Nikola Matic is serious about Teddy bears.
While he may very well be a cuddly person in his private life, Matic was all business on the phone this week when he talked to GeekWire about Joyfay, the company he helped create, and his signature product, a giant Teddy bear that caught the attention of the internet and went viral for what Matic called all the wrong reasons.
In addition to the Joyfay site, the bear is for sale on Amazon, which is where Matic’s troubles started. Despite averaging 4.6 out of 5 stars, thanks to 165 customer reviews, two negative reviews about the bear have been up-voted hundreds of times. These reviews and the photographs attached to them call attention to the 6-foot 5-inch bear’s legs, which look disproportionately long.
And that’s where the viral internet took over.
On Nov. 9, Buzzfeed wrote about the bear with “ridiculously long legs” and said that “people can’t stop laughing.” People tweeted about the bear; other outlets such as Huffington Post wrote about the bear. And GeekWire spotted what turned out to be a long-legged knock-off in an Everett, Wash., thrift store and wrote about the bear.
But Matic and the folks at Joyfay weren’t laughing at a product that has been their biggest seller since the Cleveland-based company was founded in 2009.
“It’s actually not a joke at all,” he said. “It’s kind of serious.”
Matic founded the company when he and three other aspiring scientists — three chemists and a physicist — were PhD students at Case Western Reserve University.
The idea for the giant Teddy bear was born out the group’s research around Google Trends, after they saw a spike near Valentine’s Day for the life-sized stuffed animals. To hear him tell the story, you can almost picture a lightbulb over Matic’s head, or red hearts in place of his eyes.
“We thought OK, let’s do it, let’s try to make a product. And at that time this giant Teddy bear, this was kind of a replacement for a boyfriend, really. You have somebody being absent, for example, for whatever reason, a boyfriend is not there for Valentine’s Day, or a husband — he’s deployed or he’s on a business trip, whatever. He sends this gift and this is like a life-sized gift, that kind of has the proportions of an adult. He really doesn’t have baby legs. These kind of baby proportions — big head, small limbs, and bigger torso — this kind of thing has been used throughout history for toys many times. You just have this innate, cute thing that people will use to sell their product. The things have huge eyes, or they have really big heads and small limbs — you know, kind of reminds you of a baby, right? This was not our idea. We kind of wanted to have an adult be the replacement, and so we launched this item and it was absolutely stellar. Seriously, like, we could not bring enough.”
Joyfay found a niche. And Matic said that it wasn’t really by accident. He called it an “educated guess” based on trends. And the sales have proven that. In 2010 and 2011 and 2012 and pretty much every year since, the market for the $110 Teddy bear outpaced their predictions and product supply. To date they have sold more than 30,000 of them.
“It’s really a conservative number. It could be much more,” Matic said confidently.
With 47 employees and offices in Cleveland, Las Vegas and China, and fulfillment warehouses in Europe and Australia, the company sells much more than big bears. The website says they have more than 20,000 products available, and those range from toys and costumes to industrial equipment and laboratory devices.
Matic said someone said something recently to the effect of, “This is what happens when engineers found a company and they don’t have marketing experience.” But he said that while it’s true, Joyfay does have a mixture of items that seem weird, relatively speaking, “they’re only weird because they’re from different niches that we were able to find through some of our market analysis.”
What’s also weird for Matic is the whole concept of going viral in 2017.
He wondered how that could be possible because of just two Amazon reviews, from January and February 2016. While it seems easy to assume, based on the photos attached to those reviews and what the buyers wrote about their bears, that Joyfay’s bear has oddly long legs, Matic said that’s just not the case. At least not anymore.
“Look at the stars on Amazon. You can’t fake that. It’s real. It’s real,” Matic said. “The funny thing is that people contact us and they say, ‘Why does your bear have long legs?’ And I’m thinking, ‘Well, you assume that it has long legs. But it actually doesn’t.’ It’s actually meant to have adult proportions, but people have in their mind this preconceived notion that, ‘Well, everything should be cute like a baby, everything Teddy bear related.’ Not necessarily true. And the reviews are showing it’s quite a different story.”
Matic blames a “skewed” perspective in those images that make the legs appear longer than they really are. But he also said that the company did tweak the proportions of the bear in July 2016, to spread the overall height through the torso a bit more.
He said the last image on the Amazon product page, of a woman hugging the bear while standing beside it (below), does the best job of showing that the legs are not “freakishly long,” as they have been described.
“We have since fixed it and everything was fine and all of a sudden — it’s a really strange creature this internet — all of a sudden somebody found it funny and guess what, it’s viral all of a sudden,” Matic said. “And it’s all about those old reviews, which is even worse, and nobody’s even noticing, while they’re having fun trashing us, they’re not even noticing that it has 4 1/2 stars.”
Entering the company’s peak holiday shopping season, Matic fears that the hype will hurt sales. That the attention is now on those reviews and what he calls the “so-called long legs.”
“When you have 300 people endorse a negative review, that negative review on Amazon will appear there forever, he said. “And you can’t change reviews. There’s no such thing. If you tell Amazon, ‘Can we change this?’ No.”
And Matic could accept that if it was a true representation of his product.
So it’s clear now, that for at least the last week, a guy who founded an e-commerce business has been thinking a lot about how the internet works.
“It seems the internet nowadays doesn’t only have the speed, it also has an inertia. You may have seen somewhere that this thing became viral. And you want to tell your readers about it, it’s only a natural thing to follow these audiences. But, what happens is the initial inertia of not-really-truthful reviews continues. So, when people call me, they ask me, ‘Why are the legs long?’ They by inertia already assumed that this is how it is. I didn’t expect that. I expected to be asked a question about it, that they’d ask me what do I think about somebody else claiming that. I didn’t anticipate that a professional journalist is going to come and say, ‘Why are they long?’ as if they actually are long.”
Matic said that all he can do is hope that the viral nature of all of this translates to more sales. He talked about an increase in traffic to his site and Amazon in relation to conversion rates and how those two things will play out — which he’ll certainly know after Christmas.
“This is going to be a data point. We’ve never had anything like this,” he said. “Yup. It’s going to be a data point.”
Which he must appreciate as a scientist, right?
“As a father I will appreciate it even more if it doesn’t actually bury us, he said. “I think the real question is whether or not the truth is more important than entertainment.”