Lynnwood’s Funko turns bobbleheads into big bucks

LYNNWOOD — Sean Wilkinson has gone from designing bobbleheads in a basement nearly 15 years ago to being the creative director of a fast-growing toy empire.

Wilkinson never believed his job working for a company called Funko would last. When he started, Wilkinson helped design a bobblehead for Big Boy, the national burger restaurant chain, whose icon is a boy dressed in red-and-white checkered overalls.

“We were just a mom-and-pop shop with two artists,” he said.

Now Funko is one of the booming businesses in south Snohomish County with licensing contracts with Marvel and DC comics, Disney and Star Wars. They go after the hottest popular culture trends of the day, making bobbleheads for hit television shows including “The Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead.”

And Funko’s sales have skyrocketed.

The company is on pace to sell $20 million worth of merchandise this year, more than double what they sold in 2010.

“I’ve always loved toys,” said Brian Mariotti, the company’s president. “To be in this business you have to have a passion for collecting. Your enthusiasm will come through and you can usually achieve some pretty great things if you’re passionate about what you’re doing.”

The company has grown from a staff of three to 29 employees. Three weeks ago it moved from a 17,000-square-foot office on 196th Street to a nearly 62,000-square-foot leased location at 6306 202nd St. SW. The new space includes a warehouse, a private showroom, a sales department and an art department.

“Our old space was nice but we’ve grown fast in the last year or two,” Wilkinson said. “We just need room for it all and room to expand because we’re just adding more and more lines and different toys.”

The company was founded in 1998 in the Snohomish home of Mike Becker. The early product lines included bobbleheads and coin banks based on cereal advertising characters and other retro figures like Popeye and Evel Knievel. The company moved into a small office in Everett in 2000, Wilkinson remembers. Funko was in a Snohomish office in 2005 when Becker sold the business to a friend.

Becker “had a nice little run of success in comic book shops and gift and specialty shops and wanted to do something different, so I bought it off him,” said Mariotti, who ran and built nightclubs before buying Funko. “He was just a guy who liked to talk toys, and I’m the same way.”

Funko in 2011 distributed worldwide more than 2 million items, including bobbleheads, vinyl figures and plush dolls of pop culture icons. The company has grown much larger than its humble beginnings, agreed Mariotti, whose new Lynnwood office shelves hold easily recognizable Disney, Hanna-Barbera and DC Comics characters.

“We’re going to be close to doubling our sales the past two years,” Mariotti said. “We just want to continue to expand.”

Funko’s products are designed at the Lynnwood office. Artists in-house do the majority of the design work on computers, then the plans are sent to other artists throughout the country so models of the products can be constructed. The final products are made in China, shipped back to Funko and then distributed and sold online and in stores around the world. Funko’s biggest customers include Target, Walmart, Barnes &Noble, Toys ‘R’ Us, Amazon, Urban Outfitters, Hot Topic and Spencer’s. Their largest competition is NECA, or the National Entertainment Collectibles Association. The New Jersey-based company also makes bobbleheads, figures and plush toys.

Funko pursues any license that “makes a great collectible and that we feel people would enjoy,” Marriotti said. Since becoming owner, he has worked to buy licenses from franchises including “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “Star Wars” and Disney. In the past year, the company has obtained licenses for upcoming movies such as “Iron Man 3,” “Monsters University” and “Man of Steel.”

Funko manufactures 7-inch Wacky Wobbler Bobble Heads for an assortment of comic book heroes and villians such as Batman and the Joker and television icons including Cartman from “South Park” and Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.” The company also manufactures stuffed toys, known as plushies; electronics, including headphones and lamps with character designs depicting “star Wars’” Darth Vader, Boba Fett and a stormtrooper; and hundreds of different POP! Vinyl figures.

The company began releasing the popular POP! Vinyls in 2010, said Shawndra Illingworth, a sales associate. Unlike the bobbleheads, the 3-3/4-inch-tall figures typically don’t bobble or have a base. They offer much more stylized features. More than 200 types of the figures have been released.

“If you know any toy collectors, they know what a POP! is,” Illingworth said.

Ron Cohen, who lives on Long Island in New York, runs a Funko collector’s website at www.justanotherfunkoobserver.com. He’s gone to San Diego’s Comic Con for the past eight years to meet up with other “Funatics” and to work the Funko booth. Cohen, 48, has more than 2,000 Funko products and collects everything from the POP! Vinyl figures line.

“The products bring back some great nostalgic memories,” Cohen wrote in an email. “It’s fun to see a character from the past brought back to life by Funko’s design team. … I can’t wait to see which characters they are going to add to POP! Culture.”

The POP! Vinyls are extremely popular, said Ganny Hochberg, a buyer for Golden Age Collectables in Seattle.

The comic book store has sold Funko items since the company began, Hochberg said. She remembers that during the first few years, Underdog, Speed Racer and Betty Boop bobbleheads were part of the company’s product line. Now, Wacky Wobbler Bobble Heads and POP! Vinyl figures from Funko’s Marvel and DC Comics, Star Wars and Disney lines are routinely stocked on store shelves.

“Some of the people who buy them are fans of Funko themselves and some are fans of the licenses that they represent,” she said.

She receives updates from Funko when new products are planned to be released and often hears from people who are looking for specific Funko items.

“I can tell you we get orders in from them a minimum of every other week and that’s just to keep on top of restocks,” she said. “That’s not counting new orders. I totally want them to keep growing and growing.”

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491; adaybert@heraldnet.com.

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