I thought making a penis neck pillow would be easy. Here’s why it was hard.

The inside, full-frontal story of one woman's three-year-long quest to build a better penis.
penis neck pillow - anatomy neck pillow - hilarious neck pillow
Getting Cocky
I’ve been designing and making plush organs since 2007. I’m pretty confident in my process — I usually draw an organ, then release the design as a lapel pin first, to see if people like it or not.

Penis Drawings - I Heart Guts

The vagina+vulva went from drawing to pin to plush in record time. The penis, on the other hand, was a struggle. I spent three long, hard years and scores of design revisions developing my penis neck pillow. Who knew the penis would be so difficult?

 

penis lapel pin - urology lapel pin - urologist lapel pin

Nobody Likes a Severed Penis
I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but nobody likes a penis detached from the body! Our first penis design was green, severed, circumcised and flaccid to boot. Soon after we released this version as a lapel pin, the questions started rolling in — Why was it green? Where was the foreskin? Why wasn’t it erect? Where were the balls? The penis keychain did a little better, sales-wise, probably because a good friend had a stroke of genius — why not add sparkly semen? Somehow that added sparkle made the keychain irresistible.

penis keychain - urology keychain - urologist keychain

Penis Problems
I had a penis sculpt on my desk for a full two years — I would look to it for answers : “How can I turn you into a plush, my friend?” Anyone who knows me has heard me complain about my penis over the past three years. I’m proud to say I spent a lot of time and effort on designing and producing this penis neck pillow and I’d like to share the detailed ups and downs of releasing this particular organ with you.

penis plush - i heart guts - penis toy

Your Penis is a Knee
My most important goal in making a penis was to make it a normal body part so we can talk about it. The penis is just another organ that merits straightforward discussion, much like your knee or elbow. Medical professionals don’t get embarrassed talking about penises, so why should we? I wanted the penis to be friendly and approachable — nothing to be scared or ashamed of. Just a regular penis doing its job. As much as I personally enjoy dick jokes, I strive to keep things relatively PG on our hangtag and website and treat the penis to the same respect I would to any other organ when describing its job.

Penis - What It Does - Penis Anatomy - Penis Parts

The Penis’ Job
The human penis has a lot of jobs. Actually, it has just two: delivering pee and sending semen to the outside world. But from a plush standpoint, my penis had to do a lot of things and be a lot of things to a lot of people. It had to be both erect and flaccid. I wanted to represent both. I didn’t want to have to choose. I also wanted my penis to be utilitarian — could it be more than just a gag gift?

Penis Plush Toy

Penis Genius
Our plush organs come with educational material designed to introduce young minds to anatomy basics. Of course the penis is one of those giggle-inducing organs, so we had to figure out how to approach the material tastefully and to take the penis seriously.

Penis Function - Penis Anatomy

Members Only
Believe it or not, the idea for the plush penis began with a question from a Marshall’s buyer at the New York Gift Show back in 2012. Back then, I had zero desire to make external organs at all. I hadn’t even made eyeballs or teeth, despite requests from customers. I was showing my gutsy wares at the gift show when an older gentleman buyer from Marshall’s (who loved the guts but obviously could not sell them at Marshall’s) asked me, while holding our plush testicle aloft, “Why is it you have the acorn — but not the stick?” I had no reply, but the seed was planted that we would, eventually, have to tackle the penis.

Penis and Testicle Plush Toys


Fertile Field
You won’t be surprised to learn many other penis plushes had flooded the market long before ours arrived on the scene. My major beef with these? Most were enormous erections designed for use at bachelorette parties. But the penis spends most of its time flaccid, I thought to myself. If possible, I wanted to make sure my penis could be both flaccid and erect, so both would be represented.

Penis Neck Pillow

Insert Stiff Neck Joke Here
The neck pillow concept had the added benefit of being ridiculous and a great conversation stopper on a plane or train. People had told me the colon plush made a pretty good neck pillow in a pinch. Why not a penis? I found an adjustable neck pillow on Amazon and dissected it to discover how it was made. Essentially it had a gooseneck lamp stuck inside it. Getting a metal rod strong enough to keep the penis’ bent shape was tricky and required several revisions. [It looked a lot like a urethral sounder (NSFW — be sure to look this up later or visit your local adult store for an eye-popping array or things to stick up your urethra. When asked why on earth anyone would want to put a metal rod up inside their urethra, my friendly local adult store owner replied simply, and without judgment, “Some people like it.”)]

Penis Toy - Penis Plush - Penis Gag Gift

Size Matters
The first penis plush sample was too small to wrap around the neck, then it was really too long, clocking in at a horrifying 23 inches. Even a horse would be running scared at this schlong. All it took was seeing my then-7-year-old daughter running around my office with it to make me realize I had to downsize the penis. Eventually we arrived at 18 inches, which fit snugly around the neck but didn’t send any horses running. The other bummer about the neck pillow aspect of it was that it really required adult supervision and would in no way pass a kid safety test. So this one is for 14 and up. Sorry, kids!

Penis Neck Pillow

Mailing the Male
Even decisions regarding packaging the penis were complicated. I felt pretty strongly I did not want to ship a huge erect penis to customers and stores. People can do whatever they want to their penis at home, but I wanted the penis to arrive, um, well, in a…relaxed… state. Also the penis would, according to the postal service, technically become an “oversize package” — no joke — unless it were packed curled over from the factory. This unfortunately meant we could fit a lot fewer per case than we would had we had them packed flat/fully erect. My fulfillment guy assured me if we twisted the balls, the penis fits into a standard USPS Tyvek envelope with ease. Ouch!

