'Pop' Culture: The Incredible Rise of Funko Pop!

How one Washington-based toy company started making cute, big-headed figures of everyone from Batman to Tupac — and ended up dominating the collectibles market

A Funko Pop! figure of Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols

Brian Mariotti's office is absolutely crawling with toys. Recognizable characters from Star Wars, Marvel and DC Comics, My Little Pony and the TV show Arrested Development line the shelves and litter the floors. But among all those items, one relatively obscure, "Oh My Darling, Clementine"-singing pooch from 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoons is especially close to the Funko CEO 's heart. "Oh, Huckleberry Hound!" exclaims Mariotti, picking up the tiny, mouthless pooch. "I've basically got a rainbow of different color variants [of] Huckleberry. He's my favorite."

The one thing these disparate toys from the four corners of the pop-culture universe have in common: They are all Funko "Pops!" — the company's signature vinyl collectible. Whether it's Huckleberry Hound, the Incredible Hulk or The Big Bang Theory's Howard Wolowitz, the average Pop figure adheres to the same template: It stands 3.75 inches tall in a neutral pose. It has a square-shaped head with rounded edges — one large enough to account for half the piece's height. It should have pupil-free, button-like black eyes, a small nose and no mouth. Most importantly, it should be adorable. 

Using these simple stylistic guidelines, Mariotti's Everett, WA-based collectible company has depicted a vast array of pop culture icons, real and fictional alike. According to the CEO, the roster currently includes around 180 unique licenses from movies, TV, comic books, video games, sports and other cultural flotsam (like breakfast cereal mascots) — pick a hot franchise, and there's a good chance Funko has either secured the rights to its signature characters or is currently doing so. Star Wars, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, The Big Bang Theory, the Disney canon, musicians from Kiss and the Ramones to Run DMC and Tupac, World of Warcraft, WWE, MLB and the NBA: these are only a handful of the properties Funko has in play. The diversity increases the likelihood that there's something for everyone. "We were in the $40 million range for revenue last year — and $28 million of that was from Pop figures alone," Mariotti says.

Whether it's the x-men or Breaking Bad, we're going to find some pop culture phenomenon to get you into the hobby.

The company's history begins 1998, when a T-shirt designer and toy enthusiast named Mike Becker was in the market for a vintage coin bank depicting the Big Boy restaurant mascot. Finding that the item he wanted was going for hundreds of dollars on eBay, he figured that he could produce his own replica in China for about the same price. Soon after, he launched Funko from his house in Snohomish, WA, selling bobbleheads, banks and hand puppets based on nostalgia-friendly niche properties. His initial line-up of licensed items featured Popeye, Dick Tracy, General Mills cereal characters such as Count Chocula — and, of course, the Big Boy mascot. 

While his venture was successful, Becker was less concerned with using Funko to establish a wider audience than with reviving his favorite brands. By 2005, he was growing uninterested in the company and considering folding it when Mariotti jumped at the chance to snap it up. A former nightclub owner and a serious collector (he made his house's first down payment by selling his Pez dispenser collection), Mariotti eventually persuaded a reluctant Becker to sell him the business with the assurance that key employees would be kept on. "I don't think he thought much was going to come of [the sale] because I had no experience," says Mariotti. "But we were always looking for that next product other than a bobblehead to brand us as a company."

So, at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, Mariotti decided to debut a prototype the company had been working on, known as Funko Force 2.0. (The line was a slightly less detailed version of the company's original Funko Force line.) He brought four figures made of DC Comics characters — Green Lantern, Batgirl and not one but two Batman collectibles — to the convention. They didn't click initially. "The early results from my fan base were fairly negative," he admits. "They didn't like the look, the feel...the fact it didn't bobble." Still, Mariotti did receive enough positive feedback from customers of all ages — most unusually, women and Comic-Con veterans who'd never purchased Funko items before — that was motivated to keep it going.

Using the company's three big licenses (DC, Marvel and Lucasfilm's Star Wars property), what would become the Pop line was put into production. Soon, Funko was able to secure 25 more licenses, and eventually pushed the product into outlets other than comic-book and collectible shops — thinking outside of the box by placing the toys in big-box stores and mainstream online retailers. Soon, devoted fans began posting on forums about the figures, making spreadsheets about the brands and blogging about their customized Pops; once Game of Thrones cast members started endlessly posing with their figures, Funko's cultural cachet allowed the company to expand its empire even further. "When licensors see that your products are getting into the marketplace and there is a coolness factor to them, they want to be a part of that," Mariotti says. The rest is history. 

Thanks to the vast array of choices and a thorough colonization of every fanscape under the sun — along with the line's $9.99 pricetag, which allows for folks to build collections quickly — Funko Pop has managed to turn the line into, per Mariotti, "a gateway drug for collectibles." And though the line adheres to a strict aesthetic template, part of the appeal lies in how certain characteristics (Walter White looking haggard in his tighty-whiteys, or the inherent creepiness of horror icons like Halloween's Michael Myers or It's evil clown Pennywise) are retained, oh-so-adorable figure or not. "You don't want to lose what people love about the property, even though we're putting it into a format," says Ben Butcher, Funko's Vice President of Creative. It's another huge part of how the team have managed to keep bringing in new, and unexpected, franchises. Anyone could make figures for fans of TV's superhero series Arrow and next year's blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron; only Funko could produce those Comic-Con-friendly characters alongside recently acquired partnerships with the license-holders of Gotham, The Godfather and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and still serve every one of those demographics without diluting the brand.

"There's something [in the catalog] that's going to get somebody hooked," Mariotti claims. "Whether it's the X-Men or Breaking Bad — or heck, Huckleberry Hound — we're going to find some pop culture phenomenon that's going to get you into the hobby. And then we're going to keep you coming back."