An employee at Funko, a pop culture and licensed-focused collectibles company, walks past a Jumbo Pop C3-PO and Jumbo Dorbz Starboard, left, and Ant-Man. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

An employee at Funko, a pop culture and licensed-focused collectibles company, walks past a Jumbo Pop C3-PO and Jumbo Dorbz Starboard, left, and Ant-Man. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

How Funko grew into a $400-million-a-year Everett business

EVERETT — On the right stands a giant bow-tie-wearing Willy Wonka, cane in hand, top hat reaching the ceiling. On the left stands a chest-high Oompa Loompa, orange-skinned, green-haired.

Welcome to Funko, a world where pure imagination becomes reality.

The Everett company is the maker of toys and collectibles, mainly cartoony, anime-inspired, cute-factor-turned-up-to-the-max figures of the world’s biggest pop culture characters, such as Batman, Spider-Man and Darth Vader.

Funko has seen stratospheric growth in the past few years as it looks to elbow its way among industry heavyweights like Hasbro and Lego.

It went from earning $40 million a year in revenue in 2014 to making an expected $400 million this year, said Mark Robben, the company’s director of marketing.

“It makes people smile,” Robben said. “I think we all know that we’re not curing cancer, but if we can put a smile on people’s faces with a cute little potted (Guardians of the Galaxy) Groot figure then I think it matters. It makes people happy. It makes us happy.”

This lightning-in-the-bottle success is expected to continue, he said.

Funko employs about 250 people but is looking to hire more in all departments. How many will depend on growth, Robben said.

The company is currently based in a warehouse with offices in south Everett but plans next year to move its headquarters to the former Trinity Lutheran College, a 90,000-square-foot, five-story building in downtown Everett at 2802 Wetmore Ave.

The company announced on Monday that it signed a 10-year lease for the building and plans to remodel the former college to make it reflect the personality of the Funko brand. The space will also include a 6,000-square-foot flagship store.

The new headquarters can house as many as 300 employees — mainly in art, sales, marketing, finance and IT. The company also will keep its current headquarters at 1202 Shuksan Way as a key warehouse, as well as two other warehouses in the Everett area.

Funko will bring scores of creative types to downtown Everett to eat in the city’s restaurants, visit the city’s breweries and even live in the city’s core, said Lanie McMullin, the city’s economic development executive director.

“They’re so much fun, rarely do you see this much energy…” McMullin said. “I think that attitude will reflect in our downtown.”

Funko is ramping up product lines, such as its line of stuffed figures called plushes, a line of T-shirts with Funko characters and even home accessories such as coffee mugs with a Funko Boba Fett face or Funko Batman and Joker salt-and-pepper shakers.

The company already makes short YouTube videos with Funko characters, but there are plans with Marvel comics to expand to longer-form videos.

“As the marketing director, I would love nothing more than to eventually see the Funko movie using our art style,” Robben said. “I think that would be perfect for that. Obviously that’s a long ways away.”

So how did the company reach these heights? It didn’t happen overnight.

The company was founded by Mike Becker in 1998 in Snohomish. The early product lines included bobbleheads and coin banks based on cereal advertising characters and other retro figures like Popeye and Evel Knievel. Becker sold the company in 2005 to current CEO Brian Mariotti, who had been running and designing nightclubs.

The company continues to be privately held, but private equity group Acon Investments bought into the company last year.

Mariotti has been aggressive about getting licensing deals to make collectibles from Marvel and DC comics, “Star Wars” and Disney. The company has gone after some of the hottest popular culture trends of the day, making figures for hit television shows including “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead.”

The company also lined up a who’s who list of retailers to sell the company’s products: Target, Walmart, Amazon, Hot Topic, GameStop, Barnes & Noble.

Artists in-house do the majority of design work. The final products are made in China and Vietnam, shipped back to Funko through the ports of Everett and Seattle and, for apparel, through the port of San Diego. Then the products are shipped around the world.

In 2010, Funko debuted its Pop! line of vinyl cartoony figures with oversized heads and giant eyes, giving them a distinct Funko style and feel. The first four characters — two versions of Batman, Green Lantern and Batgirl — were shown at Comi-Con in San Diego. The line has helped rocket Funko forward.

