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The (cuddly) call of Cthulhu
How Toronto-based Monster Factory has spent the last 10 years creating the coolest (and cutest) monster plush toys.

Fun, adorable and cuddly.

Though not the first thing to come to mind when thinking of monsters, Monster Factory, a small tight-knit Toronto-based designer toy company is changing that perception. With over ten years of experience, Monster Factory has amassed a sizeable cast of over one hundred different monsters designed and created by the company’s own staff. Each has its own unique quirks and engaging personality. Much more than simply a toy company, the last few years have seen exciting developments for Monster Factory in the form of an upcoming television show and mobile game.

Monster Factory CthulhuTheir most recent project is a Kickstarter campaign in support of “The Mythicals”, a new line of snuggle worthy handmade plush toys based on mythical creatures such as a silver unicorn named Margot, a red dragon named Spencer and a green Cthulhu nicknamed Louie. With the campaign deadline approaching fast at 11 AM tomorrow on August 14, we chatted with Adam Dunn and Bliss Man from Monster Factory at their warm and cozy studio-showroom about the company’s ten year journey and upcoming endeavours.

Founded by friends Adam Dunn, Rhya Tamasauskas and Bliss Man in 2003, Monster Factory was created rather serendipitously. With creative backgrounds in animation and art, film school classmates Dunn and Tamasauskas initially started Monster Factory as a stand-alone design project. At the same time, Man, a graduate of Ryerson University’s Fashion Design program, was creating costumes for some of Dunn’s other projects. While Dunn and Tamasauskas received encouraging feedback about their monsters, Man’s skills from her background in fashion seemed a perfect complementary fit. As Adam humorously recounts, “we became a three-headed monster of sorts. All three of us designed the monsters together in years past.”

The group stuck with monsters as their core focus because of the infinite artistic and character design potential they provided. “Monsters don’t have a strict definition. They’re not real, which allows you total freedom in making anything a monster. We love that people use their imaginations and identify with the monsters’ personalities. If it was an animal plush toy, one might think, for instance, ‘oh, I’m not really a cat person,’ and therefore not relate to the character right off the bat. However, since monsters can literally be anything, you can say ‘I dig the way this weird grey shape is smiling at me’ and relate to the monster without caring about what it’s supposed to represent. That’s why we love monsters” say Dunn and Man.

With great encouragement from family and friends, the three monster makers decided to step it up a notch after a successful launch party in 2004. Man laughs as she reminisces, “We did the ‘One of a Kind‘ show at the Direct Energy Centre—one of Toronto’s premier crafts shows. With an all-in mentality, we signed up for the full show, not knowing entirely what to expect.”

Monster Factory RhyaShe pauses, sharing a cheeky smile with Dunn, “We didn’t sleep for eleven days! There’s photos of us passed out while holding needles in our hands.” Dunn adds, “it was basically eleven days of non-stop work. I actually fell asleep standing. And as crazy as it was, it was really fun and since then we’ve added more monsters each year to our roster.”

Despite working together for over ten years, the team behind Monster Factory remains energetic, upbeat and dedicated long after their initial honeymoon. “It’s all about the monsters and the fans. When we do craft shows, we see people go insane over our monsters, it’s intensely gratifying,” says Man. She continues, “Of course, the monsters themselves are awesome. They have so much personality and they make people smile. I feel like if we can make more people smile in the world, then the world will be a better place.”

Dunn elaborates on the secret to Monster Factory’s longevity, “In addition to our passion for what we do, a key factor is how close we are as a team—we’re basically family. There’s no real divide between ‘work’ and ‘play’ because every day we find the resolve to keep pushing ourselves and each other.”

Engaging with its fan base has been one of Monster Factory’s strengths since its inception. For example, one fan documented and shared an experience climbing Mount Everest with Dr. Bog, one of Monster Factory’s monsters. Another fan made a full-sized replica cake—stitches and all—of the monster Lucy and sent it to the team. Dunn says, “The interactive side of our business came about really naturally. We started seeing people do cool things with our monsters on social media, so we created contests around what they seemed to already be doing anyway.” Man adds her own thoughts on Monster Factory’s success as an engaging brand, “As much as we love our social media and online community, we really want to take interactivity offline to create relationships based on something real and tangible. An example would be an earlier Valentine’s day contest where fans sent valentines to their favourite monster and we had the monsters write handwritten valentines in return. Each monster had a unique style based on their personalities. Our Cthulhu Louie wrote really quickly with angular writing, while our resident unicorn Margot wrote with big, round and magical handwriting.”

Regarding “The Mythicals” campaign, Monster Factory’s excitement behind the new toy line’s potential is very palpable. It’s the first time the company has created characters based on monsters people might already have familiarity with, such as dragons and unicorns. Dunn elaborates, “most of our creations were very esoteric, but we wanted to do something where people who weren’t as familiar with Monster Factory could instantly understand at first glance. It was a great opportunity to spread awareness of our toys and characters. Kickstarter was the perfect platform to execute this vision because of its social nature and it helped us garner quick feedback on what works and what doesn’t with our audience.”

As entrepreneurs and small business owners with over ten years of experience, Dunn and Man shared their insights and advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and monster makers. “There’s a freedom in ignorance” says Dunn, “because initially you don’t know what you don’t know. You can jump in head on without recognizing how complicated something may be, or how much hard work it is. But a key aspect of business success is just doing it, whatever it takes. Looking back, you could say ‘I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.’ But you won’t get to that point without actually starting something.” Moreover, Dunn and Man both agree, “complimentary skills are vital. Do you have a well-rounded team from the get go? For a young monster maker or designer, our advice would be to find someone interested in marketing and find someone interested in business to form a solid team.” Dunn laughs, “We were all creative types that wanted to do the same thing, so we had to learn the other pieces of business as we went along. That’s great, but complimentary skills would definitely have accelerated the process.”

Monster Factory have big plans for the future. “As a small toy company it’s a real challenge to compete in a very competitive industry dominated by big players with huge marketing and distribution campaigns” admits Dunn, “that’s why we’ve started a joint venture with our incredible partners at 9 Story Entertainment to develop a television show and an upcoming mobile game. We strive to raise awareness of our characters among a broader audience. The game allows you to design your own monster, own a monster hotel and travel the world collecting souvenirs while visiting other players’ hotels. We’re hoping for a release date early next year. We want the game to be as fun as possible, to re-create and augment the cool things our fans already do with our monsters within the context of an interactive, customizable and social mobile experience.”

Check out Monster Factory’s Kickstarter campaign and their website for an incredible array of cuddly monster characters. With an inviting and friendly monster packed studio-showroom open five days a week at the heart of downtown Toronto, a visit to Monster Factory headquarters is definitely a must for finding that oh-so-perfect gift for family and friends.
JJ Wong is a contributor to Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter.

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