Phil Walters is the founder of Metalbird, a company that has been ‘life changing’. (Photo: Supplied / Treatment: Tina Tiller)

BusinessOctober 18, 2022

The bird-brained company flying sky high

Phil Walters is the founder of Metalbird, a company that has been ‘life changing’. (Photo: Supplied / Treatment: Tina Tiller)

Behind the scenes of Metalbird, the award-winning garden ornament company that just made its millionth sale. 

It started in a shed, an idea born out of boredom. In 2009, Phil Walters spent his days fitting out retail stores for phone companies. “I was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’” he says. He needed something that scratched a creative itch. In his Auckland backyard, he cut an steel stencil of a huia reading emails on a cellphone. It had a sharp spike on one end. “I started whacking them into lamp posts,” he says. “It was a bit of fun and whimsy.”

Soon, Walters’ hobby became a side hustle. He made dozens of them, upping his orders with a Penrose laser cutter then ambushing his Westmere neighbourhood with 20 birds at a time. He banged them into branches, tree trunks and fences, anywhere his birds could find the light and become eye-catching silhouettes. Soon, word caught on. Family, friends and neighbours discovered Walters was behind the guerrilla street art project and began requesting their own static garden ornaments. 

“Can I have one?” they’d ask him. “Yeah, OK,” he’d reply.

Phil Walters at work in his Metalbird workshop. (Photo: Supplied)

By 2012, Walters had launched a website offering his weathering steel birds for $70 each. It was slow at first, but they took flight. Walters extended his range to include tūī, kererū, ruru. They took off too. By 2016, Walters had turned several rooms of his home into a packing facility. His kids would slide birds into cardboard boxes after school and on weekends. He expanded to Australia, offering kookaburras and cockatoos. Walters was still working full-time, often staying up till midnight dealing with orders for his “small family business”.

He couldn’t keep up with demand. Now that he’s gone full time, he still can’t. 

Metalbird, an Aotearoa company that operates a global enterprise out of a small Grey Lynn hub, is flying higher than anyone ever thought possible. It has factories in 10 countries, a call centre in the Phillipines, has nearly 500 people working on the project, and, around peak gift-giving times like Mother’s and Father’s Day and Christmas, turns over hundreds of thousands of dollars a day. If Walters turned on notifications, his phone would ping relentlessly with Shopify orders from around the world.

Metalbird wins business awards for its designs and is celebrated for its growth. It is now so big, it has brand protection and a full-time legal team tasked with taking down copycats and imposters. He’s just celebrated his millionth bird sale. Yet, Walters says this is just the beginning, a “beta test” for what lies ahead. He has expansion plans with ambitions to launch more products, and support local businesses, using Metalbird’s global pipeline.

In the past three years, at a time when many businesses have struggled with Covid issues, supply chain problems, closed borders and staff shortages, Walters’ bird-brained side hustle has grown to extreme, almost ridiculous levels. Even he struggles to articulate just how massive Metalbird has become. “It’s really crass, just vulgar,” he says as we sit down with coffee outside his Grey Lynn birds nest. “This has become a really big business. You would have no idea.”

To paraphrase his own words, how the fuck did that happen?

To find Metalbird’s head office, you’ll need to plug a specific Auckland address into Google Maps, head down a bland no exit street in Grey Lynn where a rubbish truck blocks street parking, then search for a small office nestled between a drapery company and an auto electrician. There, where the hum of a nearby motorway drowns out any sign of bird life, you’ll need to navigate past an edible garden and outdoor seating to knock on a wooden door that has definitely seen better days.

Behind it lies a business that only seems to know good times. Nearly a dozen full-time Metalbird staff sit in cubicles, relax on couches with laptops on their knees or gather around a communal table. Lo-fi trip-hop plays quietly on a nearby stereo. Coffee is brewing in a built-in kitchen. Few signs are visible about what they’re up to back here. Then Walters approaches and reaches out his hand. His black T-shirt finally gives the game away. It reads: “Talk birdy to me.” 

Metalbird stencils are designed to be hammered into trees and last for years. (Photo: Supplied)

Walters quickly pulls his latest award from the shelf. Metalbird recently won a design trophy at the Best Awards, where the judges said, “This is a cool little company”. They didn’t seem to realise just how big Metalbird has become. No one does. I didn’t either. I’d arrived expecting to discuss a local business doing good things in the giftware industry thanks to their native bird designs. My only prior knowledge was that my wife once bought one for her dad’s birthday, and that David Farrier didn’t like them. 

It quickly becomes apparent there’s nothing “little” about Metalbird. Wary of being seen of boasting about their success, Walters asks that I don’t share their exact sales figures. “What good would that do?” he asks. But I’m soon presented with sheets of A3 paper full of graphs and charts that show phenomenal, extreme, head-spinning growth over the past three years. Walters’ eyes glint when I ask him how much money he’s made. “Fucking life-changing,” he replies.

