Passion to profit: Filbar’s transition from comics to collectibles

Passion to profit: Filbar’s transition from comics to collectibles

By Miguel Hanz L. Antivola, Reporter

PURSUING a hobby for business is no walk in the park, as it still requires discipline and market research to succeed, according to Jacob Reuben A. Cabochan, president of Filbar’s, a comic book outlet turned pop culture collectible hub.

When Mr. Cabochan and his fellow comic hobbyist friends from high school decided to take over the 34-year-old company’s operations a decade ago, they knew it needed to be sustained and transformed for today’s demand.

“We were the customers of the old Filbar’s,” he said in an interview with BusinessWorld. “You had Marvel movie series such as Captain America and Iron Man starting during that time, so we said that maybe it’s time to reinvent Filbar’s.”

Named after its founder, Filemon Barbasa, Filbar’s started in 1979 as a small comic book shop in Greenhills, San Juan, which saw an opportunity to bring international comic fanfare to the Philippines.

“Especially in the 1990s, a comic book would go into print for like 1-5 million copies just for a single issue,” Mr. Cabochan said. “But eventually, it hit cycles and the comic industry fell.”

Filbar’s pivoted to selling back issue magazines in the next decade, yet it took another downturn and forced the business to close some stores, he added.

In 2013, Mr. Cabochan and his partners acquired Filbar’s, adamant to revive the comic market and serve its hardcore fanbases in the country. Yet, they also knew the business had to take another route to keep it standing, separate from their passion.

“We knew it wouldn’t be as big as before, but it wasn’t enough to sustain our operations,” he said. “We thought of what else we could add.”

Since the revamp, Filbar’s has started tapping into pop culture collectibles from Western superhero franchises, alongside Eastern intellectual property (IP), such as manga and anime.

Mr. Cabochan has observed that the comic and publishing market favors Japanese and Korean IPs, which the offerings of Filbar’s have started catering to more.

“We found that Japanese publishing companies would outsell Marvel by 10x,” he said, noting that comic book stores in the United States stock more manga now than Western IP.

“If you’re a collectible shop, you have to see and focus on what’s popular. You have to be on trend,” he added, regarding the close attention to the market needed to bolster the business and avoid another plunge.

Aside from stores not operating during the pandemic, Mr. Cabochan noted how the halt of big movie releases also had a halo effect on the collectible industry.

“Studios were hesitant to release during the pandemic, so you didn’t have any big movies or events, which means there is no demand for any collectible,” he said. “But you still had the old fan bases who are still regulars to this day.”

He added inventory management as a challenge the business continuously faces, where collectible and IP licensors cannot share much information for fear of spoilers.

“Sometimes we would order products not knowing what it is,” he said. “When it comes out, you have a range of products, which is not a lot of the popular figure, or only a few that suddenly sell out in a day or two,” he said.

For most, a hobby turned business seems like a dream come true, but Mr. Cabochan said he does not recommend it. “You have to have the discipline to run it like a business.”

“So if you think of it as a hobby, you would lose money because you would only buy stuff that you like,” he added. “I still have to re-educate myself because we cater to a lot of fandoms.”

There is a forced need to research and imbibe the rest of the target market, according to Mr. Cabochan.

“You have other customers as well, and you have to see what else they would like,” he said, adding that the company is currently tapping the younger side of its market as part of its strategy.