WilloToons is the creative venture of well-known designer, illustrator and music lover Willo O’Brien. WilloToons products range from basic designs and funny text phrases to jewelery with intricate details. We interview Willo about her career as an artist and her company.

MC: You started your career as a web and flash designer, right? How did that lead to you starting WilloToons?

WO: My design work stems from being an artist at heart. Fortunately, in addition to having corporate web, flash and graphic design clients for the last seven years, I’ve also maintained a fairly consistent clientele for my custom illustration work. Which I have to admit, is where my real passion lies. For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to have my illustrations on products of all kinds, so launching WilloToons was the realization of that dream. Plus, so much of the design work I had done was online, in the virtual world, so I really found myself longing to create something tangible. A product, featuring my illustrations and ideas, that I can hand to someone and they can wear or give it to a friend.

I love music, and I’m a web geek, so to combine that with my love for cartoon illustration, seemed like the perfect idea for my line: WilloToons.com – where geek meets rock ‘n roll!

MC: So you sell t-shirts for men, women, toddlers, kids, and babies. When you launched WilloToons, what products did you start off selling? How did you then decide to move to selling all of the products that you sell now?

WO: I actually started out with the men’s, women’s & baby lines right out of the gates. As well as jewelry (earrings and necklaces), buttons and greeting cards. Since then I have added the toddler sizes (for kiddos up to 6 years old), due to popular demand for larger sizes.

While I will always have adult tees, moving forward I’m actually focusing largely on WilloToons Baby for the next year. I’m transitioning the line to 100% organic cotton and eco-friendly silkscreening, and opening it up for wholesale to retail stores. The baby gift sets (which include a onesie, pants and bib or hat) are a huge hit. Plus all my packaging is recycled, as well as recyclable and/or biodegradable.

MC: Who’s your target market and what methods do you use to reach those potential customers?

WO: My customers are either having babies themselves, or have friends and family having children. They love finding fun, unique alternatives to the overly pink or mainstream Disney, and take pride in supporting companies who have an integrity and awareness about the environmental issues we face today.

Through my website and blog on WilloToons.com, followers of @WilloToons on Twitter and Facebook friends and fans, I have successfully marketed my line and spread the word about my website. Twitter is one of the main referrers to my online store, and is responsible for the majority of my online sales, both domestically and overseas. Thanks to Twitter’s global reach, WilloToons orders have shipped to Canada, Ireland, India, France, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden and Netherlands. My fans and followers are both customers and advocates, promoting my products through their own blogs & social networks, as well as being loyal, repeat buyers themselves.

In the traditional marketing arena, I’ve been very successful doing fairs and independent markets, selling to consumers directly. Throughout this sales cycle, I’ve leveraged my existing client base and store relationships as a focus group, regularly collecting feedback and data on what characters and style/color combinations sell and which don’t. My new organic line has factored in these constructive suggestions; nothing beats talking directly to a customer and figuring out his/her wants and needs firsthand.

MC: I see you also sell jewelry. How do you go about getting your jewelry produced? Are the pieces handmade or mass produced?

WO: Making jewelry started out as a crafty hobby, but took me by surprise how much I fell in love with it. Basically I make jewelry that I myself would wear. I like simple, delicate, unique designs. I’ve coined it “Rockin’ Jewelry for Crafty Ladies.” I don’t actually cut, mold or solder the actual pieces, but I keep my eye out for unique pieces, order a few at a time, and put them together by hand myself.

MC: From reading your blog, it looks like you have a fun and interesting life. What are some cool stuff you enjoy doing outside of WilloToons? Do these activities you do outside of your business influence WilloToons in any way?

WO: Well, I am a pretty avid music fan, and I go to a lot of shows here in San Francisco, hence the “rock ‘n roll” in my tagline. I have an awesome (huge) group of friends here, amassed between the tech and music worlds, so there’s always something going on. We’ve been known to gather 60+ for a ballgame, or completely take over bars on a quest to score a certain Foursquare badge.

In terms of if my personal life & good times out on the town with friends affects my business? Absolutely. My friends have been amazing supporters of my business from the very beginning, and I’ve found any new friends I meet often become new customers at some point, too… or at minimum spread the word about WilloToons.

Where I see this the most is at the local events & craft fairs. At every one, I’ve had handfuls of friends stop by, say hi and buy something. In fact, even when I did the Brooklyn Renegade Craft Fair earlier this year, it coincided with Internet Week NY and I had about 30 friends stop by my table! I loved that, considering I wasn’t even in my hometown.

WilloToons is very much *me* and my personality. Therefore, if you are geeked on the internet, music, or simply all things cute & unique – you’ll most likely get me and like the line I produce. Which means I can write off all my bar tabs, right? haha

MC: What’s in store for the future of WilloToons?

WO: Well, while I launched WilloToons in 2007, I feel like I only really got serious about making a living off of this business at the beginning of this year (2009). I still do some freelance illustration & design work, and have even moved into doing some social media consulting and speaking gigs, but for the most part have been trying to work WilloToons full-time.

At the end of 2008, I was awarded a grant enrolling me and my business into Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center’s Incubator Program, which has included office space in SOMA, as well as one-on-one consultation with business, marketing and finance professionals. I’ve now written a business plan, and am raising funds to take my business to the next level.

This will first and foremost entail streamlining my manufacturing and lowering my COGS so that I can move more into the wholesale market. Over the last few years I have had my line in a few stores locally, but haven’t quite been ready to expand it further until recently. Launching my new organic/eco-friendly line in August also marked my finally opening up my wholesale applications for retail stores. I’m really excited. It will be interesting to see where the next year takes me!

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