Updated: Apr 12, 2018
Hi guys. The purpose of this particular collection of blog posts is to highlight some of the interesting people I get to meet in my professional and life. Throughout my career I have met so many amazing people. I will forever have the memory of getting to cut Stefan Lessard's hair from Dave Matthews Band, Michael Sgarbossa and Andrew O'Brien from the Might Ducks, Matthew Lillard from Scream, and a few more.
With hair you don't always know who is going to sit in your chair. I live in Orange County, California, and there are so many industries represented in this small metropolitan area. This first chat I post in the series will be of one of my favorite clients, John Sepenuk. Maybe being part owner in a cartoon and video game merchandising company has kept him fun and young and never taking himself very seriously.
John is one of the founders of CryptoZoic Entertainment, specializing in a diverse portfolio of licensed and original IPs, its catalog covers a broad spectrum of tabletop games and collectibles. Some of my favorite include Rick and Morty, DC Characters, and The Walking Dead. Thanks to John and the booth they have at WonderCon, he was able to get me four passes. While there we not only had a blast getting dressed up (check out my WonderCon blog post for pictures), seeing all the cosplay costumes, but we also had a chance to sit down and chat. I think its amazing taking something from nothing and turning it into one of the top gaming and culture brands. Let me introduce you to someone you probably don't know, but should!
1. If you don't mind introducing yourself? Hi there!
John Sepenuk Co-founder and CEO of Cryptozoic Entertainment LLC.
2.Are you married, do you have kids? J: Married to a Brazilian woman I met in Japan 25+ years ago with one 10 yr old boy
3. Your business is located in Orange County correct, do you also live in Orange County? J: Our HQ are located in Lake Forest and we live in Huntington Beach
4. What are some of your hobbies and favorite things to do? J: When not working or spending time with family, my entire life pretty much centers around kitesurfing. It’s something I’ve been doing for over 12 years when I first learned in Brazil but really started getting serious about it when we moved from North County San Diego to Huntington Beach 8 years ago. I also love snow skiing and playing basketball. When I have the time, I like to cook, and my specialty is Japanese food, sushi in particular. 5. Walk me through the step-by-step process that you went through to get to where you are today. What was the first thing you did? Next? J: The first thing I did was come out of my mamma’s womb. From there, I graduated high school in Lake Oswego Oregon, on to CU Boulder where I majored in International Business and Japanese, moved to Breckenridge upon graduation to be a ski bum and sushi chef in the mountains, moved to Osaka Japan to start a Bungie Jumping company with Yakuza connections, met my Brazilian wife and learned Portuguese, got a job as a sushi chef while ultimately failing in the Bungie/organized crime venture, became a salesman for a trading company specializing in restaurant supplies, left Japan after 2 years and moved back to Oregon to take GMAT to get my MBA. Got a job as cultural and economic liaison for Consul General of Japan in Portland while applying to business schools for a year, went to Thunderbird, American Graduate School of International Management where I learned Mandarin Chinese and earned my MBA spending a semester in China studying, got a job at Upper Deck managing their Asia Pacific business and meeting Michael Jordan and Ichiro Suzuki, got fired and rehired 3 times over 12 years and started my own consulting and import/export business called Vandolay Enterprises (think George Costanza) during the off times with Upper Deck, ultimately brought Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Card Game from Konami in Japan to Upper Deck to distribute globally for 6 years before Upper Deck’s CEO got caught counterfeiting YGO cards in China and lost the rights from Konami, walked out the door to save face with my Japanese partners and started Cryptozoic with my ex-UD colleague who was then at Blizzard Entertainment Cory Jones, and two other partners to continue the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game after Blizzard pulled the rights back upon hearing of Upper Deck’s bad behavior with YGO. Phew! Think I covered most of the high notes. 6. How long were you running the business before you started paying yourself? How did you live through those first few months/years? J: We all paid ourselves a modest salary from day one that was less than each of us were making in our previous jobs. We’ve continued to live off of these modest salaries while plowing every dollar back in the business to help it grow. 7. Especially being in what most would consider a fun industry, what are some of the awesome things you get to do? What are some of the hardest things that people don't see? J: Things like going to Comic-con every year, meeting the casts of shows like The Walking Dead, movie and TV red-carpet premiers, traveling to Europe and Asia regularly for trade shows and partner visits all keep things fun and interesting. The tougher parts of the business are managing cash flow, negotiating with studios like Warner Bros., Disney and Fox for new deals and getting product approvals in a timely fashion. 8. Thank you again for getting us tickets for WonderCon, what are some of your favorite things to see at conventions? J: Personally I love to see the offerings from companies like Sideshow with their amazingly detailed statues and figures as well as the more cartoony looking collectibles coming out of Funko. They both do amazing work at opposite ends of the spectrum. I feel like I’m trying to position somewhere in the middle of life-like and cartoony fun depending on the property and item. 9. What are some of the amazing places that your job is taking you? J: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Manilla, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Dusseldorf, Nuremberg. And that’s just January! 10. So I know that you're a big music fan. What are some awesome shows are festivals you've been to in the last year? Or plan on going to this year? J: Been following Dead & Company with John Mayer whenever possible. Saw them 6 times last summer and plan to see them 8 more this summer from Oregon to Cali to Colorado. Roger Waters is my all time favorite, saw The Wall tour twice and his new solo venture in LA last year. Had plans to go to New Orleans Jazz Fest in May but had to cancel after rupturing my ACL and meniscus skiing in Austria last month and my surgery is scheduled for the same time as Jazz Fest :-(. Going to Arroyo Seco in June at the Rose Bowl to see Neil Young, Robert Plant, Alanis Morissette, Pretenders and others in June. Maybe Burning Man again at the end of the summer? Stranger things have happened... 11. Nowadays entrepreneurialism is on a rise, and everybody wants to be their own boss and start their own business. What are the sacrifices that you would warn people they are going to have to make in wanting to do that? J: I would start by saying what my father always told me- follow your passion, not the money. If you do that and do it to the best of your ability, the money will follow. The sacrifices really are dependent on where one is at the time. If you’re young and just getting started, less to lose but harder to get taken seriously. The later in life one starts, the opposite is true. Ultimately it comes down to what is most important to the individual. In my case and at this stage in my life, time is more important than money. I work to live as opposed to live to work. Clearly kitesurfing and music take precedence over board meetings and bank accounts in my case, but of course I prioritize and balance the two. 12. With all of the places that you've gone what are some of the best and worst foods and where?
J: Sushi and Korean BBQ in Japan rules over all others. Any cuisine from almost any nation is the best in Japan. They just do it right and better than anyone else, except for Mexican. You can almost say the same thing about NYC. Also love Thai food in Thailand. China has come so far in the last 20 years. When I was a student there it was mostly gross and scary, now I can say that 4 of the top 10 meals I’ve had in the last 5 years have been in China.
13. Okay to finalize it back to your hobbies I know you've done some crazy things so what would you say the craziest thing you've done so far in life is? J: Burning Man 2002 is right up there. No words. Beyond that, kitesurfing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog last year was pretty insane. Attempting to start a death-defying business in Japan with organized crime figures in Japan at age 23 was pretty whacked. Yeah, so theres that.
We as a society tend to make rash decisions about people we don't know. We are creatures of unfortunate first impressions, victims of unforeseen stereotypes, and all trying to be understood or related too. Break the chain of standards and expectations. Celebrate uniqueness and crucify conformity.