To get ahead in the world of toys, it takes originality, determination, and guts. Wendy Bryan may have took those elements a bit too literal, as her plush company, “I Heart Guts“, is all about the innards. What started as a one-time gag grew into a flourishing business based solely around cartoonish internal organs with endearing faces and personalities.
We first met Wendy and her team at New York Toy Fair 2013, where we took a first-hand look at these adorable guts and saw many making their world debut at the show. Since then, we had a chance to get some one-on-one time with the originator of a very unique brand of plushies to talk to us about the origins of the company and it’s evolution, plans for the future, and some advice for budding toymakers.
NerdNewsToday: How did “I Heart Guts” get started?
Wendy: I Heart Guts was born in a bar. I am a compulsive doodler and first drew these organ characters when I was heartbroken and drunk drawing sad hearts on cocktail napkins. Years later, my husband spied the guts in my sketchbook and loved them, so I figured I’d do something with them. I designed a heart shirt, some buttons and stickers and stuck them up on a website almost as a joke. But soon requests for specific organs came in – pancreas for a diabetic friend, uterus for a pregnant friend, and so on.
Each organ was drawn and added by popular demand. One day, someone who’d received a real kidney wanted to “give back” a plush one to his donor brother and asked why we didn’t make toys? Once we figured out how to make plush organs, the business really took off.
NerdNewsToday: Are you surprised that it has come along so much in the past few years?
Wendy: It is something of a shock to me. I think the guts took on a life of their own because of the personal relationship people have with their own bodies. Everyone has a body, everyone is a walking bag of organs, so everyone is interested in body parts, especially if something goes wrong, or if they work on it, or study it. They say laughter is the best medicine, so I think our products are great for the type of person who can look in the face of illness and laugh.
NerdNewsToday: You attribute part of the launch of the company to your husband suggesting you “do something” with these characters. Is this essentially a family business?
Wendy: Absolutely. My wonderful husband, Codi Lazar, is the backbone of this business. I am the flaky creative type; he can deal with numbers, handle accounting, deal with legal issues, and secure loans, all the boring stuff you need to do to run a company. He has been the I Heart Guts operations manager on the side in addition to his work as a scientist, musician and DJ. But as of this year we are both working on the Guts full time. It’s scary but exciting. Wish us luck. A lot of our growth is due to our amazing distributors at DKE Toys, they wholesale our toys along with hundreds of other small independent toy brands to stores worldwide, mostly small quirky boutiques with a taste for the odd.
NerdNewsToday: When you began, were you hand-making the items?
Wendy: I handmade the original felt organs with help from my mom, who is an excellent seamstress. My husband and I dragged these around to different places and snapped silly photos of them in Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles just for fun. I never sold any handmade organs since my prototyping skills are not so good — the organs looked more like potatoes with arms than the organs I had drawn. When we got into mass-making the plush, I drew up specs and sent them out to actual plush manufacturers, who really brought the organs alive and made them look great.
NerdNewsToday: What was the evolution of the product line, since the company not only does plush items but stationery, posters, and clothing.
Wendy: We started with button sets, sticker sets and shirts and added characters that way. We add characters and products by popular demand — people are always writing in to say, please make a trachea or please make a placenta. Certain body parts, like the rectum, no one asked for. But we thought it would be funny, and the shape is way cuter than the tube I thought it was, so we added it anyway.
Hopefully our organs can expand into some other areas. We recently collaborated with Tattly to make temporary tattoos and we worked with Chronicle Books for the journal and stationery. We do have a few more exciting collaborations up our sleeves, so stay tuned on our website!
NerdNewsToday: Tell us about some of your inspirations, both in the world of illustration and in the plush business?
Wendy: I am most inspired by Sanrio and San-X characters, Domo Kun, and kawaii Japanese stationery and illustration. Scandinavian design and illustration are also a huge inspiration for clean lines, bold shapes and great colors. I am inspired by Friends With You, Giant Microbes, Ugly Dolls, Particle Zoo, Noferin, Amanda Vissell, Gama-Go, Shawnimals, Jeremyville, and Pee & Poo.
NerdNewsToday: I read that you were always into making things that were simultaneously cute and a bit on the gross side. What were some of the things you had made?
Wendy: One year I laminated slices of head-cheese and sent them out as valentines to all my friends and family. I once made a fetus out of bread dough, baked it and covered it with hair and jam for an experimental art class. It was pretty gross. I wish I had a photo of it, but my fabulous art professor took a giant bite out of its head. I also made a cookie cutter in the shape of the mudflap truck girl and set hundreds of these cookies on fire with a blowtorch. I guess I got my start in plush when I was thirteen and my best friends asked me to make a planet puppet for a presentation about Uranus.
NerdNewsToday: What were the challenges of starting a business in the toy industry?
Wendy: We learned by making a ton of mistakes. We never set out to be a toy business, and I still don’t really know how well we fit into the traditional toy industry. Most stores that carry the Guts are small funky boutiques and quirky science museums or medical student bookstores, not so much toy stores. Let’s be real – even my own kids would pick out Spiderman or Hello Kitty over a plush lung. We had a booth at Toy Fair for the first time this year, so it took us six years after making our first plush to feel ready to exhibit there.
NerdNewsToday: What’s the most popular character/ organ that you sell?
Wendy: The heart outsells all other organs four to one. You know, love and all that. Some organs turned out to be far more popular than we would have expected. For instance, our second round of plush included the brain, uterus, pancreas and gallbladder. We figured that the gallbladder would be the worst-selling of the bunch, but it turns out there are a half-million cholecystectomies every year! Since you can live without this little bile sac, and the surgery is pretty easy, so folks have a sense of humor about it. The gallbladder is pretty popular.
NerdNewsToday: What are some of the new organs planned for 2013?
Wendy: We just added tooth, eyeball and heart of gold plushes and hope to add lymph node and skin later this year.
NerdNewsToday: What happens when you run out of organs to make plushies from? Or is the plan to use the characters you already have in different ways?
Wendy: We still have a long way to go and new requests come in all the time. Recent requests include the amygdala (part of the brain), diaphragm, and larynx. We’ve had a ton of requests for the adrenal and thymus to be made into plush lately; this immunology lab in Japan studies T-cells, they buy a ton of thymus pins every year and we really want to make the plush just for them. I never thought the glands would be interesting-looking — in my mind they were all just little balloons, but once I really looked, I was amazed by how distinctive their shapes were and also how specialized their functions. But, you’re right, the body is ultimately a finite source for inspiration, so I’m sure we will find new ways to use these characters.
NerdNewsToday: Any advice to budding toymakers out there looking to break into the industry?
Wendy: Number one, start small and cheap. Number two, have a lot of ideas. Three, make your idea original. Four, don’t give up if your first idea doesn’t take off. Five, build your audience. Six, protect your idea. Seven, scrape together money. For more in-depth advice on how to make your own custom plush toys, based on my own personal experience and a few Comic Con panels I moderated on the subject with indie toy world luminaries, read this post on my blog.
NerdNewsToday: Who is your personal favorite organ?
Wendy: It’s impossible for me to choose! I guess if you put my back to the wall I would say the uterus, since it’s where we all got our start. Oh, but I love the heart, too. I can’t pick. Don’t make me pick!
Check out the full inventory of “I Heart Guts” plushies, t-shirts, posters, stationery and more on their official website!