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Q&A: 30 Watt, Makers Of Prank Packs And Amusing Everyday Items

The founders of 30 Watt break down how they created an alternative humor products brand that procured shelf space at nearly every major retailer across the U.S.

Q&A: 30 Watt, Makers Of Prank Packs And Amusing Everyday Items
It wouldn’t be farfetched to liken 30 Watt to a bizarro Hallmark rival. When the day arrives for another awkward, often mandatory, family/work occasion, 30 Watt wants you to liven up the gathering with one of its products. From its Prank Packs (empty gift boxes disguised like reject Skymall items) to its line of “Drink Wisconsinbly” drinkware, the North Loop laugh factory is finding new ways to infuse humor into the novelty industry.
 
Arik Nordby (the designer), Ryan Dolan (the business manager) and Ryan Walther (the salesman) of 30 Watt continue to explore new ways to grow their brand— and even partner with familiar brands like Awkward Family Photos, Someecards, and the Anchorman films. TCB sits down with the big three behind 30 Watt as they explain how they went from one novelty item on The Onion’s online store to being featured on the shelves of nearly every major retailer in the country.
 
Your products are almost immediately recognizable, but most people don’t know the people, brains or brand behind them. Give me a swift background on 30 Watt.
 
Nordby: It all started with the Prank Packs, which used to be called the Gotcha Box. I had gotten my way into the e-com store at The Onion. And through that relationship I had met Dolan here—he was the former biz guy there. So he drew up the contract for The Onion to partner with me on these Gotcha Boxes. Fast-forward about a year or two after they sold in the store—
 
Dolan: It was the number one selling item in The Onion store by far.
 
Nordby: Yes. And I was just a lone designer from Minneapolis. And then Dolan moved back to Minneapolis and one day had this idea that all three of us should meet. Well, us three and our very own Joan from Sterling Cooper: Angie. She knows every part of our business. So we met over at the Monte Carlo and figured it out over several beers. And that’s what I remember…I blacked out. [laughs].
 
Dolan: But really, we had all three sides of the business that we needed: the funny, the sales, and the finance and operations piece. Back then, the The Onion store was doing very well, but I said ‘we make all of this really funny stuff and it would be kind of odd to only sell it on this one tiny shop on the Internet.’ People didn’t agree with that philosophy, and then once I left The Onion that thought kept showing up. Like, why is it that when I walk into these major retail chains, anything that is supposedly funny feels like it was designed for my aunt who, no offence to her, isn’t the entire market?
 
There are a lot of people out there who probably share that sentiment. So what was the next move?
 
Dolan: Well, we had this great head start because of what Arik did with the Prank Packs. And Walther is the best salesperson I’ve ever seen and I still remember our first trip to see Urban Outfitters… Walther is a super persistent guy and told them we have all these amazing ideas. So we showed them our six products and they asked ‘what else have you got?’
 
Walther: And we said, ‘we’ll be back!’
 
Dolan: [laughs] That’s right, and then Arik came up with another 40 ideas.

Nowadays, 30 Watt has a pretty eclectic catalog—or so I noticed when breezing through your online store. You guys sell everything from growlers to gift-card holders to fridge magnets to the Prank Packs and even rickshaws. That said, beyond not selling exclusively to the aunts out there, who is 30 Watt’s demographic?

Dolan: I think it’s people who appreciate a higher level of humor. We don’t really think ‘hey, we’re going after the 18 to 34 male demographic,’ you know?
 
Walther: Yes, but in a sense, like for Target, we’ll develop an end-cap for back-to-college drinkware. We curate comedy with buyers. So for instance, ‘chase your dreams especially if it’s straight booze’—that’s on a flask in Target right now. And of course, that relates not to your aunt but to a college kid. We can curate with the use of our comedy crusaders—a.k.a. our writing staff—to have comedy targeted towards mom or dad or whoever. I mean, retail is impulsive, right? You see something that is funny, it’s priced right, and if it’s around the drive time—i.e. Father’s Day or Mother’s Day—and that comedy relates to dad, you’re more likely to buy it. It’s like with the Prank Packs, they’re huge around the holidays because people need to give gifts.
 
Dolan: One of the things we’ve seen within the quote-unquote novelty business is that a person might come up with a funny idea, somehow finds their way into a room with Target and they’ve got one thing—[laughs] like we did. But what we realized along the way is that when you meet bigger retailers, they want solutions. They can’t buy one Prank Pack from us and then go find some funny glassware person. So what our advantage to them is we are a one-stop shop.
 
As I understand it, there’s a definite writing process that’s done, but one thing that really sells your products is the presentation factor, most of all on your Prank Packs. Some of those fabricated items, I swear, look homemade but very detail-oriented. How deep does the fabrication go?
 
Norby: I would say each box takes on average 40 hours, and that’s doing all six sides. Some of them take longer because you have to build them, and when you’re not it’s a whole lot of Photoshop work. I go to Axe Man a lot, so I have so much random [expletive] upstairs.
 
I have to wonder how far the range of retail products you guys make will stretch. Your website shows Anchorman-branded merch, so can you explain how that deal worked out?
 
Walther: Paramount came to us. Paramount asked Urban Outfitters a good product company that does comedy well, and their buyer said, ‘talk to 30 Watt.’ And Arik’s done stuff with Will Ferrell—like his sunscreen and things for his charity.
 
Norby: Yeah, I still do it probably four times a year. His t-shirts and cowbells and pipes…stuff like that. It’s mostly for his cancer charity.
 
Focusing back on 30 Watt as a whole, how is the “novelty business” doing?
 
Dolan: We’ve seen really good year-over-year growth in the six years we’ve been in business. An average year is us doubling, although I can’t say exact numbers right now. But you know, we’ve got 14 employees up there and we’re very profitable. This is a good example of the expansion right here [holds up Beer Beard Prank Pack]. This is the first Prank Pack that was a box only and then Kohl’s came to us and said ‘we want to sell the actual Beer Beard.’
 
Walther: Oh yeah, and that will be in Kohl’s this holiday. I think we’re going to sell a lot of Beer Beards. But really, whoever thought that satire and parody would be on a gift box?
 
It seems that with stuff like the Beer Beard, you guys are going outside of the box by going inside of it.
 
Walther: For sure, and like the Pet Rock guy—or I always bring up the Rubber Chicken guy. I mean, how many Rubber [expletive] Chickens have ever been sold? We can come up with the next Rubber Chicken, or the next Pet Rock. We’ve practically done it already and we understand how to make that sort of thing real.
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