Startups

After bootstrapped growth, DC game brand Upbounders is making a community investment move

The company is seeking small business bonds on the SMBX marketplace. "I really like being able to tell people: I'll pay you back," founder Kemi Tignor said of regulation crowdfunding.

Upbounders founder Kemi Tignor. (Courtesy photo, image by D2D Focus Photography)
DC-based puzzle and game brand Upbounders definitely has some achievements to brag about.

Launched in 2018, the brand is distributed at retailers including ACE Hardware, Target and Nordstrom; has moved to online sales; and is looking at a Canadian expansion, founder Kemi Tignor said.

But before all that, it was something Tignor created for her now 10-year-old son, Henry, while she was on the hunt for a new direction. Getting her start at local farmer’s markets, she wanted to create something that featured local attractions and scenes for kids, and was more reflective of everyday life.

“There’s so much culturally rich Americana that I just felt like wasn’t being explored. We’re not having fun with it,” Tignor told Technical.ly. “I just realized, when I was trying to figure out what I might do with myself, it suddenly dawned on me that I was in the privileged position to give it a try.”

After spending tons of time traveling and being “one of those aunties who was always picking up something at some museum gift shop,” Tignor was in the midst of a career change when she decided to pursue Upbounders. The company, which she said has screen-free toys designed to celebrate cultural and ethnic differences, got its official start at the Politics and Prose bookstore in DC. The artwork is inspired by Tignor’s time raising her son and features illustrations of sites like Takoma’s splash park and Midtown Barbershop.

“It’s a reflection, literally, of our everyday life here in the District,” Tignor said.

After growing on the local store circuit, Tignor decided she wanted to expand the brand even further, creating an online presence and beginning to sell on Amazon in 2020 to great success. Now, the company is seeking investment through small business bond program SMBX, a new route as Upbounders has been entirely bootstrapped until now.

A look at one of Upbounder's puzzles. Three girls sit together before a cake at a birthday party

An Upbounders puzzle with SMBX language laid over it. (Courtesy image)

The program is joint effort between Mayor Muriel Bowser, the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and SMBX, a funding portal registered with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. These small business bonds let businesses borrow from their community instead of typical investors. It’s a form of Regulation Crowdfunding, or Reg CF, which allows for anyone — not just accredited investors, as most investments require — to put their money into a private company and (hopefully) earn a return. For Upbounders, investors can purchase bonds starting at $10 and earn 9.5% interest over five years.

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With the money, Tignor plans to expand advertising and put the funds toward working capital and recapitalization. Upbounders has already engaged a public relations firm, and is making moves toward digital advertising, she said. She also plans to do more engagement with buyers and mass retailers into next year.

But mostly, she hopes the SMBX program will be a community-based, transparent way for the company to grow.

“It’s a way for people to invest and get in on the action without just giving the money away,” Tignor said. “I really like being able to tell people: I’ll pay you back” — and if so, it’ll be yet another achievement to celebrate.

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