When I first started making plush toys, the whole process came across as mysterious and challenging — how do people make it happen? In order to shed a little light on the process of bringing characters to life, I asked some of the most interesting and most fabulous people I could find in the indie toy world and asked them if they’d be willing to talk about how to make handmade, small-run and limited-edition toys. I’ve been meaning to share some of the fantastic advice people offered up on these panels, so here’s my report: The New York Comic Con panel, Indie Toymaker Roundtable: Turning Characters Into Toys, featured Sean Smith of Shawnimals (the plush ninja guy), Nitin Bhargava of Kidrobot (collectible toy maker and emporium), Joshua Ben Longo of Longoland (bizarre art monsters), Kris Schantz of Happy Worker (specialty toy manufacturer), Karen Brazell of Life With Tigers (catnip-filled severed legs) and Phil Barbato (handmade adorable monsters). Shockingly well-attended for a Friday night panel, about 150 folks took time from their busy drinking schedules to listen to us geeks blab on about making toys. Karen and Phil offered perspective on the benefits and drawbacks of hand-making toys, their creative process, how they work to support their plush habit, and their thoughts on going mass-market. Shawn talked about why he chooses to both hand-make and mass-manufacture his adorable team of ninjas, how he works from character creation to actual stuffed toy, and how long he had to work two jobs before he was able to go full time with Shawnimals. As the director of merchandising for Kidrobot, Nitin offered special insight into what makes a toy special, and how he identifies that “it” factor for what makes a toy wildly successful. Even though Nitin has what arguably seems like the coolest job in the world, he added a slide of his mom that read, “Not even my mom cares about what I do.” To paraphrase, his best advice was that it’s not enough to make a cool toy, half the battle is actually getting people to see it. Joshua also gave some tips on how to approach toymaking from a more artistic perspective and also how to get more exposure for your work: hit the blogs and hope they like it. He added that it doesn’t hurt to be charming and attractive (and modest, too, Joshua). Kris Schantz, a founder of Happy Worker, which manufactures small runs of toys in conjunction with factories in China, showed fascinating slides of actual vinyl die-making machines and people making plush toys in China. He thought it was important to emphasize that although products that are “Made in China” are often villanized, these toys are made by real people who need jobs and want to work to create quality stuff. He also touched on toy testing and labeling, both of which are required by law (for more on CPSIA legislation, peep here).
The most recent indie toymaker panel at Wondercon 2012 featured Dov Kelemer of DKE Toys (distributor of designer toys), Dan Goodsell of Mr. Toast (charming breakfast pals), Evil Ice Cream‘s Darth Rimmer (quirky frozen friends), Patrick Lam of Munky King (designer toy store on Melrose), Heidi Bedore of Happy Worker (specialty toy manufacturer), and Doug Gauthier of Hey Soupface (100% handmade creatures). Dan talked about how his artwork and webcomics were an important part of building up a fan base for his characters and the Imaginary World of Mr. Toast. Dan recommended setting reasonable creative goals for yourself — like drawing a web comic a week (that’s Dan doodling pictured above, he never stops drawing!) — to keep your creativity flowing. He also made the excellent point that you better love your work because no one is making millions of dollars creating small runs of toys. You do it because you love it. Dov Kelemer is arguably the beating heart of the entire indie/collectible toy market (When Dov’s name came up at the New York Comic Con panel, the in-the-know audience actually applauded, even though he wasn’t there). His company, DKE Toys, distributes toys to stores all over the world. If you see an interesting toy in a designer toy store, it probably passed through Dov’s warehouse. At the Wondercon panel, Dov touched on how he got his start in distribution via his love for toys, “Toy collecting is like a disease.” He also emphasized that making toys should be done for love, not profit. “Some other [bigger] company can make exactly what you make, except it will cost half as much and it can talk to you.” Dov also talked about the surprising success of the Darth Vader project and other art shows he and his wife, Sarah Jo Marks, have put together. Half of the creamy center of Evil Ice Cream (the other half, Kerry Horvath, couldn’t be there), Darth Rimmer touched upon hand-making sculpts and how he used these to drum up interest as well as provide manufacturers with samples, and he also touched on the importance of developing characters and interest through web comics. Doug Gauthier talked about hand-making his felt creatures (he doesn’t even use a sewing machine!), selling them on Etsy and how his head is full of monters at all times. Toy temple Munky King’s high priest Patrick Lam came by to talk about his store’s humble beginnings in LA’s Chinatown and how it moved into making its own toys in conjunction with artists like Kozyndan and other designers, Patrick also previewed some new releases and talked about moving into animation.
