WILLISTON — A Vermont pet-toy company with roots in Waterbury Center has been growing by leaps and bounds since starting up a year ago, thanks in large part to the previous experience of its owners, an emphasis on creativity and high-quality products — and to President Donald Trump.
“When Trump decided to run, it was like a gift from the pet-toy gods,” said John Lika, co-founder of Fuzzu, which started in Waterbury Center before moving in February to its current location in a Williston industrial park. “We just had to start up again.”
Lika founded Fuzzu (pronounced fuz-zoo) with wife Anne Lika, both of whom live in Essex, and Waterbury Center designer Sarah-Lee Terrat. The three 60-somethings had worked together at the Likas’ previous pet-toy company, Fat Cat, which they grew for 13 years before selling the business in 2007. Lika said a long noncompete agreement kept them out of the industry for years after that, but the stars seemed to align as the presidential election started to percolate.
“The timing was perfect,” said Terrat, whose home design studio was the initial Fuzzu headquarters. “We had been wanting to start a company and do it our way.”
The hardest part was choosing which Republican candidate to select for the launch of their first product offering, a “presidential parody” line of pet toys. “We had a hard time choosing,” said Terrat. Trump and Chris Christie were frontrunners. “But, somehow, we chose the right one.”
None of them had any idea how much things would take off from there, but the Trump doll started to sell like hotcakes in independent pet stores across the country. “It was a madhouse for a while last summer,” said Terrat. “We couldn’t keep up with orders. And summer and fall, it was crazy.”
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were next, followed by Bill Clinton (as a jazz musician) and Vladimir Putin. All have sold well, but none as well as Trump, which is still in high demand in the U.S. and increasingly throughout the world.
Though Fuzzu has added a planned nonparody line of products, sales of the politicians are still increasing, according to Lika. “We’re getting numerous queries from around the world,” he said, adding that they’re now selling them in Japan and throughout Europe. “We’re really expanding distribution of the parody series outside of the U.S., while sales continue to grow in the U.S. Every time he makes a crazy statement,” said Lika of Trump, “it almost has a positive impact on sales.”
Fat Cat had been successful with parody toys — George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Newt Gingrich, for example — which they did “in a playful way to attract attention and publicity for Fat Cat,” said Lika. “But there’s no comparison to how much publicity and commentary and expression there is through this series, which is founded around Trump.”
Whereas Fat Cat had a 20,000-square-foot shippng warehouse and a couple dozen employees, Fuzzu is in a 4,000-square-foot studio facility and the pick-and-pack operation is located in Champlain, New York. There is only one additional employee besides the three co-owners: the Likas’ daughter, Katherine, an illustrator and designer who handles the website and social media outlets in addition to helping out with design.
“I wanted this time around to focus on the design side and the communications and the product development,” John Lika said. “(Fat Cat) was a lot to manage, and we want to focus on the creative side of it. We want to really make sure that the engine of design never gets diluted or compromised because we have to manage more people outside of the design realm.”
Fun, creativity and a love of dogs and cats are clearly the driving forces behind Fuzzu, evident inside the colorful and sizable design studio. Giant beanbag furniture is scattered about, while Terrat’s artwork is displayed throughout. Lika’s office is an attraction unto itself, with a sizable collection of toys, antiques and outsider art.
“That’s our whole purpose,” Lika said. “Our design and mission for the outside world is to entertain. We don’t view ourselves as a pet-toy company. We’re an entertainment company for people and pets, so we have to entertain ourselves as well. We need to be playful in order to stay in that mode of product development, and to allow the creativity to flow.”
Storytelling, which is included in product packaging like cards and hang tags, also helps the company stand out in the sea of pet-product companies. “Our whole focus is in telling a story around the product,” said Lika, who initially met Terrat in 1990 while both were working at Ben & Jerry’s; Lika as marketing director and Terrat as the environmental designer.
“We want to tell more and more stories, spend more time even expanding stories, and ultimately having our website be a catalyst for that to evolve more so in the future,” Lika said. “Because I think storytelling is something that people love. It pulls them in to understand the product. It pulls them in to understand the brand and the people. And it builds that relationship and that continuity that ultimately makes them remember us.”
“It’s a real team effort,” added Terrat. “We throw things at each other all the time, and have quick sitdown meetings to look at sketches that are evolving quickly. We all work to design the pieces and the packaging and the copy for the storytelling.”
“I love collaboration and that’s what we’re doing here,” Terrat said. “And we know each other so well, as a team, and as friends. We sometimes laugh that we spend every day together, and then we’ll get together on Saturday and do something. It’s very much a family.”
Lika said his enjoyment lies in “the creativity” and “the ability to go in every day and to play with ideas.” “It’s even more exciting because when we built Fat Cat, there was no such thing as social media, and websites were very primitive then. Now, the ability to do things faster and to do more things is extremely exciting in terms of our ability of designing, of our production ability, of our manufacturing ability. Everything. So it’s very exciting. And we want to keep challenging ourselves.”
“It seems odd to start a business when you’re in your 60s, but if you really, really enjoy it, then why not?” said Terrat. “I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I’m an artist. It’s part of me. It’s what I do. I sometimes say, ‘I can’t tie my shoes, but I can draw.’ I can create — I just can’t stop creating.”
Learn more at fuzzutoys.com.