“I’ve never seen anything like this”: Wow! Stuff’s Richard North on creating a new category with Real FX Disney Stitch

Wow! Stuff’s Richard North talks Real FX Stitch – and why he feels ‘Puppetronics’ has the potential to match the Furby craze of the Nineties.

Richard, it’s always lovely to chat. We’re here to talk about your Real FX Disney Stitch Puppet. To kick us off, what appealed about creating something around this character?
A few years ago, you could see Stitch coming through as a trend – and it was most prevalent in fashion. That’s an industry we’ll look at sometimes for inspiration. Sometimes these things only travel as far as apparel, but you could see that Stitch was going to be big in merch. It wasn’t being driven by new movies or TV shows… It was something else – and when you get that ‘something else’, it can be pretty special. It means it has a life of its own now. People don’t know why they want it, but they want it.

And at that point, we had no visibility of Disney’s efforts behind Stitch. There was no indication back then that this was going to be one of its pillar brands. We were locked and loaded before there was a public commitment from Disney that this was a key brand, and that they had a new movie coming in 2025.

There’s a lot of innovation ‘under the fur’, so what did the start of the design process on Stitch look like?
Well, with Stitch, there’s a ton of merchandise out there. There’s real fan demand around the character, and it has a strong licensing programme, so we had to find white space. This product falls under our Real FX pillar, and it really epitomises what we stand for as a company. Anything in Real FX should be innovative. It should look real, feel real or sound real. It has to succeed in at least two of those three attributes.

Richard North, Wow! Stuff

And Real FX started life with your Real FX Racing product?
Yes. Real FX as a brand has grown and grown quite organically. When we acquired Dr Jim Wyatt and Dr Mark Gasson’s toy engineering company 14 years ago, they brought with them the spark that became Real FX. That started with Real FX Racing – a race car set on a roll out track. It looked real, felt real and sounded real. We licensed it to Mattel who did more than $80m at retail as Hot Wheels Ai. It was a big hit.

A few years ago, we wanted to look at Real FX again and find out where it could live best. Well, we love licensed brands and we love what Real FX stands for… How can we combine them? That led to the Jurassic World Real FX Baby Blue, which became a bestseller. I recall a super clever guy telling at that time telling me: “The only thing with this project is that historically puppets – and using the description ‘puppets’ – is a big no no. Puppets don’t sell.” Like all the books about entrepreneurs I’ve read, when you’re told something won’t work you want to see if it will.

Richard North, Wow! Stuff

Yes because Stitch is a puppet, but not strictly in the traditional sense.
Well, a funny thing happened in a meeting with Disney. We were showing Disney’s SVP of Product Development, Joann Mclaughlin, an early prototype of Real FX Stitch that the Wow! Stuff R&D team had developed and she said: “It’s not an animatronic, but it’s not just a puppet… It’s more than that. It’s…” And then a word popped into my mind and almost magically started to come out of her mouth! We finished the word together – ‘Puppetronic’ – and both laughed. Joann said: “You take that!” It was a real meeting of minds and we knew it described what looks like a new category within interactive toys.

Puppetronics. Nice!
Puppets with animatronics… It’s that magical 1 + 1 = 3 that we look for in this industry. I think puppetronics category could be many hundreds of millions of dollars and we’re delighted to be first into it. We have a whole bunch of stuff and price points coming out in 2025 in this space that will blow your mind. It all started with Baby Blue, then Stitch – the biggest selling toy we’ve ever sold – and next year, just wait! It’s going to be even bigger. Right now we are selling seven per store per week and rising at $80! That’s unheard of in June and July – it’s like the Furby mania of the Nineties.

Richard North, Wow! Stuff

Amazing. Congratulations.
It’s been phenomenal. The production lines are going non-stop, and we cannot build enough! I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s what you live for in toys. It’s the reason why we do what we do. Yes, we want to create toys that kids will remember and love forever, but as a businessperson, you know that this industry is like a lottery… You’re placing bets hoping that one of them blows up huge. Baby Blue was big, Stitch is something else again and the new 2025 Puppetronics are just groundbreaking. They will reset what fans love about interactive toys.

Fantastic. Can I ask, was there any learnings from designing Baby Blue – or the follow up, Baby T-Rex – that fed into the development of Stitch?
Yes. It reinforced the importance of focusing on a beloved character. We learnt that with T-Rex… Baby T-Rex is not a character, whereas Baby Blue is. People have to be in love with the character.

