Interview: Dirty Bird Toys

All the way from the USA to the sunny country of Portugal, Dirty Bird is a well travelled little thing but brought more than just a coconut. A shop of growing popularity and a unique selling point for the European market, Dirty Bird sits down with us to talk all things Sex Shop related, Strange Bedfellas and its humble beginnings.
 
This is the second Interview with a Dongsmith to mark our favourite spooky season and is a brilliant read as a Grand Ball event!
 
Get stuck in!
[Fergus] Who are you and how would you like to be known as?
 
[Steph] I am Stephanie, the owner and wearer of 9 out of 10 hats around Dirty Birdy HQ. I’d like to be known as…Stephanie
 
[Fergus] Tell us about your shop, what’s your brand and/or theme?
 
[Steph] I started out making toys to stock the shelves of the store I owned in Austin, TX. Then I started wholesaling to other stores in the US. Since I was designing for a broad retail audience, the designs were “mainstream” toys that didn’t stretch my creativity much. Also, there wasn’t even really a market for fantasy toys in mainstream retail until fairly recently. Then I eventually started sneaking things like the D20 dildo into the line-up. It has a mainstream shape and size, but still satisfied a few of my nerd longings. Now that I’m not tethered to my store, or anyone else’s, Dirty Birdy is a better representation of my personal interests, e.g. horror and “nerd stuff”.
 
[Steph] I love old horror and sci-fi. I grew up watching movies and TV shows that relied on practical FX, like guys in suits and miniatures on strings. Or Tom Savini prosthetic kind of stuff-not CGI. That informs a lot of what I like to create. In addition to the designs I’ve made in the past, I have a Xenomorph dong that will be included in the website’s relaunch and I have a Cenobite-themed model that is going through final tweaks. There’s also the lightsaber-themed toy that has been out for a while, but will definitely be expanded upon in the near future (Don’t sue me, Disney). I also really love the idea of popping a silicone D20 in everything I make! Since my tendencies tend to veer toward cleaner and more simplistic colors and designs, I think adding Strange Bedfellas’ designs to the offerings really balances everything out. They obviously have their own following, and I’m excited to expose their “typical” customer to my designs, and vice versa. It’s definitely a “best of both worlds” situation for me, in that I get to explore all sorts of design challenges.
 
Whatever the inspiration for the toy, I am really adamant that the overarching theme is usability. That applies to the stuff I design, as well as any brands I may partner with. I’d rather reel in some far-out design ideas to keep a toy maximally user-friendly. While I think that collecting toys is wonderful, I ultimately want the designs that I sell to have a place in the bedside table as well as on the display shelf.
 
Like yourself, we are also really committed to environmental responsibility. We minimize waste, recycle and reuse what we can, and keep our carbon footprint as low as possible. Luckily, Portugal has an excellent reputation for its environmental policies, so I can kind of tap into a system that already exists.
 
[Fergus] Where did the name come from?
 
[Steph] I saw this picture posted on Tumblr ages and ages ago. It referenced an article about a bird in the Netherlands (I think) that was caught stealing bread. As a joke, the cops put  the little bird in a jail cell, took its picture, and blacked out its eyes like they were protecting its identity. I thought it was hilarious and adorable. When the time came to (re)brand my toy business, that image popped back into my head. I also have a great love for pigeons, which are often mistakenly thought of as dirty. So the idea of Dirty Birdy just kind of sprung up from there. I guess it kind of illustrates my affinity for the maligned and misunderstood beings of the world.
 
[Fergus] Tell us about yourself. What is your background?
 
[Steph] My first and truest loves are leftist politics and labor rights. But doing that as a career burned me out after less than a decade. I also have a ton of retail and warehouse experience with a pinch of design education to top it off. Those things led me to open my own sex toy store in Phoenix, AZ and then Austin, TX somehow? In all seriousness, I have been passionate about sex-positivity, feminism, and the personal-being-political for most of my adult life. Then, I started educating myself about body-safe materials in sex toys, the lack of regulation of sex toys in the US (and elsewhere), and fell down that rabbit hole. Of course I was familiar with shops like GoodVibes in the San Francisco Bay area, and Babeland in Seattle. But I then learned about the work and activism of Jennifer Pritchett (not sure that’s what they’re calling themselves these days), the owner of the Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis Minnesota.
 
Through their encouragement and resources they had made available, I felt inspired to open my own store. The natural progression for me was to start making toys, as well. So the abbreviated timeline is: activism, to retail, to politics, to activism, to opening a retail shop, to making toys. Which is all activism when done right, anyways.
 
 
[Fergus] Moving from the US to Portugal is a huge decision. What was the reason behind this?
 
