Workplace Prank Led To Multimillion-Dollar Business

Steve Wampold, left, is owner of Big Mouth Toys. (Mark Mirko)

GLASTONBURY — The same fevered imagination brought the world a blue gingham inflatable ice-holding tray for outdoor picnics, obnoxious magnetic bumper stickers and an oversized ceramic mug shaped like a toilet.

"Our toilet mug, I think, it defines us as a company in some ways," says Steve Wampold, owner of Big Mouth Toys and creator of all these products. "It's naughty, but it's not dirty. It's naughty, but you're not going to get fired for getting it for your boss at work."

Wampold started his first business 14 years ago after the engineers he worked with thought it was hysterical that he secretly plopped a magnetic bumper sticker on the back of a coworker's truck that said "I heart porn." After the first year of selling off-color magnetic bumper stickers and envelopes with prank return addresses, he quit his job to sell prank props full time. That job paid $155,000, he said, and he was the sole support for his wife and child.

He does not lack for confidence.

Wampold, now 42, still thinks up products from tacky to tame. He has 65 ideas in the prototype pipeline, though he will abandon them if they can't be produced at the right price point, or if he starts to feel like it's not going to catch on.

"I still push the envelope a lot more than some of my sales people would like me to," he said. "We could be bigger if we went more mainstream."

But is that really true? Look at the Harriet Carter catalog online, where customers with handles like "Grandma to all" and "Gramy" wrote review headlines for the inflatable ice holding tray like "Perfect!" and "Absolutely loved it!"

The same catalog that carries the blue-and-white checked outdoor picnic accessory also carries Big Mouth's Fanny Bank, where inserting a coin between the cheeks creates "up to six flatulent sound effects," as the catalog copy says. It also carries the company's farting mechanical golf putter.

Big Mouth Toys, whose products are largely related to drinking, sex, over-the-hill or poop, did $8 million in sales last year.

That's wholesale prices. Double it for how much consumers spent on the items.

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While Wampold overflows with ideas for comical mugs and toys, he recognizes that what he finds funny might not take off.

The top 20 percent of his 300 products provide 80 percent of sales. Some items ring up only 200 sales in a year.

Unlike in many retail segments, stores that stock Big Mouth Toys don't discount items that have been on the shelves too long.

"If I couldn't sell it at $15, I can't sell it at $7, $3, $4," he said. "If it's not funny at $10, it's not funny at a dollar."

So he and his staff of 11 keep up the machine-gun development pace in a Glastonbury office park building, hoping for singles and home runs. Here's how he's pitching one of the newest items he's hoping retail outlets will stock: "A whimsical, porta-potty shaped birdhouse that's sure to make some uptight neighbors cringe! (Blue toilet bowl water and toxic smells not included.)"

It's not just slow sellers he has to worry about, but also overly conservative forecasts of how much he'll sell. Over the Christmas season, he predicted he'd sell 30,000 rolls of Barack Obama toilet paper, at $4.99 a pop. He sold out on Amazon. He had to bring more in by air freight, which costs $1 a roll.

He said people have criticized him for this product, but he said his lack of reverence for the dignity of the office is nothing particular to Democrats, or the first black president.

"I sold more George Bush toilet paper than I could shake a stick at," he said. "I'm going to put whoever's going to sell on toilet paper."

Well, not just anyone. Turns out, you can't put Rush Limbaugh's face on toilet paper, because his rights to his image outweigh your First Amendment rights. Learned that one the hard way.