Once burned by bobblehead business, Iowan says he’s ready to bounce back By Bryan Guise
DES MOINES (AP) — Bobbleheads wobble by nature, and Bryan Guise’s business got off to a similar start when he began making the custom dolls with oversized heads.
A decade ago, Guise’s foray into small business ended in a disaster that cost him and his customers thousands and wrecked his mental and physical health.
Now, he strives for a second chance at his bobblehead-making dream — this time on firmer footing.
“I made a lot of mistakes, and I acknowledge that,” Guise said from his small studio above his parents’ garage. “I’m trying to make it right, and I’m going to do things better this time around.”
The Des Moines Register reports that Guise grew up in Des Moines. When he was a boy, his dad, Ben Guise, brought home a package of multicolored sculpting clay for his artistically inclined son.
Bryan Guise loved the commercials featuring the California Raisins, a series of TV spots in the mid-’80s and early ’90s that featured stop-motion, animated raisins as members of a singing group.
Guise took to shaping the clay into the likeness of the California Raisins and other characters from pop culture, or his own imagination.
“You couldn’t cook the clay, so it was always going to stay malleable, but I loved it from the first time I got my hands on it,” Guise said.
He struggled in school, but graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1996. He attended Kirkwood Community College’s campus in Iowa City, where he boosted his grades and then enrolled at the University of Iowa.
He took art classes and majored in ceramics. He honed his sculpting craft. He studied the work of Will Vinton, the director whose studio created the California Raisins commercials.
Guise started out making dolls with exaggerated features but without the bobble. In 2002, he got the idea to create bobbleheads of famous faces around town.
He made one for WHO-TV sports director Keith Murphy, who showed it during an episode of the Sunday night sports talk show “Sound Off.”
He eventually branched out into celebrity creations, including a “Star Wars” stormtrooper and late-night talk show host David Letterman.
From Letterman, Guise learned his first lesson in business.
“His people saw a picture of the bobblehead, and I got a cease-and-desist letter,” Guise said. “They thought I was trying to make money off his image. I was disappointed. I wanted to give it to him.”
Guise took the Letterman bobblehead off his website but kept selling his custom creations for people who wanted to see themselves immortalized in ceramic with a wobbling head.
The big break came in 2005, when prop-makers from the NBC series “The Office” contacted him to make a bobblehead of character Dwight Schrute, played by Rainn Wilson.
“I thought it was a joke,” Guise said. “I sent it off, and all of sudden it was on TV.”
The wobbler captured the fancy of viewers, who badgered NBC to sell the doll. NBC, which owned the rights to the character, eventually sold 150,000 of the bobbleheads first created by Guise in the basement of his Des Moines home.
Though Guise didn’t see any extra money from the prop’s mass marketing, the exposure launched his career as a bobblehead-maker.
“We really blew up after that,” he said.
And then things got out of control. Guise asked for payment in advance for custom bobbleheads, which cost $150.
The scores of orders he received from 2006 to 2008 overwhelmed him. His health declined. His kept poor accounting records. He started suffering severe anxiety and depression.
“My family and friends were trying to help me, but I just couldn’t do it — I was going cuckoo,” Guise said. “One day in 2008, I walked into the studio and said, ‘I have to get away from this.’ ”
In 2010, a judge ordered Guise to repay his customers $45,057 for failing to provide promised products and not properly issuing refunds.
Guise got a job as a bus driver for West Des Moines schools. The state seizes his tax refunds each year to slowly pay the debt.
He believed his dream dead.
“This was absolutely not what I wanted,” Guise said. “I didn’t go into this to rip people off. It just got away from me, and I know I disappointed a lot of people. I am very sad about that.”
Guise got his health in order. He moved into his parents’ house and set up a studio in the garage. He decided to start making bobbleheads again.
This time, though, he decided to keep the operation small. He spoke with the Better Business Bureau in Des Moines, which advised him not to take money from customers until he finished the product.
The new business will be called You Are A Bobblehead. He has a Facebook page and will be launching his website soon.
He plans to hire an accountant to keep his books “meticulous.”
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