiser, and you can be wise and playful. As long as you stay involved and you keep excited about things then you only get richer as a person. Thinking back to your youth and focusing on what was important and what you learned from it, not that things were better then.

I don’t think it’s wrong to love all of those things that gave you energy as a child or an adolescent. I just think it’s important that you have perspective on them and to develop them. At Pony, we’re essentially just trying to find things that’ll make you happy, whether that’s tiny food objects, original art, or a really interesting book like a Shary Boyle or a Micah Lexier. We try to cover the whole gamut. And it’s also really interesting to witness what is meaningful to different people.
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Miniatures and plush toys at Magic Pony

You worked as an Art Director at Leo Burnett before deciding to go out on your own. What was your motivation?

It was one of those situations that I think every creatives feels, where you’re like, “I have all these great ideas, or I want to pitch these things and work with these people, but I can’t seem to push it through on any project with clients or even with my team.” My business partner, Kristin, was feeling the same way at the time, where she was interested in all these innovative fashion lines from Japan but she couldn’t find a place for them in Canada.

We both travelled a lot and were aware of what was happening in London, Tokyo, New York and Hong Kong, and I was noticing that all of these places had this kind of culture prospering that was a design-cum-art toy multiples, and I was wondering why this wasn’t happening in Toronto – the fifth largest city in North America. The simple premise of starting Magic Pony was: “If not now, when?” Why be the person complaining that it’s not happening? We decided to just make it happen and we thought the worst thing that will come of it is failure.

And with that enthusiasm, we basically just went for it with no plan. We loosely just wrote it out on notepads, like “This is what we’ll do!” In hindsight, it would have been wiser to have created a business plan and sensible targets. Instead, initially we traveled to Japan and New York to search out products and invite creators to collaborate. And most people were into it – no one had ever asked them to be part of something like this in Canada before.

Why be the person complaining that it’s not happening? We decided to just make it happen and we thought the worst thing that will come of it is failure.

What was that first year like, working without a plan?

The first year of Magic Pony was probably the year I grew the most as a human being, because we realized pretty quickly the size and scope of what we were trying to do – which was ridiculous without a formal plan. But, what propelled us forward was the immediate connection we made with people.

We opened Magic Pony on a very small scale – a salon style pop-up that was open for five hours once a week and people had to make appointments via email. We met people like Mars-1, Kozyndan, Derrick Hodgson and emerging art collective Team Macho and they ended up being the first artists that we worked with. So right from the get-go our customers were practicing designers and artists and they shared the same vision that we had.

We basically ran the business off of shared enthusiasm. After four months of that, we opened up a small second location and Kristin and I were both working other jobs at the same time – she was doing freelance writing and I was doing freelance design – so Pony was really a labor of love, not money.

We each have a personal interest in traveling and collecting things, so the business is pretty much an extension of me [laughs], and Kristin and I are both really interested in the idea of creative commerce and how it doesn’t have to be soul-sucking to shop.

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Various cats at Magic Pony

Today, Magic Pony is sort of an ecosystem. It has expanded from designer toys to include two galleries, events, a publishing imprint, and a summer camp for kids. How do all of these things make sense together?

I think any sensible person would just think we’re crazy to be so multi-faceted. We’re only seven people; our company is pretty tiny. But honestly, when you say Pony is an ecosystem that’s perfect because we want to be kind of a dynamic platform for opportunity. It’s all about opportunity and participating in art.

Our goal is to curate a selection of creators and goods and there are numerous opportunities to get people involved in this goal. We have the shop because it’s an approachable way of connecting people with artists whether that’s through a piece of jewelry or plush mushrooms or a toy. We appeal to people who like to make things or who are creative themselves. It’s part of their vocabulary to collect or to spark ideas from going to a store like Magic Pony.

We’re quite DIY, so it’s a natural extension to create products ourselves. Part of the opportunity for us is not only getting to collaborate with artists but also to participate. So that’s when it takes the form of, say, publishing. We wanted to make books because we wanted to make our selection of products better and we wanted to champion the artists we work with.

And the camp is for fun. We have a little generation of art kids that are growing up with Pony and they collect Dunnies, Tokidoki and mini foods. And we thought it would be really cool to have a character camp so that kids can get involved with making the kinds of things that we have for sale at Magic Pony. And also, kids are good energy. You learn a lot from them.
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Steve Cober in front of solo exhibit “In-Between”

In doing so many things and running a business that never stays the same, do you ever feel like you’re spread too thin?

Absolutely.

So how do you stay organized and focused?

Build a good team and delegate. One of the keys to building a strong company for us was in hiring people that are better than we are. By hiring someone that’s better at getting things organized or a better designer – you can make the vision and lead them and it’s always collaborative, but you’ll get what’s best for your business. I can use a D&D [Dungeons and Dragons] example to illustrate. In any kind of adventuring party, you need a warrior, a wizard, a priest, and a thief. The thief is for the delicate seeking, the priest is for when you need the power of the gods, the wizard for multitasking and the warrior for heavy lifting. And all of those people work together. Companies are the same –  you need to build a creative system that supports a range of players.

How do you find the artists that you work with?

You have to search for them. I’m really old-fashioned, I travel. Truthfully I don’t have that much time to search Etsy or Tumblr, I find that far less satisfying and far more random. I’d rather take recommendations from people – artists, collectors and friends that understand us. We’ll seek out the work, if we like it we’ll meet with the creator, and if we get along personally then we’ll collaborate on a project or carry their work. So it’s very personal.

I’m an entrepreneur, I at the very least reserve the right to not have to work with people I don’t like. I don’t want to. If you like what I do and I like what you do then things will be amazing. But if you have some kind of reservation about what we do or if you’re in anyway not 100% on it, then there are people who will be. So why waste time, you know?

Any advice for aspiring artists who want to get their work shown?

Get involved with real life. Go to conferences, join groups, go to art shows, and engage with people face to face – it makes a world of difference.

Jenn Godbout

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Jenn is the Associate Director of Partnerships for Behance, working with clients like Pantone, AOL, RISD and Wacom. Prior to joining Behance, Jenn was the Sr. Marketing Manager for The Drake Hotel in Toronto. Say hello on Twitter
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