January 31, 2020

I knew I had to meet Jeffrey Koh after hearing both Little Ong and Eddie Sung (avid toy collectors) speak highly of him. The chance finally came when he was putting together the first-ever toy-focused convention in Singapore that was held in conjunction with Street Superior—a festival for hypebeasts to flex and fawn over streetwear, music, art and sneakers.

Professionally, Jeffrey is the owner of Nerf Creative, a local creative agency, but on the side, he produces tongue-in-cheek toys under a company called FLABSLAB“the guys that your mothers warned you about.” Their infamous tone of voice consists of double entendres and racy insinuations born out of Jeffrey’s larger-than-life personality—a man who unabashedly calls himself a “con man” for organising Big Big Con and selling shit that people don’t need.

As much as his reputation precedes him, Jeffrey has managed to strike a balance between his two selves (and not take himself too seriously) in the midst of it all.

High Net Worth: How did Big Big Con come about?

Jeffrey Koh: I’ve been attending the toy conventions in Singapore for the past 8-9 years, but over time, my experiences became diluted because these conventions would cover other interest groups such as cosplay, anime, comics, etc.

Since I’ve always wanted a more intimate experience for toy collectors and artists to hang out, I decided to take matters into my own hands. A couple of months before Big Big Con, I had a chat with Sharon [Chong] from one11. We actually participated in Street Superior 2018 and had a booth called Misadventure Time, in collaboration with Cartoon Network. She asked if I was participating again but I did not have the budget, so she lobbied for us to be a part of Street Superior 2019. I accepted the offer as she would take charge of tickets and logistics, while I would create the content and bring in the artists.

Naming-wise, we had a hard time. Eventually, we settled on Big Big Con (BBC). It also means something very naughty and graphic in another context and Con is also a wordplay on convention and con job. Evidently, we like to make fun of ourselves.

How did you get the artists to participate in Big Big Con?

By pulling in favours. Big Big Con is an amalgamation of artists and friends whose work I admire and they have an audience as well. The last thing I want to do is to organise a Con and nobody buys anything.

Were there any pieces created exclusively for this event?

The main brief that I gave every booth was to launch something that is exclusive to the con. It doesn’t matter if it’s one piece or ten different designs. It gives people a reason to come down and buy stuff. Another interesting thing is that other than just creating toys, a couple of the pieces have been chipped with VeChainThor blockchain technology. Authenticity is becoming a huge problem in the scene—there are artists who post a picture online without even launching the actual toy, and fakes come out from China even before they decide to produce it. That’s why we wanted to work with VeChain to try and combat this issue. Other than authenticity, there is also the fun factor where you can hide easter eggs in them as well.

How would you describe FLABSLAB?

It is actually more of a passion project and not exactly a company. It’s a struggle right now because it has sort of taken over my life. My business card is designed with two different sides. The front is Nerf Creative, a creative agency that I started 19 years ago, and we do advertising, design, and take on corporate jobs to pay the bills. On the back, you’ll see the FLABSLAB branding. Whatever little money that we make, it goes towards funding these projects that we do under FLABSLAB. The same people who work for Nerf Creative also work for FLABSLAB—we all have double jobs. One moment we could be raging about a corporate project, and the next we could be doing a fun project. We are complaining less often than before because there is currently a balance.

Do you think that starting FLABSLAB has helped your team to stay more creative and fulfilled?

The world is evolving rapidly and my advice to all my employees is that you cannot stagnate by doing design work only. I send my staff to attend courses to learn ZBrush, 3D sculpting, painting classes; so that they are exposed to different skill sets as well. Somebody designing a brochure for our corporate client would also be designing his or her own toy and creating it.

Must all your employees be interested in toys?

We are not a big team. Initially, some were not into toys. But, over time, after much exposure, all of them have learnt to embrace it as part of their lives. At one point in time, about seven years ago, I had about fifteen employees and that was the worst time of my life. People started forming cliques and all it took was one bad apple to ruin the entire team dynamic. Business was booming, but people started leaving and I couldn’t take it anymore. I wasn’t about to look for replacements either.

At the end of the day, I don’t mind the long hours and nasty clients, but people management takes up so much of my time. I’m not embarrassed to say that my team only consists of the four of us. You don’t need to hold hands when you leave the office, but at least when we are working together, let’s work together as a team and make sure that we outdo our competitors.

Speaking of advice, how do you strike a balance between working on your own passion projects and soul-sucking corporate work?

Based on what I’ve gone through, get a job that pays the bills. You need that peace of mind because a hungry artist is of no good to the world. You’ll just be complaining about your life and be consumed with negativity. I have three young kids, tons of paperwork to do every day, but I still try and find time to come up with new ideas and projects, talk to different people, and learn new things. You just need to find a balance that works for you. Money is never enough.

It’s also about having the curiosity and hunger to learn and improve.

You need to stay hungry, which is also the reason why we partnered with VeChain. I always try to inject new and fun elements into toy collecting.

How did you find your brand voice?

I like to curse a lot. [laughs] My job in life is not to please everybody, but to have a clear conscious and to be a decent human being—even if my voice doesn’t resonate with everyone. At least I get to live on my own terms. And I don’t go around robbing people and cursing at them for no reason. 

