AMES, Iowa (AP) — When Iowa State student Grayson Burgess founded the business Comic Sandwiches, his first product was a display frame for comic books.
It was not successful.
Burgess quickly pivoted to other offerings, such as a replica of Captain America's shield built to scale. His customers now include Netflix, Disney and the Washington Commanders of the National Football League.
Burgess started Comic Sandwiches in 2015, right after graduating from Linn-Mar High School in Marion.
"I was really into robotics and competed in all those competitions. The last couple years of high school, I designed the robots," he told the Ames Tribune. "After graduation, I needed something to fill my time. My mom suggested making something to sell because I also needed to make some money."
He created a frame for comic books, which sandwiched the book between two panes of glass.
"I think I've sold a total of five," Burgess said.
He took them to a couple of comic-cons and didn't sell any. But people were intrigued by something else he created. Burgess had made a Captain America shield and took that along to the comic-cons to help draw attention to his frames.
"I thought it would be cool," Burgess said of constructing his own shield. "People were really interested in the shield and wanted to know how they could get one."
Burgess started producing the shields. He sold the first to his neighbor, who wanted it for her brother. He set up an Etsy shop and started to learn about online sales, which he now offers through his website, comicsandwiches.com.
Burgess employs four people at his manufacturing business, which is located in the Cedar Rapids area.
"I started making the shields right before the third Captain America movie came out, and I sold 90 shields within a couple of months," he said. "That was pretty overwhelming, because I wasn't prepared to make that many."
At about $600 a shield, that was a quick influx of revenue.
"For a young entrepreneur, he was smart enough to take orders and figure out how to make more shields," said Judi Eyles, director of the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship at Iowa State. "That was the beginning, and his growth has been unbelievable. Grayson is also incredibly astute about reading his market, predicting trends, and knowing what to produce and when.
"He has an uncanny ability to know what will sell and what won't, and he is constantly paying attention to the industry. He also makes a high-quality product, which customers are willing to pay for at a fair price. Again, for a young entrepreneur, he knows how to run a business remarkably well."
The first shields were made from steel saucer sleds, which required work to retrofit. After the first 90, Burgess streamlined that process by changing to custom-made aluminum shields that he outsources from an American manufacturer.
"I've really been into how the movies were made for a long time," he said. "With robotics, I learned a lot of machining skills, so I put those two interests together."
"We've slowly been modifying them to make them more accurate," he said.
Burgess continued to attend comic-cons in 2016 and 2017, and his business slowly grew.
In 2019, as an Iowa State student, he joined CYstarters, a summer accelerator for students to work on their business ideas. He said that helped him make his business more manageable.
Eyles recalls first meeting Burgess through the Entrepreneur Club, where he did a pitch competition.
"He was a quiet young man who came out of his shell when he participated in our CYstarters summer accelerator. His business acumen is astounding," Eyles said. "He so very casually talks about his business, his customers, the world reach he has for his products, but it is truly incredible the business he has built."
Burgess has continued to give back to the CYstarters program, Eyles said. He was an alumni award recipient, currently mentors other students in the program, and is generous with his time, speaking to classes, helping with university events, even speaking at the President's Leadership Class, she said.
"It's always fun to see the reaction of other students when they hear about his business," she added.
Comic Sandwiches offers some custom orders. For example, Burgess recently created a Pride shield, which is similar to the Captain America shield but uses the colors of the rainbow for the concentric rings.
"It's probably the most tedious one I've made because it's so much painting," he said.
Another recent custom shield was created for the Washington Commanders NFL team.
"A lot of people ask for custom shields or props, and I used to just say yes to everything. But now I have the luxury of just saying yes to things I find interesting," he said.
Last year was Comic Sandwiches' best for sales, Burgess said. When "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" came out, the company sold 200 copies of that shield in the first month.
"We've sold to 28 countries and every single state," Burgess said. "Some places are really hard to get things to — like Russia. Our average monthly sales are between 60 and 70 a month."
Burgess has developed a symbiotic relationship with several of the large corporations that own the trademarks on things like Captain America.
"Disney takes an approach that's a little different. They treat it like a growing fanbase. So we're not really taking away from anything. We're adding to it by giving people the chance to cosplay as characters from the movies and go to comic-cons. It really grows the fanbase more than anything," Burgess said.
Burgess has received orders from Disney for use at Disneyland Paris at its vendors' campus and its hotel.
Burgess has also created a couple dozen shields for Marvel, as the company sets up exhibitions all over the world.
"They have an exhibition where they show off all the real Marvel props. They also have traveling ones that go to places like Tokyo and Dubai," Burgess said. "I've made quite a few shields for them that they use as the shield that people can touch instead of the real one. But it looks as close as you can get to the real one."
Netflix has also been a customer, buying one shield for a show called "Jupiter's Legacy," although Burgess didn't see the shield in any of the episodes.
Paramount bought a shield for a knight-themed pilot.
"They used the triangular versions of the shield and I made a couple other props for them," Burgess said.
Burgess offers at least eight versions of Captain America shields — Regular, Black, Stealth, Broken, Falcon, Infinity War, Captain Carter and Triangular.
The shields have leather handles on the back.
Much of the manufacturing time is spent on precision painting, including cleaning and taping processes.
"The paint itself requires several layers. There's a lot of effort that's been put into making sure that painting is consistent," he said.
Burgess likes Captain America, and "Civil War" is his favorite film of the franchise. But it's more than a love of comics or superheroes that draws Burgess to the business.
"Figuring out how to make something is pretty cool," he said. "Every time a prop shows up in a movie, I'm like, 'Could I make that?' and just try to figure it out. Sometimes I just make one-off versions of things because they're hard to make, but they're possible."