In early 2014, Hans Fex was barely hanging on. His house in Sterling, Va., was headed to foreclosure. He was jobless, broke and depressed. He wasn’t shaving and was barely eating. But with the help of a couple of friends, he was about to launch on Kickstarter a make-or-break project — clear acrylic “Mini Museums” filled with tiny artifacts he’d collected from around the world — in hopes of selling a few hundred.
To Fex, 46, that now seems like a long time ago.
The Mini Museum raced through the Internet like a comet, selling $750,000 worth of artifacts in the first eight days. By the time they stopped accepting orders, Fex and his buddies had raised $1.8 million on Kickstarter, which enables entrepreneurs of any kind to propose a project and seek public funding, whether for an invention or a film or a musical album.
Such demand eventually took production out of their basements and back yards and all the way to China — where Fex and others carefully manufactured the small transparent blocks containing bits of such curiosities as a meteorite from Mars, a brick from Abraham Lincoln’s house and foil from Apollo 11. Then the tiny museums came back to Virginia, where they were shipped to people in 68 countries.
Fex launched a corporation, hired employees, and this past summer, rented office space in Fairfax City. This fall, he announced the coming of Mini Museum 2, with pieces of the Hindenburg airship, meat from a 19,000-year-old mammoth leg and skin from a dinosaur. When the first round of museums went on sale in October, they sold out in 18 minutes.
When the project’s capacity of 3,100 units sold out, Fex and Mini Museum LLC had sold more than $1 million of the second edition of his brainstorm, conceived in second grade.
“I’m really relieved to have gotten through that difficult stage of my life,” Fex said of that time nearly two years ago. Now his small corporation is populated with friends and former co-workers from ThinkGeek, the Fairfax toy and apparel company, who work on specimens, talk about history and ideas for future Mini Museums, and “laugh like crazy every single day,” Fex said.
“And it is a really good feeling to make the Mini Museum after so many years of going around thinking about it,” he said. “And getting to make it with so many friends, that is a great, great feeling.”
Fex can still recall clearly when people from the bank were circling his home in 2014, preparing to foreclose on it. Meanwhile, he had tables in his kitchen and living room covered with items such as a T-Rex tooth, a mummy wrap and a rock from Mount Everest, with the plan being to slice them into small bits, label them clearly, and encase them in smooth acrylic blocks. A small booklet explaining the origin of each piece and its authenticity would accompany every Mini Museum.
But Fex could not have anticipated how enthusiastically the world would embrace his concept. Jamie Grove, a former ThinkGeek co-worker and Fex’s co-founder, said some design blogs noticed the project on Kickstarter and started spreading the word. Then a widely read blog called “This is Colossal” featured the Mini Museum, Grove said, followed by Kickstarter naming it a “Staff Pick” on its home page.
Grove and another ThinkGeek alumnus, Willie Vadnais, had been looking for a project and also wanted to help their friend extricate himself from his financial hole. They helped him with the marketing, “and then it just took off,” Grove said. “The reality is we could’ve sold a lot more, but we didn’t have the material.”
But after selling more than 7,000 versions of the original Mini Museums, in varying sizes from three- to five-inches high, the team could not make them at home.
They were contacted by another friend, John Fatemi, whose company Trendex had a plant in Dongguan, China. In the fall of 2014, Fex and Vadnais traveled there to supervise and help produce the museums over two months, with Chinese workers surprised to be side-by-side with their bosses.
Next came the shipping. Vast crates of boxes went first to California, then to Virginia, where the new company and new employees rushed to get the packages out by last Christmas while constantly updating their backers on Kickstarter. A widespread community of supporters sprung up, and they were not disappointed.
“These MM sets are completely amazing!!” one customer wrote.
“Of the 79 successful projects that I have funded on Kickstarter, this is by far the most meaningful,” another commented. “You and your team have re-stoked the fires of my passion for life-long learning.”
For the second edition, which contains parts of a Neanderthal hand ax, an asteroid belt that is 4.5 billion years old and an Olympic torch, Fex and his crew did more advance preparation of the specimens and found a manufacturer in Long Island. They have a “touch edition” that allows the items to be removed and handled. And they are looking for a more efficient way to sell them, since the quick sellouts angered some would-be buyers, Grove said.
But sitting in his Fairfax office, Fex seemed a different, clean-shaven person from the man interviewed in his kitchen in February 2014. “Everyone here really cares about pleasing people,” he said. “This is about making people so excited and inspired, and making something that’s going to last for generations.”