Richard North, Wow! Stuff

Ah, I see what you mean. So people love the Jurassic Park T-Rex as we know it – but in its adult form. But Baby T-Rex isn’t actually the version of that character that fans know. Whereas Baby Blue is a personality and a real dino in Jurassic World.
Exactly. And you need it to appeal to both kids and adult collectors. And Stitch has that. I actually showed it to a buddy of mine who’s never fussed about what we create… But with Real FX Stitch he said: “I want one!” His youngest kid is 15 and his twins are 20, so I asked: “Who for?” He said: “Me and the wife!”

He’s not into toys, he’s not a collector and yet he loves Real FX Stitch. That’s when you know you’ve got something special. Another brand that spans kids and adult collectors is WWE and we have great things coming soon for that IP.

Great stuff. Looping back to Stitch, what aspects of the character was it important to capture in this ‘puppetronic’?
We wanted to capture what Stitch would be like if he was here in real life. What would Stitch look like in real life? In fact, only recently Disney revealed a clip of next year’s live action Stitch – we can’t wait to see the fans reaction when they see our 2nd Edition in 2025.

Richard North, Wow! Stuff

Brilliant. Now, were there any big design challenges involved in developing Stitch?
The central mechanism. Stitch has been a totally different shape to work with. We initially planned that you’d put your hand inside its body and there’d be a handset with a trigger on it, just like the previous Real FX products. It didn’t work… It didn’t look real. We did 20 versions of Stitch with that approach and on the 21st version we realised we’d got it all wrong and started again. That’s when we decided you’d put your hand inside Stitch’s head – not the body – to control things. It looked more realistic that way.

And then the mechanism posed a challenge because it’s very different to what we’ve done before. Kids initially found it very hard to operate – they couldn’t get the mouth to open or the eyes to close. So that took a lot of redesigning. Same with the packaging. Stitch originally had his arms down by his sides in the packaging, but he looked quite angry! Just by moving his arms up, made all the different. Now there’s a happy funny vibe!

Richard North, Wow! Stuff

Your design team is made up of a few scientists. Why is it? What does it bring to the company?
They come at things without preconceived toy notions or ‘ceilings’. Graeme did his PhD in Environmental Sciences. Kenny is the same. Mark and Jim come from cybernetics, robotics and AI. They don’t suffer from ‘Oh that’s been done before…’ That mentality kills ideas before they get a chance to evolve. We also have engineers that haven’t come from toys… And even our designers that have aren’t ‘yes people.’ There’s no ‘boss’ in our NPD meetings. We have a chair, but no boss.

Everyone feels comfortable challenging ideas. We do this thing called ‘Why won’t this work.’ We invite people to share thoughts around what may prevent something from being a hit. Over the last 24 months, that’s solidified as a key part of our process, from design to packaging. It sounds negative… Telling someone that’s worked on Stitch’s nose for three months that the nose is wrong! But it’s been crucial to the success of the product and is very healthy – and welcomed by our different thinkers.

Before we wrap up, I have a Linkedin question. You’re prolific on Linkedin, and very quick to support and champion others on there. What’s the value of your network on that platform?
People randomly help each other more on Linkedin than in real life. It’s very collaborative and supportive. People enjoy celebrating and supporting each other on that platform. Maybe the algorithm made it happen, but ‘what goes around comes around’ is truer on Linkedin than in any other area of business life. If you support someone, you get support back. Pure self-promotion doesn’t work on Linkedin – and I’ve done more business through Linkedin than anywhere else.

And look at the posts of Learning Express’ Rick (Richard Derr). He’ll say something great about Stitch and how well it’s doing, but it actually has lessons and insights that’s useful for the wider toy trade, including other retailers. It might be about how you can sell an $80 product in June. It will give a lot of indies a feeling of confidence going into this next part of the year. Rick is always helping people; he’s brilliant. And the UK’s David Middleton of Midco is the same. He shares proper insights that you don’t find elsewhere.

And it’s similar on TikTok. I try to share business learnings and failings there too. Failing is still the best way to learn. You can tell someone not to touch the stove when it’s hot, but boy do they remember that lesson if they touch it!

One last question! How would you describe the creative culture at Wow! Stuff? And how do you fuel your creativity?
Well, ideas can come from anywhere… From anyone at the company. And the main thing is to write ideas down. It doesn’t matter how stupid an idea might be – products come from the spark of ‘impossible’ ideas. You go from “That’ll never work” to “But that’s interesting”. And people build on it, and build on it, until you end up with a product that might work.

Great answer. Richard, a huge thanks again. And congrats on Stitch!

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