A shared love for NERF battles inspired co-founders Brandon Neo (third from right) and Bryan Tan (fourth from right) to establish Blaster Empire. (Photo: Blaster Empire)
A chorus of childlike laughter is just what Brandon Neo is used to. As the co-founder of NERF battle enterprise Blaster Empire, work looks like fun and play but there’s more to the business than epic NERF shootouts: what lies behind is grit, determination, and a lot of hard work.
Having a childhood fascination with NERF blasters, he spent many a day exploring the joys of NERF blasters with his friends and family. The then-19 year old met his co-founder Bryan Tan while serving National Service, and the duo quickly bonded over a shared love for NERF battles. As their passion for the game grew, they began initiating blaster shootouts with their friends, adapting objects in their environment – like used carton boxes – to form barricades in creating their own setup.
Their passion for NERF battles was what inspired the pair to bring the experience to others. “We realised this isn’t just a toy for kids; young adults, even adults can enjoy them a lot. We wanted to bring it to the masses.”
Eventually, they built up the ‘nerf’ to start their very own events company, and Blaster Empire was born. Today, the pair organise NERF blaster shootouts for company cohesion and parties alike.
Starting Blaster Empire from scratch did not come easy. Fresh out of the army, the pair faced the challenge of limited capital in trying to build up a store of equipment – blasters, NERF darts and obstacles – for their business. To reduce costs, they used existing blasters, while sourcing for other equipment they needed, such as NERF darts.
“Initially we worked with second hand blasters, using blasters I had at home to provide a baseline, before getting new first hand blasters and improving obstacles,” Brandon recalls.
In a bid to cut costs, the Blaster Empire team acquired preloved and unused blasters from Carousell to increase their inventory. (Photo: Blaster Empire)
To expand their fleet of blasters, they turned to online marketplace platforms such as Carousell to source for unused and preloved blasters. Creativity was key - as customised equipment for obstacles was costly, the pair instead tried to repurpose existing items to create rugged landscapes and obstacles, while sourcing for additional equipment from suppliers overseas.
Finding venues for gameplay was another issue.
“When we were starting out, we were working with leads that came in, or word of mouth referrals. We were looking at one to two [referrals per month] for the first few months,” says Brandon, adding that their earnings back then were insufficient to sustain a space.
Public parks and spaces such as *SCAPE Playspace became fair game as venues for shootouts. But they soon realised that such open public spaces presented a new set of challenges as an area for gameplay, due to the possibility of disturbing passers-by.
To tackle this issue, the team eventually settled on a new business model: bringing the NERF blaster experience to their clients’ venues of choice. From homes and function rooms to indoor sports halls, Brandon and Bryan worked hard to find suitable venues for every client.
This approach helped to reduce costs for clients, as the team was able to avoid incorporating additional operational costs of venue rental into their packages.
“The silver lining of this is that in bringing our packages to the client, everything is being moved to them,” he says. “All they have to worry about is the date and time of their event.”
As business took off, Blaster Empire began hosting larger events at spaces such as Our Tampines Hub. (Photo: Blaster Empire)
Things took a turning point in 2017, when Blaster Empire started collaborating with SAFRA to conduct cohesion events. Business flourished, and the pair were able to expand their fleet, renting a storage space to hold their increasing inventory. The team also took to cold emailing and pitching their concept to potential clients to increase leads.
Their efforts paid off: today, long term working relationships with clients have helped to keep business afloat amid quieter months. To handle increased demand and manage costs during busier seasons such as the school holidays, Brandon shares that the on-ground crew and van transportation is activated on an ad-hoc basis, and that his team opts for self-storage solutions which are more cost-effective and easier to manage. Staff training is also conducted by his team and experienced crew members, allowing them to host concurrent events and train a sizeable team of crew members.
While much of his time was spent on administrative matters, Brandon and his partner took care to maintain active participation in on-ground events. With increased project inflow, the team was able to expand, bringing in part-timers to aid with blaser shootouts.
“We were very fortunate to have a group of people who were very excited about what we’re doing,” says Brandon, adding that facilitators would often join the game. “We didn’t want people who were just there to facilitate; we wanted people to enjoy the experience.”
Pivoting with the pandemic
But things ground to a halt with the start of the pandemic.
As many of Blaster Empire’s events included parties and corporate cohesion sessions, social distancing guidelines and restrictions on gathering sizes prevented the pair from conducting blaster battles. Brandon and Bryan were also reluctant to continue hosting events, as they did not want to pose a safety risk to their clients.