“Brian always said he knew he had something when it wasn’t just middle-aged men lining up,” Robben said. “He started seeing women and kids line up.’”

Robben credits hard work by Funko employees, the artists who have been able to create a unique style with a mix of cuteness and fun.

Robben, who joined Funko two years ago after working for Big Fish Games in Seattle, also said the market has grown for these pop culture items.

“When you’re a fan of something, when you’re a fan of ‘The Avengers’ or a fan of ‘Game of Thrones,’ you want to be able to get T-shirts and artwork and figures,” Robben said. “That’s just how people consume pop culture.”

The items that Funko produces are also inexpensive. People can buy a Pint-Size Hero for $3.99. Most of its Pop! figures are just more than $10. Some people collect the figures hoping that they’ll increase in value over time. (Robben’s first Funko figure was a fairly rare Elvis Pop! figure that is now sells for $175 on eBay.)

Funko has licenses from so many content providers that it could make thousands of characters, probably more than it will ever produce, Robben said. That allows the company to make figures and products for niche groups of fans which might be small in terms of population but whose members are passionate about what they follow.

“We’re able to spread across a lot of different fandoms — there is something to collect for everybody,” Robben said. “There’s no way my dad would care about ‘Star Wars’ or Marvel, but he might be interested in one of the NFL figures that we make or he might think Ricky Bobby from ‘Talledega Nights’ is interesting and put that on his desk.”

To that end, the company really tries to engage its fan base, Robben said.

“If fans go to our Twitter feed or Facebook feed, we listen, we run polls we ask people what do you want to see? What are you interested in? We asked fans, do you want ‘Stranger Things’? And they said yes, that was a great show, we want Funko ‘Stranger Things’ figures. So we went and got the license,” Robben said.

“I think even Netflix took notice of that. When Netflix saw how many of our fans were saying we want this. That made those discussions pretty easy and very, very easy to get it done.”

About 30 percent of all toy sales in the U.S. come from products brand licensing, said Adrienne Appell, director of communications of the New York-based Toy Industry Assocation.

And collectible items are seeing a huge upsurge; her association named 2016 as the Year of the Collectible.

“Funko kind of fits in the sweet spot of both,” Appell said. “Not only are they appealing to adults and some kids they really do have some terrific licensing deals.”

The toy industry goes through fads, but toys made through licensing deals and collectibles seem to be holding a lasting appeal, she said.

All of these elements make up the successful formula for the company. Funko is still small compared with Hasbro and Lego — which made $4.5 billion and $5.1 billion in revenues respectively last year. But the company sees continued growth.

“At some point the law of large numbers will prevent you from growing at those rates,” Robben said. “We definitely foresee growth continuing. If we didn’t see the growth continuing then I don’t think we’d bother moving into a new headquarters and hiring new headcount.”

That new headquarters will be unlike anything that downtown Everett has ever seen. The building is close to the existing offices so it won’t be a major change of commute for Funko employees.

It’s also close to Xfinity Arena: “I’m not making promises, but I know having the arena fairly close gives us the opportunity to put on some fan events and do some things around Emerald City Comicon or events that we put on ourselves,” Robben said

Right now, Funko gets visitors from around the country, people who pop in to look at the Funko headquarters. The company used to give tours, but there’s enough proprietary information from upcoming movies that Funko hasn’t been able to let fans come through the doors these days.

In the new headquarters, the company plans to include a bottom-floor exhibit hall that features its current and historical products and some giant figurines, like the Willy Wonka and Oompa Loompa in its current lobby.

The company doesn’t see itself competing with its flagship store with its current retail partners.

The headquarters aims to bring a “touch of whimsy, a touch or retro, a touch of class” to the building with its logo on the outside and images of its artwork on display. The outside will also include the Funko logo complete with the Funko crown.

CEO Marriotti’s fingerprints are all over the design of the new building, Robben said.

“He wants the building to reflect the brand 100 percent,” Robben said. “Our brand is fun. It’s warm, it’s bright colors, it’s playful, it’s slightly irreverant. We’re not afraid to poke fun at ourselves and have a laugh. We don’t take what we’re doing too ultra seriously. We know who we are and we love what we do.”

Jim Davis: 425-339-3097; jdavis@heraldnet.com.

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