Penis - How Does Penis Work - What Does Penis Do?

Penis Problems
The world around us also changed during our extended design process. The #metoo and trans movements all influenced our thinking in how to present a plush penis to the world at large. How does one make the penis approachable and even desirable in the #metoo era? Would anyone want to buy this thing? 

Penis Neck Pillow - Penis With Foreskin

To Circumcise or Not to Circumcise?
That is the question! Like any mother of a baby boy, parents are asked whether or not they want to circumcise their son after birth at the hospital. We struggled with the same issue with our plush. The American Pediatric Association no longer advocates for one position over the other, leaving the decision in the hands of individual families and their cultural choices. Many recent anatomy textbooks include both circumcised and uncircumcised penises, as doctors will surely encounter both during their career.

Penis Plush - Penis Toy - Penis Neck Pillow

Fascinating Foreskin Facts
In the US, 57% of penises are circumcised. Globally, that number drops to 33%. Did you know that Korean men did not circumcise until American GIs showed up during the Korean War? After the war, circumcision rates jumped to 99%. In Japan, 99% of men are not circumcised. Catholics do not circumcise, while Muslim and Jewish faiths both circumcise.

In the Philippines, boys are circumcised at age 13. In sub-Saharan Africa, many adult men have elected to circumcise following studies that show greatly reduced HIV transmission in circumcised males. There’s a fascinating array of penises out there in the world!

Groot Foreskin


Handling the Foreskin
How to handle the foreskin for our plush? We thought perhaps a removable cape or turtleneck would work, but the foreskin lobby — called, yes, “intactivists” — voted vociferously against this. My son’s Groot toy had a sort of fabric flap that went over its head that I thought could work, but the fabric would not have matched the rest of the penis.

Foreskin Design

I loved the idea of a babushka head scarf... I fondled reversible plush toys at Target, hoping to find secret solution to my penis problems. One of our early designs with a fully retractable foreskin turned out to fray with user testing and could not work for the final product.

Penis Foreskin

I did a lot of strange things to my penis to try and find a foreskin solution (see above). We ultimately went with a stylized retracted foreskin that was sewn in place. We were able to turn the foreskin into a pocket feature, which I hoped would add a bit of humor to the issue. Our toys are stylized body parts — not one is an exact representation of what you’d find inside a human body. And if anyone out there has a blue, 18-inch penis with a happy face on it, then we’ve got the neck pillow made JUST FOR YOU.
Penis Neck Pillow Adjustable
Penis Talking Points
I went to extreme lengths to not say “erect” or “flaccid” to factory in China. "Can we make it... stretch out? Is it possible to make it...curved?" Mostly because of the language barrier, but also so that my questions didn't seem like I was asking for something highly unprofessional. 

Penis Pillow Foreskin Pocket

I also desperately wanted to ask my factory rep if men in China were circumcised but obviously didn’t want my question to be taken the wrong way, so I put my curiosity in check (FYI circumcision rates hover around 14% in China).

Penis Part - Foreskin Fashion

Warehouse Full of Penises
I have been having a great time making penis jokes like a middle-schooler with the staff at my wholesale distributor's warehouse. Unfortunately, the metal rod inside each penis has made these cases really heavy for the staff, whose job description does not include lifting 50-lb boxes of penises. So now’s my time to say “Thank You” and “I’m Sorry” to warehouse manager and personal hero Manny Rivas, who is now tasked with helping lift 50-lb boxes of dicks. “Wendy and her #$%#$ one-pound penis,” is a common complaint around the ol’ warehouse. (My husband would like everyone to know the plush is actually an accurate, life-size model of his penis. LOL)

Penis Adjustable Neck Pillow Amazon Prime

Penises on Amazon
In the past, I have had my testicles, prostates, and vagina plush blocked from searches on Amazon because they are considered "adult" products. I have fought hard for the right to make my testicle plushes discoverable on Amazon. The Amazon algorithm (always blame it on the robots) decided our penis neck pillow should be put in with other “adult” products, so it's actually filed under Health & Household > Sexual Wellness > Sex Furniture > Ramps and Cushions! So if you search for our penis neck pillow on Amazon, it will not appear with other neck pillows, or even other plush organs on Amazon, but will be surrounded with ads for vibrators and lubricants. Talk about not exactly fitting in!

Penis Function - Penis Anatomy

Penis Reception
So how has the penis been doing, you might ask? Well, we ran out of them at Comic-Con, for starters. Most of my customers are women, and most of the neck pillows I have sold are to women. And sales have been brisk! And yes, we have seen them used as a neck pillow on Instagram.

Penis Neck Pillow - Sonny Warhead

Wrap-Up
Well, now you know the entire story behind my penis. It’s been a huge relief to unload on you — thanks for listening!

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 monsters 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? Here is my advice:

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, copyrighting 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. Consider a design patent -- think about how the nubby subtle fabric and hand-sewn eyes make an UglyDoll an UglyDoll and you will get an idea of how a design patent helps protect your concept.

Money. Either borrow, beg, steal or get business loans or business lines of credit. Kickstarter is a great way to gauge interest in your idea! 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. 

Advanced Toymaking. Study up on toy testing, importing, toy labeling requirements...