SEATTLE -- In 1998, T-shirt designer and toy collector Mike Becker wanted a coin bank of the restaurant icon Big Boy -- the chubby, hamburger-hoisting character in red-and-white checkered overalls. He didn't, however, want to pay the more than $1,000 to buy the highly sought-after collector's item.
On a whim, he licensed the rights to make the banks himself. Soon after, he launched into making bobbleheads of Big Boy and other pop-culture icons under the company name of Funko.
"I never made collectibles or toys before; I was winging it the whole time," Becker said. "I always collected a lot of weird things, and that's how it started -- my love of collecting."
Becker's operation, begun in his house in Snohomish, Wash., has become a thriving company. It's one of the world's largest suppliers of pop-culture bobbleheads, this year shipping more than 900,000 units of about 70 different models.
In the past five years, the company's annual revenue has grown from $850,000 to an expected $10 million this year. Funko has gone from three to 17 employees, and from a 1,000-square-foot facility in Snohomish to a 17,000-square-foot warehouse in Lynnwood, Wash.
That growth spurt has been guided by another toy enthusiast, Brian Mariotti, who bought the company from Becker in 2005.
"I'm a toy geek; this is why I wanted to buy the business," Mariotti said. "Just about everybody in the art department and myself are all toy geeks."
Mariotti, who has published a coffee-table book on Hanna-Barbera toys and once purchased a house using money from selling his Pez collection, said interest in bobbleheads was waning when he bought the company.
But he felt there was still a future in them. He expanded into different genres of characters from movies, television and video games. Now he is using talking microchips to add another dimension to the products.
Mariotti jumps on obvious licenses for expected movie blockbusters like the upcoming Green Lantern film. But some successful bobbleheads, like the Cthulhu creature from horror-fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, are riskier investments that develop from brainstorming ideas with the company's media-savvy artistic team.
Funko also has expanded into action figures, plush dolls and electronics that allow the company to sell to a wider market of retail stores, like Target and Toys R Us.
"We tried to sell bobbleheads to Hot Topic for close to six years, and they said no to every product we ever showed them, but when they saw our plush line they said 'yes' immediately," Mariotti said.
Despite the recession and a tepid bobblehead market, Funko bobbleheads remain a profitable niche.
"The Funko bobbleheads sell very well here," said Tony Morigi, manager of Golden Age Collectables in Seattle's Pike Place Market. "If it wasn't for Funko, I don't think we'd be back in the bobblehead business."
Funko still sells mostly to the small comic or collectibles shops and to online retailers, said Mariotti.
A popular item in the 1950s and '60s, bobbleheads experienced a renaissance after appearing as giveaways at baseball games in the 1990s. Alexander Global Promotions of Bellevue, Wash., produced the first of these bobblehead game-day promotions with Willie Mays bobbleheads for the San Francisco Giants. It quickly caught on, and the bobblehead's popularity spread from the world of sports to popular culture, said Malcolm Alexander, CEO of Alexander Global Promotions.
"I thought it would be a fun piece to do. I didn't realize how popular they were going to continue to be," said Alexander.
Funko began producing bobbleheads at just the right time, in the fall of 1998, predating Alexander Global Promotions and the coming bobblehead boom by more than six months.
Early on, Funko came close to ruin when a Michigan Big Boy franchise, with whom Funko had its only order, filed for bankruptcy protection. But a license to produce Austin Powers bobbleheads changed everything.
"I was able to negotiate a deal with 'Austin Powers' for literally $2,500 before it got popular, and we ended up selling around 80,000 out of my garage," Becker said.
Now back in the T-shirt design business, Becker is still an avid collector and keeps a 1,500-square-foot room in his home filled with toys and collectibles.
"I think that even in this very high-tech, virtual-reality world with instant information, you still can't substitute good old-fashioned fun," said Becker.