Suc­cess in bits and Bites

National Post (Latest Edition) - - Entrepreneur - BY PA­TRICK MET­ZGER

When Wendy Gard­ner moved from Toronto to make her name in the dog-eat-dog world of the New York City art scene, she had no idea she would end up build­ing a brand that would be sold around the world. Al­though she still paints, her real suc­cess has been in par­lay­ing her creative skills into Scary Sto­ries Inc., a global busi­ness that started with plush toys and has grown to in­clude pet toys, clothes, ac­ces­sories, school sup­plies, chil­dren’s books and an an­i­mated se­ries.

Ms. Gard­ner re­lo­cated to New York in 1985 to study paint­ing in the off-cam­pus pro­gram of­fered by the On­tario Col­lege of Art and De­sign. “I wanted to be a fa­mous artist, and it was the best place to be if that’s what you wanted to do,” she says.

Her first few years in New York were typ­i­cal of a strug­gling artist — paint­ing, schmooz­ing at gallery open­ings and mak­ing a ten­u­ous liv­ing run­ning a fram­ing busi­ness. How­ever, when the art mar­ket went into a slump, her fram­ing clients van­ished and she found her­self look­ing for other ways to pay her hefty New York rent.

It was the 1990s, and the In­ter­net was be­com­ing big busi­ness. So Ms. Gard­ner turned to graphic de­sign for Web sites. In her spare time she was busy cre­at­ing a se­ries of an­i­mal char­ac­ters that would be­come the foun­da­tion of Scary Sto­ries Inc.

The first Scary Sto­ries prod­uct was a stuffed dog named Vi­cious French Bull­dog, who, like all her an­i­mals, would be im­mor­tal­ized by an ac­com­pa­ny­ing poem: “So huffily puffily snuffily gruff, why does ev­ery­body think you’re so tough?”

She sewed the first Bull­dog on the spur of the mo­ment. “I made the first of the toys as a present for some­body, and then I made a bunch more for an art party I was go­ing to. I made 12 and sold them in about a minute.”

Ms. Gard­ner soon dis­cov­ered there was a pent-up de­mand for her ec­cen­tric menagerie. “Ev­ery­body wanted to buy them, so I got into a few stores just by go­ing out and ask­ing.”

She cre­ated more an­i­mals based on neigh­bour­hood pets, in­clud­ing Bite Me Bobo and Naughty Naughty Kiefer, and soon de­mand was out­strip­ping sup­ply.

In 1997, she was still a one-per­son cot­tage in­dus­try op­er­at­ing out of her New York apart­ment, and she sewed more than 500 toys in the first few months af­ter Bull­dog hit the mar­ket. Ms. Gard­ner’s ini­tial suc­cess was en­tirely through wordof-mouth mar­ket­ing, but her big break came two years later with an or­der for 1,000 toys from Delias, a cat­a­logue com­pany that mar­kets to young girls. To deal with the in­creased vol­ume, she turned over the man­u­fac­tur­ing to a fac­tory in Penn­syl­va­nia (the toys are now made in China), and, with the sew­ing out of her hands, she in­cor­po­rated and ex­panded her sales into Europe and Canada.

“I was do­ing li­cens­ing by my­self, but when I got an agent, the whole thing jumped to a dif­fer­ent level,” Ms. Gard­ner says. In 2000, a li­cens­ing agent in Ja­pan in­tro­duced her to fer­tile new ground for sales in Asian mar­kets. She brought on DRi Li­cens­ing in Europe and the Sharpe Co. in the United States, and sales of her plush toys branded name Naughty Naughty Pets, started to take off. Ms. Gard­ner also be­gan a suc­cess­ful line of pet toys called Cheeky Squeaky Pets for Ny­labone.

In 2001, Ms. Gard­ner branched out into books. “The whole time I was do­ing th­ese char­ac­ters and mak­ing funny names I was also mak­ing graph­ics and writ­ing po­ems about them, and that’s how the book deal came about. I ex­hib­ited the po­ems and graph­ics at the trade shows, and that’s how I got the in­ter­est of pub­lish­ers.” Ms. Gard­ner signed a con­tract with Hype­r­ion Chil­dren’s Books and pub­lished four chil­dren’s books un­der the Naughty Naughty Pets name.

In the same year, she also se­cured a col­lab­o­ra­tion deal with hip de­signer Paul Frank to use her de­signs on Franks’ clothes and ac­ces­sories, a move that ex­posed the Naughty Naughty Pets brand to a whole new mar­ket. Last year, an Easter pro­mo­tion called Bunny Busi­ness in more than 1,500 Tar­get stores across the United States fea­tured seven “hip, quirky” bun­nies spe­cially de­signed for the re­tailer. For six weeks the brand dec­o­rated ev­ery­thing from cloth­ing, Easter bas­kets and toys to home decor and sta­tionery, with e-card tie-ins on Tar­get’s Web site.

One of the big­gest lessons Ms. Gard­ner learned along the way was that you had to lis­ten to your au­di­ence. “I wanted the char­ac­ters to be iconic and mys­te­ri­ous, like Paul Frank’s, but our li­censees wanted to in­clude text to help peo­ple get to know the char­ac­ters.” She was re­luc­tant at first, but the approach en­abled her to take the char­ac­ters to a TV car­toon.

The Sharpe Co. had been hunt­ing for a TV deal since it signed on with her. And in 2004, Ms. Gard­ner struck a deal with Toronto’s De­Code En­ter­tain­ment to pro­duce a se­ries of three-minute an­i­mated shorts based on her char­ac­ters. “All the car­toons are made in Canada, which is great for me be­cause I get to come to Toronto and work on the show,” says the one-time res­i­dent of the city. Ms. Gard­ner de­scribes the car­toons, in which she sings un­der the pseu­do­nym Windy Woo, as be­ing “for older kids. It’s a lit­tle edgy, but it’s not South Park.”

The car­toon, which airs world­wide, is on CBC in Canada and The Car­toon Net­work in the United States.

Al­though Ms. Gard­ner runs the busi­ness out of New York, she con­tends she would have done just as well in Canada. “I kind of ended up here ac­ci­den­tally. It’s con­ve­nient be­cause it’s close to the ma­jor trade shows for the North Amer­i­can mar­ket, but I could do it any­where.”

She says the se­cret of her suc­cess is to fo­cus on one idea but also to evolve. And while she em­ploy­ees two graphic artists, she main­tains li­cens­ing ap­proval rights over their ideas. “I’ve been work­ing on this project for the past 10 years, and I’ve al­ways tried to re­spond pos­i­tively to crit­i­cism and sug­ges­tions and give the li­censees and re­tail­ers what they want while main­tain­ing artis­tic in­tegrity. The ul­ti­mate goal is a prop­erty that will last. Act­ing like a prima donna — that doesn’t seem to work.”

Wendy Gard­ner got started as a way to pay the bills. Along the way, she cre­ated a line of toys, books and car­toons that has de­vel­oped a world­wide fol­low­ing.

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