2024 Summer Fellowship Spotlight | Happy Dinosaur

With Week 2 of CCEI’s Summer Fellowship well underway, we’re excited to spotlight another one of our ten startup teams: Happy Dinosaur. This startup aims to bring the happiness business to you with sustainable, customizable dinosaur stuffed animals and accessories.

CCEI’s Kate Savinelli was able to sit down with Lyla Andrick, Founder and CEO of Happy Dinosaur. 

First, I would like to start with the basics. Tell me what spurred you to come up with this idea. 

It’s really did start out as a random little fling. I was a ‘doodler’ in high school, and I kept drawing these little dinosaurs on my friends’ physics homeworks. My physics teacher kept seeing them, and he was like:  

“Oh god, another happy dinosaur. Another happy dinosaur.” I was worried, but he told me they were good.  I did them a little bit more, and I drew one on a whiteboard. One of my professors asked: “Did you draw this?” When I said no, he said: “Wait, no, I like it!”  

He bought me a package of 24 whiteboard markers, and wanted me to draw dinosaurs on his whiteboard whenever I wanted to. After that, my creative juices were flowing, and I made a ceramic dinosaur where if you put a candle under it, it could smoke out its nostrils. And by the time it got fired, it was so much work, so I moved to making stuffed animals. I thought: “Okay, well, I’ve been sewing all my life. I can do this.” 

And then COVID happened. School shut down. I didn’t see anybody for months. And I thought, well, I guess this is now or never. I might as well, I have the time to do it. So, I made my first dinosaur and I actually have it here with me. It took a couple tries to get this shape right, and I posted it on my Instagram. I had friends say:  

“Oh my gosh, are you making those? Can I buy one? If you make one, can I have it in my college colors?”  

This helped me get through the summer, because I realized I had to pay for college in a few months. In December, I had my first wholesale account in the town that I grew up in. What better way to come out of COVID than to say:

“Look at this new product I had made by one of our high school graduates that didn’t get a real graduation! You can still support your high school students and the central school district here.”  

So, I got that first wholesale account in December of 2020, and it snowballed from there. The more sales I made, the more I thought this could be a real business.   

I feel like with COVID happening, a lot of people would have been scared to move forward. The fact that you took that chance is really cool. 

Yeah, I think COVID gave birth to a lot of entrepreneurs, and some people stuck through it, like me, and some people went back to their regular lives. But, I just really loved it. 

For somebody who is just meeting and learning about Happy Dinosaur for the first time, how would you describe it to them? 

So the goal for Happy Dinosaur is that it is a stuffed animal, but it’s not just some common dinosaur. The goal is that Happy Dinosaur can do whatever you do. So if you’re going out to go on a hike, Happy Dinosaur comes with you. Eventually, as I expand my products beyond the stuffed animal, that’s the mission for Happy Dinosaur. It’s a lifestyle brand that encourages the spirit of adventure, the spirit of happiness, and connecting with your outside world. 

Have there been obstacles that you have faced thus far? Anything that you’ve struggled with? 

One of the big ones is that I make all these dinosaurs by hand. Expansion will come, and I have to focus on what I can do, because I’m always out of stock. That’s one of my big problems — if I get so many orders, I can’t keep up with them. It’s just a production problem. And honestly, it’s not a bad problem to always be out of stock, because it’s a means high demand. 

And another thing is that sometimes being a young entrepreneur, and especially having started Happy Dinosaur as a ‘craft and hobby’ business, I have to remind certain people that it is a real business, and that making stuff animals is a real job. I’ve paid for a couple of semesters of college with Happy Dinosaur. I’ve earned a little bit of the credentials to say: “Yeah, this is a real toy company.”  

With the concept of production limitations you’re having right now – do you have other team members? 

No other team members. A couple of times with the guidance of some mentors, it’s been suggested to have my friends cut out certain parts.  

I went to some of my friends and asked them to just cut out triangles. But, I’ve realized I am so particular about what these triangles look like. So, occasionally I have tried to outsource some production, but I’ve just taken that outsourcing back because I am very particular about the look of the dinosaurs. 

Do you think you would have any plans to hire an actual team member in the future, or is it too soon? 

I think in the near future I definitely need to. As I’m growing the company, it’s going to be hard to make everything handmade, but I want the original custom dinosaurs to always be handmade. Eventually I would like to have someone who is a professional sewer to come on and do all these custom dinosaurs with me. 

Do you have any goals that you’ve hit? Significant progress or milestones that you look back on? 

In the last year, I’ve done a lot of things that have transitioned Happy Dinosaur from a real hobby to a business. I became an LLC in 2023, and I have trademarked the name ‘Happy Dinosaur’ and the wordmark ‘Happy Dinosaur,’ ‘Happy DinoStore,’ and ‘Happy DinoStory.’ And it does help with being seen as a real business.  