But seriously, you ask, I wanna know, How Do I Make Toys?
Start small. This may sound counter-intuitive, but my first suggestion is: don’t make toys. Develop your characters, brand or idea first before getting into toys — get fans for your work before you leap into manufacturing. I Heart Guts was a freaky side project to my full-time graphic design career for three years before we got into making toys. We handmade our own plush gut friends — very poorly, I might add — long before mass-manufacturing, so we knew people liked them before making a huge commitment on hundreds or thousands of toys and spending money we didn’t have. If possible, try out your idea on inexpensive items like stickers, buttons and T-shirts before going into toys. Etsy is a great resource for building a community and creating a small, easy-to-use web store. Making plush is a big investment and it is risky. Don’t just leap into it.
Be an idea factory. Have lots of ideas and see which ones will stick. On the Wondercon panel, Mr. Toast’s Dan Goodsell says he forces himself to draw at least once a week (he usually does more). Doug Gauthier of Hey Soupface said sometimes he can’t sleep because characters invade his head and demand to be put to paper. Be prolific. Even if you don’t have anything to sell, you can still build an audience with art and ideas. Drawings are free, Facebook is free, blogging is free, web publishing tools are free, your artwork and time and effort cost nothing. Get fans first. Toys will follow if people want to buy them. Making toys is expensive and a little scary. Try to do something no one else is doing — see what others have already made and make sure your idea is special.
Get people’s eyeballs on your stuff. Show your wares at retail and craft shows, or anyplace where people will appreciate your stuff! Blog editors are always hungry for content, send them stuff and see if they like it and will write about it. Retail shows like Renegade Craft Fair and Comic Con help you build a fan base while also making money back, meet people and have a great time. You have to be willing to promote your stuff yourself, drag it around to stores, be your own salesperson or no one will see it, and thus, no one will buy it. Develop a thick skin for rejection. You have to be willing to do everything yourself (or drag you nice friends and family members into helping you). As Nitin of Kidrobot wisely said at the New York Comic Con panel, “Making something cool is one thing, getting people to see it is the other half of the battle.” Also Dov of DKE Toys offered this chestnut, “People always ask me, ‘Can you sell my toys?’ And I tell them, ‘I can offer your stuff for sale, but I can’t create demand for your stuff. That’s up to you.’”
Protect your idea. Once you have a drawing/idea, visit the US Trademark and Copyright wesbite, they have all the info you need to protect your idea. Copyrighting is for the art, Trademark is for your company or toy name (example: “I Heart Guts” is trademarked, our liver is copyrighted). Trademarking is expensive, copywriting is cheaper. If you can copyright before hitting up a manufacturer, that’s a good idea. If you are concerned about people ripping you off, have them sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Money. Either borrow, beg, steal or get business loans or business lines of credit. You should also set up an LLC to protect yourself and your business. Don’t bite off more than you can chew — make something that will cost you a few hundred dollars (stickers, buttons), not thousands or tens of thousands of dollars (toys). Having a bunch of debt and inventory on your hands is very scary, you need to have channels to sell it, you’ll need to find a place to store it. Or, as Patrick of Munky King said at the Wondercon panel, “You don’t want your stuff to be sitting around Dov’s warehouse for years.” It’s always good to test out your idea first — start small! Dan Goodsell also brought up the important point that you should want to make toys because you love your characters. “No one’s making money designing toys.”
Mass-manufacturing. Start with one of the broker/manufacturers, they can hold your hand through the prototyping process, hangtags, toy testing, importing, etc. Just Google “custom plush toys” and you will find the three major companies that do this as brokers in the US to factories in China. Alibaba.com is a great resource and all factories in China are on it if you want to go factory direct, but beware there are many pitfalls to making specs, prototyping, importing, testing, labeling, manufacturing and production. Sometimes a middleman can help you avoid expensive mistakes.