Chicago—Fight demons, practice your ninja moves and bake cookies—all before dinnertime. This is a dream come true for one Chicago-based entrepreneur whose cuddly creations are featured in a Nintendo DS game released this week called “Ninjatown.”
Chicago entrepreneur Shawn Smith created plush ninja toys, called “Shawnimals,” which have proven so popular that the characters were developed into the Nintendo videogame.
Smith started his business in 2001 by turning his doodles into plush toys. His Ninjatown world soon became populated with Shawnimals’ Wee Ninja, his mentor Ol’ Ninja Master, and other ninja friends with various skills. They live between Mount Feroshi, a threatening volcano, and the Dark Forest, where archenemy Mr. Demon’s Wee Devils taunt the ninjas.
Ninjatown is a strategy game that allows players to join Wee Ninja in his land. Gamers can perfect moves with the ninjas, like Fists of Tickle Fury and the Stealth Hug with help from Super Ninja and Ninja Consultant. They can help defend the town from the hostile forces which disturb their otherwise peaceful lives and stop Mr. Demon from obtaining the secret Ninja Star Cookie recipe.
The launch of this game is a breakthrough for Shawnimals. Just seven years after the business became a reality, Smith hopes that the launch of the Nintendo DS game will make Shawnimals a household name. Because of the characters’ unique appeal, Ninjatown expects a broad fan base—kids will love the cute, cartoon-like characters and challenges, while adults will enjoy the depth of strategy and hilarious dialog between levels.
But for any fledgling entrepreneur, starting a business and growing it is rife with challenges, including the legal hurdles that confront new businesses from the beginning. Luckily, Smith had some help in this department because he is a client of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School. The IJ Clinic offers assistance free of charge to entry-level entrepreneurs, helping them realize their business’s full potential, and connects entrepreneurs with University of Chicago Law School students, who offer an invaluable resource to entrepreneurs. In turn, the students learn valuable real-world legal and business lessons while they advise their clients under the supervision of the IJ Clinic’s directors.
In the case of Shawnimals, the business worked with the IJ Clinic from the beginning. Smith worked with students and supervising attorneys to formalize his business venture as a limited liability company, obtain the correct business licenses, research zoning laws, deal with contracts, and demystify the legal complexities of managing a business. The IJ Clinic also defended Shawnimals’ intellectual property rights so that no one could copy the ninja characters, and researched the information Shawnimals needed to include on the plush characters’ tags. When faced with claims that some characters were not original, the IJ Clinic restored the business’s reputation quickly. As Shawnimals’ popularity grew, Smith and the IJ Clinic worked together to negotiate a manufacturing deal to produce Shawnimals faster, keeping up with the growing demand.