Ray Tollison regularly stays up until 2 a.m. working at his company's headquarters – his Fort Collins, Colo., basement – while his business partners sleep.
They need it. Tollison's two partners in A Monster to Love, a company that makes plush monsters, are his twin sons, Sam and Ben, 11.
The trio launched the company almost two years ago with an old Singer sewing machine and ideas that bubbled out of Ben, the lead designer (Sam spearheads the sewing). The boys were inspired by their collections of stuffed toys, including Uglydolls. They and their dad learned how to use the machine and hand-sew.
“If you were to see the originals, I mean, I can't believe people bought them,” says Tollison, 43. “We've come a long way with our monsters.”
Since Ben and Sam are fraternal twins, they wanted each plush monster to have a not-quite-exact duplicate, so they make them all in pairs. Buy one monster – they start at $25 – and A Monster to Love will donate the second to another child. They send them to hospitalized children, and to several local and international non-profit groups.
So far, Tollison and the boys have donated more than a thousand monsters.
More than 100 have gone to Realities for Children, says Jennifer Varner, marketing and events director for the non-profit group, which serves neglected and abused children in Larimer County, Colo. Knowing that their monster has a twin helps these children believe they're also not alone, she said.
“Every time they see one of those crazy little monsters, their eyes light up,” Varner says. “We tell them the story, that these other children created the monster because they didn't want them to be alone.”
Often, buyers request that a monster go to a specific child. Katy Tychsen bought one for her daughter, Caroline, last year and asked that its look-alike be sent to her niece, Maggie Quirk, a 12-year-old who was undergoing testing for seizures at a Boston hospital. Early this year, when Caroline, now 13, was hospitalized in Denver to have a tumor removed, Maggie's family in Marion, Mass., reciprocated: Caroline received A Monster to Love.
“Delivering a package at your door at the hospital, and it's this cute little monster – I think it's a great gig all around,” says Katy Tychsen, of Fort Collins.
Helping a hospitalized child is partly what motivates Tollison to keep his late-night hours; so does working with his boys.
During the day, he's website manager for World Relief, a humanitarian-aid organization, which also helps deliver some of the monsters.
And it gets even more personal: Tollison's brother Scooter died of AIDS at age 13 in 1988, when Tollison was 18.
“For those kids we send stuff to in the hospital, that's kind of my thing. I don't pretend to know what those kids are going through at all, but having had a younger brother who was on the terminally ill ward of NIH (National Institutes of Health), that was and still is a huge part of my life,” says Tollison.
During the school year, Sam and Ben also sing in a children's choir, but spend much of their free time making monsters.
“When we get home, we either make monsters or we go outside,” says Ben.
Tollison's wife, Sarah Fox, 43, and their daughter, Zoie, 15, are supportive but not closely involved in A Monster to Love.
This summer, between camps, the boys were planning to make more monsters to sell at weekly summer crafts markets. The family bought a 1971 Volkswagen pop-top camper to road-trip there.
The toys are also sold at Amonstertolove.com, and on Etsy.com.
Tollison says he doesn't know how much money the company has made, because it all gets plowed back in. He spent a hefty sum on a high-end embroidery machine to cut down on sewing time.
“We're not making millions of dollars,” he says. “But for a company run by two 11-year-old boys, it's doing well.”