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Startup's stuffed toys help kids do good

December 15, 2012
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Michael Bogan planned to propose on Valentine’s Day at the Eiffel Tower.

rop-monsters1-121712-15col.jpg Erin Evans and Michael Bogan were new to the toy business when they started Promise Monsters. (IBJ photo/Perry Reichanadter)

Instead, he and girlfriend Erin Evans rented a house in Michigan and spent their vacation sewing 100 Promise Monsters, plush toys that promote kindness through secret “missions” kids are asked to complete.

Now, the Indianapolis couple’s wedding plans are on the back burner while they prepare to introduce monsters Frank, Spike, Squiggly and their wee Smarshmallow brethren to specialty retailers nationwide.

Already available at nine stores in Indiana and Michigan, the whimsical creatures—modeled after monsters Bogan’s children drew—are proving popular with shoppers seeking unusual gifts.

“It is the only toy I’ve seen that is about outreach, doing something kind for someone else,” said Liz Ross, an employee at The Toy Co. in St. Joseph, Mich., which began selling Promise Monsters in May. “It’s really appealing to parents.”

Including Bogan and Evans, who have five children between them. Promise Monsters started more than two years ago as a family effort to have fun while doing good.

rop-monsters2-121712-15col.jpg Monsters come with tasks children complete in exchange for points, which they can redeem online for prizes. Missions are intended to encourage kids to be kind. (IBJ photo/Perry Reichanadter)

Inspired by a monster drawing that Bogan had hanging in his cubicle, the kids decorated cards with similar images, jotted a quick message—things like “I promise you’ll be OK” and “I promise someone loves you”—and hid hundreds of them in public places for others to find. The adults even set up a website where folks who found the cards could share their discoveries.

It didn’t take long for stories to start trickling in, and Bogan and Evans soon knew they wanted to keep Promise Monsters going. So they went back to their list of “100 cool things” to do with the drawings, drafted during a family brainstorming session, and found their next challenge.

“The kids really wanted to make them into stuffed animals,” said Bogan, 38. “We decided to try to launch a company, a family business, to spread kindness through little individual acts.”

Facts about Promise MonstersNeither Bogan nor Evans, 37, knew much about the toy business—or sewing, for that matter. But they attended the 2011 Toy Fair in New York City, anyway, bringing along a prototype Evans had stitched together by hand. There, they “talked to everyone who would listen to us,” Bogan said, and learned as they dreamed.

Making inroads in the $21.2 billion industry is not easy, especially for a startup committed to local manufacturing. Imports accounted for more than 95 percent of toys sold in the United States in 2010, according to Department of Commerce estimates. The overwhelming majority originated in China.

“It can be extremely difficult for small toy makers to find their footing in the toy industry. Hundreds and hundreds of new companies are started every year,” said Justina Huddleston, assistant managing editor of California-based trade publication TDMonthly.

Promise Monsters hit the market in May, after the winter sewing spree. Seven part-time employees now keep the west-side company’s sewing machines humming, making three full-size monsters and three smaller Smarshmallows.

The $30 price tag for full-size monsters doesn’t seem to be a deterrent, said Ross, the Michigan retailer. She said the $10 Smarshmallows “flew out of here” when they were introduced this summer. Ross credits both the missions and the quality that comes from domestic, small-scale production.

Each toy comes with a sealed envelope containing a “Monster Mission,” a surreptitious task for its new owner to complete—sneaking a batch of brownies onto a neighbor’s porch, for example, or decorating a tree in a public park.

Bogan said the idea is to come up with missions that are fun for the child and still brighten the day of whoever is on the receiving end of the good deed.

Successful missions earn points, which children can redeem for prizes on the Promise Monsters website. (Think monster hats and sleeping bags.) Points also can be cashed in online for a charitable donation.

Such interactive elements can help toys get noticed in the crowded marketplace, Huddleston said, and many specialty retailers prefer products that carry an educational or altruistic message.

“I think the charity angle for these toys is a great idea,” she wrote in an e-mail to IBJ.

Carmel toy merchant Janet Pillsbury also appreciates that Promise Monsters encourage positive behaviors. And she said My Toy Garden “customers like that there’s a tangible reward given.”

Ross agrees. In fact, demand from her customers led Bogan and Evans to come up with extra missions for monster owners looking to do more—or earn more points. They sell for about $5.

The Toy Co. sells about 10 Promise Monsters a month, Ross said, making it one of the store’s most popular products. She reports having repeat customers already, plus plenty of referrals.

“Their craftsmanship is second to none,” she said. “They’re very well done.”

It hasn’t been easy, but Bogan is proud of the company’s progress—especially since he and Evans both are still working full-time jobs elsewhere. He is a software consultant at Indianapolis-based Fusion Alliance. She holds a similar position at Carmel-based Perficient.

Bogan has been at Fusion since 2001, when he returned to Indianapolis after two years at Atlanta startup Chatfish, which he co-founded and grew to 50 employees. That experience—including raising $7 million in outside funding—was invaluable, teaching him about everything from budgeting to management.

He and Evans sank all their savings in Promise Monsters, growing the company slowly. He declined to disclose the amount of their investment, but said he has no regrets.

“I’m happy we went that route instead of raising money,” Bogan said. “It takes time to focus an idea. We are always learning, changing. It’s a constant process. … We’re taking full advantage of not having money.”

As holiday orders began flooding in, Bogan temporarily stopped signing on new stores so Promise Monsters could focus on meeting existing needs.

Once the crush passes, he and Evans will figure out how to ramp up production to meet the demand they expect after attending the annual American Specialty Toy Retailing Association Marketplace in June.

He also hopes one of them will be able to devote themselves to Promise Monsters full time in 2013.

“We’re definitely busy enough. There’s plenty to do,” he said. “It’s just a matter of profit.”

Pricing has been difficult, Bogan said, given the detailed work that goes into making each monster. But customers’ response so far has him encouraged the company is on the right track.

“With Promise Monsters, you get more than a stuffed animal,” he said. “There’s also the good feeling and fun you have with it. People must agree, or they wouldn’t be buying it.”•

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