Then, I have set up my website through Shopify, and that’s been phenomenal because I’ve had so many different sources where I’m selling my dinosaurs through. Having a website is phenomenal, especially for a consumer product.  

Also, I did get accepted into CCEI Summer Fellowship; the accelerator has been phenomenal. It’s really helping me with growing my current phase, and the future phases. I’ve broken up my scaling process into three phases so that everything is easy to digest, and I’m not doing too much at once.  

Phase 1 is scaling up these plushies and growing the number of plushies that I can produce. Phase 2 is product expansion, and with that creating a Happy DinoStory — which is a series of children’s books in the novella format. Phase 3 is hopefully having something the size of Snoopy, where we’re having our stories printed on everything, such as lunchboxes and phone cases. 

I love the concept of creating books and the DinoStory. I know you discussed CCEI Summer Fellowship, but has Happy Dinosaur participated in any other accelerator programs, showcases, or pitch competitions? 

Sure, yeah. My gateway into Summer Fellowship was doing Get Seeded two years ago, which is an entry-level pitch competition that UConn offers. It was my first time pitching — and it was terrible!  

I came in second place, and it was an excellent opportunity to get a little bit of money and meet the CCEI staff. The connections I made then are people that I still talk to now, and still look to for inspiration and mentorship.  

And then there’s UConn’s Werth Institute. They’re definitely more of the gateway into larger networking, and they really teach you at an early stage in your business how to talk to mentors. You learn so much through a little bit of trial and error. I think my first time talking to my mentor, I was a terrible mentee. I didn’t know what to talk about, but they’ve been fantastic, and they have really great ways for you to connect within UConn and outside of UConn. 

I’ve done some pitch competitions outside of UConn, and I’ve learned to tailor the way I talk to an audience. Depending on who your audience is, you appeal to them in different ways, and their experiences may vary.  

Interesting. Love that you’re so involved with UConn, both with CCEI and the Werth Institute. Would you say you have a target customer? 

When I started out, I said my target customer was everybody. Where I’m at now, I would say it is people between the ages of 16-35. That younger age range are people who are buying novelty items for themselves, and then the older part of that age range are young parents, specifically mothers, who are looking to buy a unique gift or an item for their child, who is ends up being the end user. That’s my direct-to-consumer target customer.

On a business, B2B wholesale side, there are special boutiques in high-tourist areas that want a unique toy and children’s item that they might not be able to get anywhere else. 

Tell me about the sustainability side of it. Because everything that you’re making is sustainable, right? 

Sustainability can sometimes be a little misleading, because it means so many different things to so many different companies. Personally, I think sustainability is an umbrella term. For us, all the custom plushies are zero waste: every scrap material, fabric, and thread I use gets recycled as stuffing. 

If you’re squishing your Happy Dinosaur, you might wonder if there’s something inside of it. That’s probably three or four dinosaurs-worth of scrap material that gets reused as eco-friendly stuffing. That’s one of my ways of trying to reduce the amount of waste I’m making. 

Another way we are sustainable is having ethically sourced, recycled fabric that is made from fibers made out of recycled plastic. It is an apparel-grade fleece, and fleece is almost always made from some sort of polyester fabric or plastic fabric fiber to get that texture. So, all of what I use is made of recycled material. 

That’s great. I feel like in the stuffed animal industry, you have so many competitors. Do you have any specific competitors that you relate to, and how do you think you set yourself apart from those competitors? 

Sure. I did not reinvent the stuffed animal. I definitely didn’t reinvent the dinosaur. and You have to think of the competition on so many different levels: what other companies have characters, and what other stuff animals are the best toy brand. 

For example, if if like Sanrio — the creator of Hello Kitty — created a dinosaur, I might be doomed. But for companies like Squishmellow or Jelly Cat — if they came up with a dinosaur, they’re not my competition in terms of character, but they might be in terms of processing power.  

I love that people still love characters even though they are almost a hundred years old. A similar concept with Charles Schultz’s ‘Snoopy’ character, who just celebrated a 90th anniversary. While they are at a much higher processing power, I think that as a competitor, there’s so much you can learn from them. 

Yeah, I completely agree. So last question: if somebody is interested in learning more about Happy Dinosaur, where should they go and who should they get in contact with? 

My website is happydinostore.com. I have a blog on there where I can get my story out. Especially when I’m direct-to-consumer and use social media, it can be hard when you’re not face-to-face to convey a story. So, my blog is how you can read how I started, and some of my most impactful custom orders.  

And you can reach out to me at happydinosaur.info@gmail.com. I love to talk about anything and everything dinosaurs — although I will say I am no paleontologist — but I would love to talk about my business or to anyone starting a business. 

My Instagram is @_happy_dinosaur.