“For the first year of the pandemic, we only had one job. We were very reluctant to take it on, because we felt a responsibility to make sure that we did not contribute to the pandemic situation,” he explains.
Faced with the pressure to keep the business afloat, they felt compelled to revise their existing business model to include rental services for their equipment, instead of focusing solely on on-ground events. Although they worried that the change would affect brand perception, they decided to move ahead with expanding their services.
“We had to learn to be okay with operating with a different model… We had to pivot, otherwise we’re never going to survive,” shares Brandon.
To their surprise, business began to pick up, especially for one of their main target audiences – parents hosting birthday parties.
“Parents appreciated the fact that they could let the kids play a bit, cut a birthday cake or have lunch, maybe have a different group of friends come over and play again. I think they appreciated the flexibility. We started seeing more packages coming in from them.”
They also adhered to more stringent safety measures. Prior to the pandemic, the team had already instilled practices such as the donning of safety glasses during gameplay; this was changed to face shields, which helped protect players’ faces and promote better hygiene.
Aside from having a dedicated cleaning routine during setup, the team ensured that all equipment used was wiped after every game, and that participants sanitised their hands as an additional safety precaution - measures that they intend to keep as Blaster Empire returns to conducting blaster shootouts.
With the start of the school holidays 2022 and the recent raise in gathering sizes, Brandon and Bryan have noticed an increased number of inquiries. (Photo: Blaster Empire)
With the June holidays well underway, things are looking up. Following the increase in permitted gathering sizes, Brandon reveals that Blaster Empire has received more enquiries, and that his team has reached out to their business and consumer contacts to discuss potential events.
Optimising their workflow to allow for collaboration was a focal point for Brandon and Bryan in running Blaster Empire.
“We saw an urgent need to make sure that all our processes were online in a collaborative way. We needed to make sure both of us were synced up with everything, from invoices to administrative documents, contracts, business plans and finances,” says Brandon.
While the team formerly used WhatsApp to coordinate bookings and scheduling, they turned to an appointment scheduling software tool to organise events and avoid overbooking.
“We want to make it an easier process to book sessions and make enquiries with us,” he shares.
Digitalisation plans are also in the works, as they have begun to adopt digital tools such as Microsoft Teams and task management tool Trello to make work processes more efficient.
Aside from internal processes, they have also been ramping up their marketing efforts, with plans to overhaul their website and explore social media marketing campaigns.
Moving forward, the team hopes to return to running Nerf wars, and working with previous clients to bring the joy of blaster battles to others.
The Blaster Empire team looks forward to hosting more NERF shootout sessions, such as this blaster battle at ACE The Place Community Club with Admiralty Zone 4 RC earlier this year. (Photo: Blaster Empire)
Bringing a blast from the past to the future
Reflecting on his journey thus far, Brandon shares that he’s grateful for the opportunities he has had, and the chance to see his clients enjoy the NERF blaster war experience.
“Kids get very, very excited when they see me bringing in a whole cartload of blasters. They run to it and start screaming,” he laughs. “I will say that everybody has a child inside, especially when it comes to NERF guns. You get to see adults ease up as they play the game, revisiting part of their childhood. It’s very heartening.”
“Whenever we get tired, what keeps me going is when the children come up to me at the end of the day and say ‘Thank you so much for the games’.”
For prospective business owners looking to dive into new business ventures, he advises them to seek honest feedback from loved ones and acquaintances alike, to get unbiased opinions.
“Let them question you, test your business idea, rip your idea apart. If it still holds up, then you know you might be onto something. You need the idea to be torn down so that you can build it up better.”
Creating a prototype of one’s product and pitching it to others can also help to overcome inertia, he says.
“Create something close to what you envisioned a product to be and ‘sell’ it to someone, so you know how difficult it is to provide the service or product and to understand your own idea better. The most important thing is that you’ve broken the barrier of not daring to try.”
Brandon also advises business owners to be open to adapting their services amid change.
“Know when to cut your losses. Sometimes you have to kill the idea so that you have the mental space to think of a better one. The target audience is going to change, the world’s going to move on, and nothing stays constant, as much as you would like it to.”
Feeling inspired to take your idea to the next level by starting your own venture? Check out the Start-up Guide on GoBusiness to learn about the key steps to kick off your entrepreneurship journey!
This article is accurate as at 17 Jun 2022