A Happy Gorilla Goes to Washington

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Neil Gilstrap is so mad he did something he never thought he would, he bought a suit.

The Happy Gorilla Game Studio co-owner figured he should look presentable if he was going to argue his take on a new slate of tariffs that will cost his company thousands of additional dollars they don’t have.

Neil Gilstrap of Happy Gorilla Game Studio shops for a suit for his upcoming appearance at the US tariff hearings.

Gilstrap was selected as one of the companies to give testimony at the weeklong hearings at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. He will appear before the committee this Monday.

Best Buy will be there. The Greeting Card Association will be there. Lots of bicycle companies will be there. Even toy giant Hasbro is there. President and COO John Frascotti will present in the morning before Gilstrap.

Most are expected to argue against the new tariffs. Not Gilstrap. He says this isn’t really about the tariffs. But, we’ll get back to that.

Gilstrap started Happy Gorilla Game Studio with Chip Boyd in 2016. Both were long-time miniature gamers who came together so they could design and publish games of their own.

This isn’t their day job. This is a side hustle they are hoping to turn into a successful game company. Like lots of small publishers that are short on capital, the Gorilla’s turned to Kickstarter in hopes of crowdfunding their games and building a company.

After an initial stumble and cancelled campaign in 2017, they funded Chronicles: War for Indagar in October 2018 for just under $26,000. They happily collected the money and promised the 285 backers that they would deliver the fast-paced, 4X strategy game in June of this year.

And they did. The manufacturing finished up the first of this month and the game is now starting its month-long journey from the Chinese factory to the US.

And that’s the problem.

The new round of tariffs that President Trump proposed in May will go into effect while Indagar is on the ocean. And if that happens, Happy Gorilla Game Studio will be on the hook for a tariff of up to 25% of the manufacturing cost when the game lands on US shore.

As most companies do, they made more games than they sold on Kickstarter. Their tariff bill will be for the total games they made, not just what they sold already.

A tariff is a tax on goods collected by the country implementing them. They are mostly used to deter foreign imports. Up until recently, the US government has been very specific with the types of tariff they applied. Some have been for steel and aluminum, others for agriculture.

But, the new round of tariffs that could go into effect next week cover just about every product the US imports from China, including boardgames.

Some say it is just a ploy by Trump to get the Chinese to have meaningful trade talks at the G20 meeting next week. Others are positive the tariffs will be enacted.

Either way, the Gorilla’s didn’t plan for this. Who could? And that is why Gilstrap says this isn’t really about the tariffs.

“It’s not about whether or not tariffs are needed for us. It’s about dropping a bombshell on us without any sort of grace period. There’s no grace period, that’s the issue,” said Gilstrap.

The Gorilla’s aren’t the only ones. Gilstrap has been following other creators who are in the same situation. Some say they will absorb the costs. Others will add the costs onto the shipping.

“We’re talking small money for us. There are much bigger Kickstarters which are going to have much bigger bills. I guess you could say it’s their problem. But, we feel it’s a community environment.”

Kickstarter will not be at the hearings. Gilstrap reached out to the crowdfunding company, but got no response. “I don’t know that Kickstarter cares. They should,” he said.

Happy Gorilla is not waiting to see what happens. They launched a 10-day Kickstarter last week to help with the upcoming unexpected bill. The “Tariff Monster Campaign,” is offering new miniatures for Indagar along with original game.

They are hoping it will be enough to cover the $6 to $10 thousand dollar tax bill they are expecting. Gilstrap laughs and points out that the new miniatures are being made in Greece, not China.

It’s the first time Gilstrap has does anything like this. He’s never attended a town meeting. He’s never spoken out. He’s never bought a suit. But, he is going to begrudgingly put on his sparkly new threads and head across town to the U.S. International Trade Commission offices and argue for a grace period on the tariffs.

Gilstrap submitted his testimony after his fulfillment company lamented that they could’t attend the hearings because of the distance. Gilstrap jumped into help because he lives in Bethesda, MD, which is right on the border with DC.

He is scheduled to appear after Jennifer Newton of Plush Apparel and before Cristen Kogl, Zebra Technologies Corporation. The meetings are on the record, but according to the USTR, won’t be on camera.

He doesn’t have high expectations. “We expect that no one I will be talking to even understands what crowdfunding is.” But, that’s not going to stop him, he’s already bought the suit.

“I don’t expect to change minds. I don’t think I could have that expectation,” said Gilstrap. “It’s a effort to make sure that my voice and the voice of this industry is heard and that the end of it. This is purely for us and the Kickstarter community at large.”

This is not the end of Happy Gorilla Game Studio, but plans have changed. The company hopes to raise enough money with the “Tariff Monster” campaign to cover any tariff, if it should be approved.

Gilstrap says the bill will get paid no matter what. He feels a strong duty to fulfill his promise to the backers who supported them, even if that means taking out a personal loan to pay for it. This does mean a new campaign they were planning for October is probably going to be delayed or shelved.

When asked his opinion on the actual tariffs Gilstrap said he feels there needs to be something done about bad trade practices, but he’s not sure it’s tariffs. He just doesn’t think he knows enough about the subject.

“I’m not into trade policies, I’m into board games,” he said.

Either way, Neil Gilstrap has a new suit, and maybe a new voice for the industry and community he loves.

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