How this happened could be seen as a case of the right product, at the right time. Metalbird products look great, are easy to install and offer an easy, affordable solution for anyone in need of a quick gift. Walters says it also offers recipients a creative outlet. “People get given one, the wife says to the husband, ‘Go down there to the tree and hammer it in’,” he says. “The husband does it, suddenly he feels great, he’s gone back to being an artist, he’s empowered.”

But there’s more to it than that. In 2016, Walters was forced to quit his day job because Metalbird was taking too much time and earning too much money. By 2019, he’d expanded into the UK and Europe, using local bird designs and connecting with local packaging companies and manufacturers to make and ship his products. Next, he had his eyes on America.  

That’s when he asked Jason Neely, an old childhood friend, for help. “He helped me do a life plan for myself and my business,” says Walters. Neely, who has joined us outside, nods his head. “We agreed, let’s take on the world.” To do that, they turned to social media. Metalbird began using Facebook’s specific ad targeting tools to reach audiences. “The internet came of age,” says Walters, “and we became good marketers”.

Man with a bird van, Phil Walters. Photo: Supplied

Their method, Neely says, is to target specific groups of people with Metalbird advertising. “We think women in Idaho who like cats and gardening are a really good market,” he says. They’d spend a small amount of money on targeting ads at that group, and if it resulted in a sales bump, they’d pump up their spending. At one point, they were doing this so much that “we were New Zealand’s largest advertiser, according to Facebook,” says Walters. “There were days we’d spend a quarter of a million bucks on Facebook,” admits Neely.

As we talk, his phone dings. “That was Andrea from Liberty Hill, Texas,” he says, scanning through his recent Shopify notifications. “She bought the hummingbird honeys and chickadees.” It’s an order for two Metalbird products, one of many that arrives in the hour I spend with Metalbird. It cost the buyer US$140, or about $NZ250, excluding shipping.

Apple has since scaled back Facebook’s ability to track customers’ habits, making targeted ads a tougher sell, but back in 2019, companies like Metalbird learned exactly how to find their customers through social media. By Christmas that year, they’d gotten incredibly good at marketing like this, so good, their system overloaded, meaning many customers missed out on getting their gifts that year. “Seventeen thousand orders didn’t go out,” winces Neely.

Then, says Walters, “it got bigger”.

All this success comes with some cost. A tweet from media personality David Farrier sparked backlash in 2020 over the amount of targeted advertising Metalbird was using, and also questioned whether sticking spikes into trees is safe (Metalbird insists its products will not cause any long-term damage). “We have good real birds that are alive,” Farrier said. “I hate that I am aware that this exists,” said one of the 392 people who liked his post.

Of more concern to the company are the constant copycats. Walters believes he invented a category now worth “hundreds of millions of dollars globally”, and many keep trying to claim a piece of his pie. “It’s annoying when people are ripping us off directly and we’re having to spend a whole lot of energy in that negative space of trying to defend our IP,” he says. “People will directly copy us. People scan our designs then sell the electronic files globally. We’ve got lawyers, people doing full-time takedowns on Amazon, Etsy, Alibaba.”

The Metalbird team on a tree-planting exercise. (Photo: Supplied)

Despite scaling back a little during Covid, Metalbird remains huge. They say they survived Covid, and Apple’s cookiepocalypse, by being streamlined and optimised. “Our whole system was five years ahead of the market,” says Neely. As we talk, he slowly pieces together a new product, one yet to launch, the first to deviate from the core product. “You’re the first person, ever, to see it,” he says. He asks me not to reveal details, but it’s an obvious extension of their core product. 

It’s not the only one. The pair have plans to join forces with more artistic local businesses in the gift retail market and give them access to their global pipeline. That includes the call centre in the Phillipines, the lawyers keeping copycats at bay, the factories pumping out products, the marketing expertise. It is a world that Metalbird built. “We’ll have brand two, brand three, brand four, brand five,” says Walters. “Off we go.”

Yes, despite being bigger than anyone ever thought possible, they believe it can get even bigger still. Walters already sees Metalbird products all around Aotearoa and overseas when he goes on one of his frequent world trips. He just got back from London, Paris and Amsterdam, and he sees metal birds hammered into gardens, stuck in tree trunks and hanging off balconies.

Sometimes, he’ll be invited to someone’s house for a barbecue and there they are, his birds that went from a side hustle in his shed, to a main hustle, to world domination. “There it is in the garden,” says Walters. “I wonder, ‘Do I tell them?'”

Metalbird has 12 full-time staff and at one point had nearly 500 more working on the project in third party warehouses and factories, as well as accountants and other agencies. This story has been edited to clarify this fact.

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