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Irwindale airsoft gun seller AirSplat roughly doubles workforce during tough economy

by Brian Watt | Off-Ramp®

Caleb Wu demonstrates an automatic airsoft gun. Corey Bridwell

During the past few years, one company in Irwindale has been creating jobs with a bang,

The company is called AirSplat. At its 80-thousand square foot warehouse in Irwindale, about 60 workers sell, pack and ship paint ball guns and “airsoft” guns that fire tiny pellets. AirSplat says it has the world’s largest inventory of airsoft guns – from $4 pistols for backyard beginners to $1,500 rifles for staged combat scenes.

In a safe corner, under the guidance of AirSplat’s Jon Dibblee, I tried out a $215 MP9 sub-machine gun that shoots little BB's instead of bullets. it felt just like a real gun, and I managed to hit a target box in the distance. Beginner’s luck. A lot of AirSplat customers get tips and training from Jon Dibblee, but not in person like I did. He’s in AirSplat’s YouTube videos.

In an early video, he lists his real-life Army experience - two-and-a-half years in Iraq. "I played multiple roles in the Army, everything from a rifleman to grenadier to assistant machine gunner," he explains in the video.

"Yeah, it was very, very intense to say the least," Dibblee remembered in the AirSplat marketing office overlooking the warehouse. When Dibblee decided not to re-enlist, the Army helped him draw up a resume, which he sent to AirSplat 3 years ago. The company hired him for an entry-level customer service job. Soon he moved to tech repair and then to the web site as the resident weapons expert. All along, Dibblee marvels at how the airsoft hobby grew while the economy sputtered.

"I find it odd because generally when it comes to the recession, it’s the entertainment and hobbies that get cut first," Dibblee said. "Everybody saves money for bills and food. You know, to see a hobby grow is unbelievable."

AirSplat has grown along with it. “Inc. Magazine” placed it among the country’s fastest growing retailers for the past three years. It now brings in more than $15,000,000 dollars annually.

Kenneth Wu founded AirSplat 11 years ago when he was a 25-year-old entrepreneur with a small office and an eBay account. He filled orders one gun at a time by himself. Now his operation has moved into the giant warehouse in Irwindale – and in the past few years, he’s nearly doubled the size of his staff.

"We had a couple of key players and key strategies all kinda come together," Wu explained. "Social media, the viral marketing and partly, consumer behavior has changed as well. They’ve shifted a lot more to online. And this shift is moving in our direction."

AirSplat’s Marketing Chief Martin Francisco says video games have also helped.

"Every big video game released that comes out - the newest 'Call of Duty,' or 'Modern Warfare' - those new [gun] models that come out and highlight and showcase, generally you see that reflected in the airsoft industry," Francisco said. "The manufacturers in China and Asia bring out the real airsoft version of those six months later and suddenly those are the hot items,"

Francisco also started with AirSplat in customer service. That was two years ago; now he’s the marketing boss. Josh Hayes of Upland wandered into the AirSplat call center with only a high school equivalency degree.

"I’m 25 and before this, I was working as a butcher for Ralph’s grocery store," he said. Hayes was recently promoted to supervisor. "Here I feel like I can apply some of my strengths a little bit better than when I was hurling pieces of meat around," Hayes said, chuckling.

AirSplat founder Kenneth Wu says his team of flexible fast learners triggered his company's success. In slow years, he doesn’t get paid - but he makes sure his employees do. "You kinda roll with it," Wu said. " You appreciate the fact that you can support all your employees here, and you give them a good environment to work in and an ability to grow and at least they are rewarded for what they’re supposed to be doing."

An employment strategy that's right on target.

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