The “Fuck You Lah” phrase was born out of the army. When you were a private or a recruit, your sergeant or encik will always say things like “fuck you lah”, or “run to the coconut tree and come back”. So one day, I decided to recreate that as a souvenir for myself and it started to gain a lot of traction. A lot of doubters would say that “lah” is such a Singaporean term and it is not going to resonate with people overseas, but we’ve had friends all over the world who really liked it. You just have to explain that “lah” is essentially like saying “man”, isn’t it?

What’s the story behind the moniker “Le Fucker”?

All employees, including myself (I was an employee before), always think that their bosses are assholes. No matter what the bosses do, they are fuckers. I decided to embrace it and call myself the Fucker, but that’s a bit crude, so I added the “Le” in front for a classy twist.

I saw that you produced a figurine of yourself as well.

It was an egoistic project. I have a very good friend who did an illustration of me and sent it to me one day. I turned that illustration into a sticker and he came by the studio on his day off, got intrigued and decided to purchase the necessary materials to make a sculpture of me based on the illustration. A couple of weeks later, it was completed—a mini-me with big balls. I thought that it was quite cute, so I decided to make some pieces of myself.

What did your employees think of that?

They probably think that I’m a mad man. Sometimes I truly wonder what goes on in their heads when I ask them to work on projects like that. I don’t know if they’re rolling their eyes or it’s something fun for them to do. But I think they are starting to realise that life is already so difficult and we don’t have to take life too seriously.

How do you price your products?

That’s always a challenge and it’s all about risk management. I don’t expect to sell everything, therefore the mantra is always to cover the cost and make back enough money to fund the next project. Pricing is an art, because you don’t want to price items too high that you can’t sell anything at all. 

I notice that there is a lot of bootlegging going on in the toy scene. Is there an acceptable threshold? Even for FLABSLAB, you draw from pop culture references.

I wouldn’t say that we are bootleggers. The traditional term for bootlegging is people reproducing something, casting it and then making it seem like it’s the real deal endorsed by the brand. For example, all those fake Louis Vuitton bags you see on the streets—we will never do something like that. We may be accused of stealing ideas or parodying, but parodying is not exactly a crime. With regard to our Kaws-inspired pieces, many questioned if Kaws came after us for that.

Can Kaws be considered a bootlegger?

I wouldn’t call him a bootlegger, he references stuff. Therefore, if he were to ever come after us, he would be the biggest hypocrite. He stole from The Simpsons and Mickey Mouse before he made a name for himself. I’m not justifying our actions but in those pieces that we did, we were making a comment about his art—because at one point, he was simply slapping crosses on Snoopy, Woodstock and a couple of other characters. I’ve always thought that the ‘Companion’ figure had so much potential, and that was why we created it in different poses like Abraham Linkawn. There’s always a story or statement behind what we do. 

What is the process like when you want to launch a new product?

Everything starts with an idea. The next step is deciding whether I can afford to fund the project. Once that is settled, we either sculpt it traditionally or use a 3D programme. When we first started, I would do things the traditional way because I enjoy turning a lump of clay into a 3D object. For the past couple of years, 3D sculpting is faster and it allows us to do models in different sizes. Once the sculpt is ready, we will 3D print it and get the paint done before sending it to the factory. Thereafter, we’ll decide the kind of material and quantity to produce.

Making toys is the easy part. The challenge lies in finding an audience to sell your pieces. You can create the most beautiful toy with a limited run of 50 pieces, but what if nobody buys it? Offering discounts is something we will never do. We want to be honest to the people who support us. Anyone who buys our toys will know that they will never go on sale. 

What kind of toys do you like to collect?

I collect adult toys! [laughs] I’ve been collecting shit for the longest time since I was young: panini stickers, stamps, coins, you name it, I’ve probably collected it. I’ve been doing that for the past 25 years but the focus has sort of shifted. I have no patience and get distracted very easily, so I can be inspired by anything from a 50 cent coin in a neighbourhood store to something that I see in the museum. My collecting philosophy is simple: do I like it enough, whether I can afford it, and not having to queue for it. 

Are you emotionally attached to your collection?

There are a couple of pieces that mean quite a lot to me, but my dream is for someone to buy over my entire studio. I came into this world with nothing, and I’m not going to be able to take anything when I go, so I don’t have any emotional attachment. People collect because the thrill is really in the hunt and the relationships that you build over the years. 

There isn’t much information about your studio, even on your website

It’s kind of a paradox. We’re creatives, but we do such a shitty job at marketing ourselves. We don’t have a portfolio online because I believe we are only as good as our last piece of work. Every creative agency will tell you that they provide the best strategies and the best solutions, that they have clients from A to Z, even longer than the Yellow Pages. It’s like finding a chicken rice seller that will tell you they sell the best chicken rice.

Ultimately, clients want you to solve their problems. Most of our clients are referrals and by word of mouth. If you want to win awards, don’t join us. I’m not in the business of winning awards because that is selfish thinking. Creatives create work for their clients, not to win awards for themselves. It can be a by-product of your work, but our mantra is to produce exceptional work, make our clients look good and hopefully get paid.