Jonathan Cathey is a man of many metaphors, which explains why he included this slightly unorthodox — but ultimately accurate — statement when describing his company: “We’re a little bit Willy Wonka, dunked in a Koonsian ether, topped off with some Iggy Pop. Voilà! The Loyal Subjects in a nutshell.”
Cathey describes himself similarly, which makes sense because, in many ways, he and The Loyal Subjects — a collectibles and designer art toy company known for its articulated Action Vinyls figures — are one and the same.
“Being that I started The Loyal Subjects, a lot of it has my personality,” he says. “And I guess if you look at my personality, some of it’s wacky and delirious and head-in-the-clouds, like Willy Wonka, and anything’s possible. Most of it is rock and roll spirit, which is Iggy Pop. Some of it’s juvenile, which is Sesame Street.”
$500 AND A LIVING ROOM
Back in 2009, Cathey launched the company as a one-man show. He had just $500, the living room of his small, West Hollywood bungalow, and his girlfriend at the time, who helped him pack boxes. He also came from a diverse creative background: a theater major, an artist, and a drummer with some experience in the toy industry. Flash forward more than a decade and Cathey still runs The Loyal Subjects, but now he does so from an office with a staff of 15 and more than $60 million in retail sales.
The road to finding that Willy-Wonka-meets-Iggy-Pop vibe wasn’t perfectly straight: Cathey started out making designer toys before shifting to become a counter-culture toy company. Then, about seven years ago, The Loyal Subjects moved into licensed figures, starting with Transformers and G.I. Joe.
“That helped bring in a new viewership,” Cathey says. “We weren’t just doing abstract designer toys or things where you only have editions of 200, 300, or 99 even. It kind of widened our audience … and we just started building from there.”
Through it all, Cathey has had a hands-on role in nearly every part of the company. (Perhaps, he admits, he was too set on learning how to do everything for the business himself in the early days.) While his day-to-day schedule at the office is as challenging as ever, over the years Cathey has carefully built a team to help him carry the workload.
He likens this team, and the importance of choosing the right team members, to taking a band on tour. “Once you’re on tour, you’ve got to like each other,” he explains. “If someone’s in the van and they’re not groovin’ with someone else, that’s going to be a really long tour.”
Phil Ivey, a managing partner with The Loyal Subjects who has known Cathey since 2016, considers the CEO’s hands-on approach to be an asset.
“He definitely tries to infuse — and does infuse — his personality on the brand as an entrepreneur,” Ivey says. “I think there is kind of that authenticity about the company and the products. Truly, there is a blood-sweat-and-tears element to creating top-quality products.”
Ivey also notes that Cathey’s designer background mixed with his self-acquired business know-how bridges the departments of creativity, production, and manufacturing in a unique way.
“It’s one thing to have cool concepts and cool designs,” Ivey says. “But to be able to take that all the way through the sculpting phase, the manufacturing phase, and delivery to the markets? That is a pretty tall task. But he’s been able to do that.”
ACTION FIGURE ACTION
The result of Cathey’s creative vision is, as he describes it, an action figure industry disruptor. The company’s signature Action Vinyls, which span a variety of licenses and characters, all feature the same scale, swappable accessories, and a distinct style, so that fans’ favorite characters can all exist in the same The Loyal Subjects universe. Why not have a Ghostbuster battle the Night King?
The Loyal Subjects also finds its identity in the licenses with which it works. Nostalgia — specifically for the ‘80s — is its main focus, filling its library with brands Cathey refers to as between-the-lines properties, such as Thundercats, Masters of the Universe, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
“We’re in the Mystery Machine; we’re in the nostalgia machine,” he says. “Most of our properties have a lot of warm, fuzzy feels and DNA to them. And when customers see it, it kind of harkens back to simpler times and fun times in their backyard in the sandpit playing soldiers and making up their own stories.”
Last year, despite a global pandemic, the company expanded beyond its Action Vinyl offerings. Now, The Loyal Subjects offers a variety of new product lines, including a brand of action figures called BST AXN; an empowering, kid-focused fashion doll line named For Keeps; and a series of scene-based collectibles called Superama.
BST AXN (pronounced “best action”) was the first new brand to launch, hitting shelves last October at retailers including Walmart and Hot Topic, followed by GameStop and Target. When creating the line, Cathey says the goal was to offer something for both dedicated and more passive collectors and pop culture fans, selecting a wide array of nostalgic and more obscure licenses, ranging from KISS and Fullmetal Alchemist to Lord of the Rings, Napoleon Dynamite, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Cathey calls moving from Action Vinyls to 8-inch action figures a natural progression, but stresses that maintaining quality — good paint detailing, significant articulation, etc. — at a reasonable price was key.
“For $20, you walk in Walmart and you get two slices of pizza and a BST AXN, which isn’t a bad day,” he says.
For Keeps was a completely new venture for the company, though. Not only were the characters original intellectual property, but The Loyal Subjects was also suddenly reaching a different, much younger audience.
However, Cathey says that he carries the same play-first approach for collectibles and toys alike. He thinks the first question to ask, no matter what product he is working on, is “Are we having fun?”
“This idea that you’re a grownup and playing is immature or you’ve outgrown that is ridiculous,” he says. “You really have to have fun with the products you develop. You have to play with them — you have to understand why they’re fun and why anyone would have a good time playing, posing, creating scenes and scenarios, and telling stories with them.”
“This idea that you’re a grownup and playing is immature or you’ve outgrown that is ridiculous,” he says. “You really have to have fun with the products you develop.” — Jonathan Cathey
THE WORK ISNT DONE
Even with more than a decade of business ownership under his belt, Cathey says he is still learning and facing challenges as a small business battling larger companies for space on store shelves. Reflecting on his experience running The Loyal Subjects, he says it is hard to find time to savor the success.
He always has new ideas on the horizon, which is why he named the company The Loyal Subjects, not The Loyal Subjects Toys. It leaves the door open to expand into TV and other media, a possibility that’s always in the back of his mind.
“There aren’t a lot of smell-the-roses moments,” Cathey explains. “You get to one thing, you go for the next. You keep competing. I’ve been talking recently about taking some time to just reflect on some successes we’ve had versus next, next, next, next, next, which is sort of modus operandi for entrepreneurs. … But if we were to take stock at this level, it’s like well, we went into one of the hardest industries that is controlled mostly by publicly traded companies. It’s sort of a Draconian industry. It’s very hard to break through, and we’ve broken through. … But there’s still more to go.”
This article was original published in Issue No. 10 of the Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue!