On the internet, the word "fandom" has many connotations. Some think of it as a devout following of a particular thing for the sheer love of it, while others perceive it as a nerdy waste of time. For Rowan Rowden, co-founder of Dual Wield Studio, fandom is more than just a love of video games and Tamora Pierce books – it's the foundation for a career in merchandising, one that she hopes to open up for marginalized individuals along the way.
Following her company's recent partnership with Innersloth, the indie developers behind viral hit Among Us, her timetable for growth has been kicked into overdrive – during a global pandemic, with all the logistical delays that came as a result.
Viral space game sends Dual Wield Studio into warp speed
When Rowden first heard from Innersloth, she was working on separate agreements and storefronts for different partners and delegated the beginning of the process to a partner, who quickly realized it was going to be big.
In the weeks that followed, Dual Wield Studio and Innersloth hashed out the details and made the announcement. Having started working on the Among Us merchandising agreement prior to its popularity, Rowden watched as it quickly evolved into a whirlwind of requests, messages and enthusiasm that became a lot for a two-person operation.
"At any given time, I have 150 unread text messages, 75 unread Twitter DMs ... and there's the Innersloth inbox that was getting anywhere from 100 to 150 requests a day," Rowden said. "It's genuinely overwhelming. I realized it was going to take me ... two weeks to answer every single inquiry – and that's a conservative estimate."
At its core, Dual Wield Studio is a small Seattle-based merchandising company that connects fan creators and intellectual property. Throughout Dual Wield Studio's five years as a brand, it has seen success by catering to rabid fanbases. The company has worked with a wide range of property holders to provide fan-made merchandise, including for the cute indie game about dogs titled Best Friend Forever and the series of teenage fantasy fiction books penned by Tamora Pierce.
When Innersloth reached out to Dual Wield Studio about potential merchandise opportunities in August, the game was barely a blip on the internet's radar. After a sudden spike in popularity on video game streaming service Twitch, though, Among Us has sparked countless memes, hours of entertainment, and one highly successful voter registration push by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It caught the internet – and Rowden – by surprise.
How Among Us is forcing Dual Wield Studio to grow
With so many inquiries coming in and a deluge of fan enthusiasm, Rowden said she's realized that things will have to change within her small company. Though that's a good problem to have, she admits, it has rushed a lot of important decisions that could shape the business's future.
As a result of the influx of attention and the need for more help, Rowden has onboarded an existing employee to get him up to speed at a faster pace. This has become imperative since the company's other founder, Adrienne Cho, has gone on to a full-time job with the hit Dungeons & Dragons-based show Critical Role. Without someone to help on a full-time basis, everything has landed on Rowden's shoulders for the last six weeks.
"Normally I can handle all of these things on a small scale, but when you get to something that's this large, you have to get all-new people involved," she said.
Rowden said she plans to onboard a couple more people, including an accountant and a bookkeeper, in the near future. She also plans to implement new customer loyalty management software. Hiring for these positions was already part of the plan, Rowden said, but she didn't anticipate that it would be necessary until four years down the line.
"I was taking a much more measured approach by only working with very small folks and only focusing on the indie game dev community. I was setting up the framework for what I eventually wanted to do, which was [what I'm doing now]. It just came four years early. I shaved four years off my timeline – which is good, but it definitely means that all of the preparation documents I had that sounded like a list of what I would love to do suddenly became 'we're doing this now.'"
Merchandising for all
With the Among Us storefront now live and plans for growth underway, Rowden said she intends to keep the company's core values intact. She and Cho created Dual Wield Studio five years ago to bridge the gap between fan creators and IP holders in a way that benefits both parties.
"For a lot of these merchandising companies, their whole business practice is predicated on making the most amount of money by compensating artists the least," Rowden said. "So, when we're looking at these partnerships and sending out these deals, a lot of our focus is on, 'How do we make this accessible to fan artists who are creating stuff? How do we make sure that we're not taking advantage of them?'"
The answer, according to Rowden, is the three tenets that the company operates under:
- Fandom creations boost brand recognition.
- Merchandise can be more than a driver toward monetization.
- There's a moral obligation to support marginalized individuals with opportunities at fair wages.
While all three are important to the company's set of values, Rowden points directly to the third as her mission.
"There's a very large underserved market of folks within the merchandising realm – predominantly queer people and women. Those are the really underserved groups, especially when it comes to merchandise, though it's obviously changing."
The second tenet is also a key objective for Rowden, who noted that many merchandising companies rely on cheap labor and exploitative practices by production shops in China and abroad. Rather than being beholden to shareholders and the desire to bolster the company's bottom line at all costs, Dual Wield Studio works with parties that ethically source materials and ensure that labor protections are honored.
The main driver, Rowden said, is to "leave the world better than we found it," even if that means not making the most revenue possible.
"I've worked so many corporate jobs in so many different places where the focus was always on the shareholders," she said. "We want to enact change in the world – we want to better things for artists and freelancers, and we want to bridge the gap between IP holders and fans in a way that's sustainable and not predatory."
Read about more small businesses that made changes that allowed them to succeed despite the pandemic in our article "What We Learned in 2020: Businesses That Did Well and Why."