“I love having my own business...I wouldn't trade it for the world.” — Wendy Bryan, Creator, I Heart Guts
TDmonthly had the opportunity to speak with Wendy Bryan, the creator of I Heart Guts. Below, she tells us about her initial inspiration, how much it took to get started, and how their products found a niche within the medical community — both professionals and patients.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I grew up in Los Angeles, California.
Q. Where and what did you study?
A. I went to college at UC Santa Cruz, where I majored in fine art, and got my master's degree in journalism at Columbia, which I am obviously putting to poor use at the moment. Even though there are not many fine art jobs, taking art classes in college turned out to be good training for business in that you have to be a creative problem solver, be willing to take risks, and be willing to look at the world from a different point of view. Having training in both art and writing means that I can do a lot of things myself — all the design and copy writing — that I might otherwise have to hire someone to do for me.
Q. What career path did you originally envision for yourself? Did you ever anticipate working with children’s products?
A. I have always loved bizarre toys. When I was a teenager I decorated my car with glow-in-the-dark millipedes, plastic nuns and rubber goldfish, so in retrospect, toy-making does seem like the right fit for me. But I spent a decade in graphic design before I started making stuffed internal organs.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for your first product?
A. Oddly enough, it took a broken heart for me to come up with the concept of happy organs. I'd had a string of bad relationships and was doodling a lot of sad anatomically-correct hearts. Later on, my husband saw the drawings and encouraged me to do more than just draw them.
Q. How long did it take to go from the original spark of an idea to actual production?
A. The idea first started spinning around in my brain in 1999, but the first plush organs didn't come out until 2007.
Q. How much money did you need to create the first prototype and come up with a business plan?
A. We made the first four organs in small batches, so we plunked down $25,000 for our first order of 6,000 plushes. The manufacturer we were working with at the time created the prototypes for free.
Q. How did you raise it, and how long did it take to raise it?
A. About $10,000 came from my grandmother, who died and left me some money. The rest was paid through a business line of credit.
Q. How quickly did you spend your initial funds? Any regrets?
A. I was working full time as a graphic designer and doing the guts on the side until I Heart Guts became a viable business, so all the money that went into plush came back to us, then went back into making the next batch of organs. We also tried to do everything ourselves so that we didn't go into debt: we worked out of our home, stored product in my parent's garage, took all our own product photos, did all our own press outreach and all our own shipping.
Q. What were your total sales during your first year? Feel free to share the sales totals for your second year as well.
A. I Heart Guts started out just making t-shirts, stickers and buttons, and making plush doubled our sales from $50,000 in 2007, up to $110,000 in 2008. We sold $160,000 worth of gutsy stuff in 2009.
Q. What were the top two or three most significant obstacles you had to overcome to achieve success and how did you do it?
A. We've had a few gut-wrenching setbacks over the years. Our first big challenge was getting our plushes tested and compliant with CPSIA regulations, which became mandatory just after we'd made a batch of plush. We got them tested and, ironically enough, they were all kid-safe except for the uterus. We were mortified and had to recall the product, but everyone thought the "uterus recall" was so funny that we actually got a lot of press and many new customers discovered us this way. Another recent unpleasantry included an import problem — one of our shipping containers was accidentally picked up before US Customs completed all of its exams. That landed us with a $14,000 fine, which we were able to bring down to $2,500, but only after hiring an expensive lawyer. Lesson learned: make sure your broker and freight forwarder are awesome.
Q. What aspect of the toy industry most surprised you when you first started?
A. I was actually shocked by the lack of required testing for children's toys. Before CPSIA was passed, testing was voluntary and I found that surprising.
Q. What were the top two or three best pieces of advice you received?
A. Best advice: 1) Do everything yourself until you can't do it anymore — I've read this in a few places and it's true. 2) Learn as you go. 3) Read "Growing a Business," "The Four Hour Workweek," and "Don't Sweat The Small Stuff."
Q. The worst two or three pieces of advice?
A. Worst advice: doing trade shows before you are ready, otherwise it's a waste of time and money. They will always take your money, so being accepted isn't necessarily validation of the quality of your product.
Q. What hardships did you have to overcome and how did they help you persevere as a business owner?
A. We got a taste of our own medicine when some recent health problems hit close to home. My husband, the I Heart Guts co-founder, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the experience gave us a personal look at living through cancer and radiation therapy. This actually helped us understand and connect better with our customers, many of whom buy our plush organs so that they can laugh in the face of pretty horrible health problems such as cancer, organ transplants and chronic disease. We even went ahead and made a thyroid plush!
Q. What one unique quality makes your product better than your competition?
A. We are lucky that people like the guts enough to share their love via word-of-mouth. Our products have struck a nerve among enough small communities (diabetics love the pancreas, smart people like brains and what OB/GYN wouldn't love a stuffed uterus?) that all together add up to strong sales overall. Kids love us, but so do doctors, nurses, medical students, etc.
Q. What is the most disappointing thing that you have had to live with as a business owner?
A. There's not much disappointment in being a business owner for me. Some stresses, yes, some moments when I wish I had someone else to blame other than myself. But all that aside, I love having my own business, setting my own hours, being able to raise my kids myself and doing things my way. I wouldn't trade it for the world.