[Steph] I’ve wanted to leave the US ever since I was about 14 and went overseas for the first time! My wife had similar inclinations. In fact, she’s lived abroad a couple of times. Between the 2016 election and the ongoing aftermath, covid (and how fine a point it put on our need to gtfo of Texas), and my wife’s need to take a leave from her career, the time was right to make the move. Why Portugal? It’s gorgeous, the people are warm and friendly, it’s very liberal politically, and the cost of living is relatively affordable.
 
[Fergus] You are the official EU partner for Strange Bedfellas which is a big deal! How did that come about?
 
[Steph] OK, well my wife is a martial arts teacher-She’s a real-life action hero. She taught Meesh’s husband through his first-level black belt, and even Meesh for a brief time. I met the Meesh and Patrick when I started training, too. It was a third friend that “outed” the Bedfellas and me to each other, though. Before that, I only knew that Pat worked in gaming and that Meesh was an artist. The minute I saw the Strange Bedfella’s toys, I was floored. It was obvious that not only were they immensely talented, but they ran their business with the same kind of care and values that I ran my own with. I immediately pursued a wholesale relationship with them for my store.
 
Then we just organically became friends. They also live around the corner from where my wife and I used to live in Austin! So seeing them on a near-daily basis when walking the dogs or doing yard work was the norm. When covid blew everything to shit, and sped up our timeline for moving overseas, we (wife and I) proposed the deal of representing the Bedfellas overseas. It would give us an opportunity to have a business ready to go when we landed, and also help expand their growing empire (mwah ha ha). I was already familiar with their work, personalities, and commitment to quality.
 
They knew what I was about as well, and they agreed. Through several rounds of paperwork, several different scenarios, and a bunch of months being stuck in the US while visa applications were paused, here we are about to launch. So while it is legit a huge deal and an honor,  it feels more like an extension of what we’ve already been doing. And I’m getting to work with some really awesome friends!
 
[Fergus] How long have you been making toys?
 
[Steph] I have been tinkering for about 6 years, but have gotten serious over the past 4 years. As I said earlier, I started by making toys mainly to stock the shelves of my store. The brand then was Moontower Toys. Moontowers, or Moonlight Towers are iconic Austin, TX landmarks. Look it up-they are very cool. Or watch Dazed and Confused for a good, pop culture reference. Since I was already in the sex toy business, I had a thorough knowlege about toy materials, safety, etc. It was actually Patrick (Meesh’s husband) that gave me a crash course in Blender and other software, and helped me improve my designs greatly.
 
I was also really lucky to be friends with the folks from Vixen Creations, and was able to glean as much knowledge as I could from them. (For those who may not know, Vixen was an early pioneer in getting silicone toys on the shelves of stores, when silicone wasn’t the standard. They also created Vixskin-the gold standard in dual-density toys.)
 
[Fergus] What is a normal day for your shop?
 
[Steph] Normal day for an indie sex toy maker. Hilarious. However, I do try to maintain a schedule the best I can.. You’ve caught me in the startup/re-launch phase though, so things are a little chaotic. I split the week into pouring and molding days, and behind the computer and running errands days. One of the perks of moving to Portugal is being able to extract myself from the bullshit, American work cycle. I am 100% dedicated to my customers, to being responsive, and putting out great products. I also take weekends off and don’t work past 7pm. The myth of taking care of a business and taking care of yourself being mutually exclusive really has to end.
 
[Fergus] How did you get into running a shop and did you end up selling any SBF work?
 
[Steph]  I always had the dream of opening a sex toy shop lurking around in the back of my head- At least since I visited Goodvibes in San Francisco for the first time in my early 20’s. Actually getting to open the brick and mortar store was a combination of years of research and preparation. Then finally some dumb luck with the location and the money. I absolutely carried Strange Bedfellas on the shelves and in the online store! It was really great for our customers who were fantasy toy enthusiasts to get to see them irl. It also gave people a way to get their hands on them outside of the usual drop feeding frenzy.
 
[Fergus] Of your line-up which model is your favourite and why?
 
[Steph] I have been obsessed with the Alien franchise since I was a kid. Especially OG Ridley Scott. I think my toy hits the mark of being Giger-esque, while still maintaining the usability factor that I go for. As for the Strange Bedfellas EU model that I like best, it’s a tossup between the little robot vibe sleeve and Batou-specifically the small Batou. It’s freakin adorable.
 
[Fergus] In your opinion, what is the best model on the market? Which has taken your eye?
 
[Steph]  I met the Strange Bedfellas Ziq before he went on the market and I was really taken with him from the get go. It’s not even a model that I’m selling yet. I just think it’s so creepy/cool and tickles my horror sensibilities. At the other end of the spectrum, I think Kenton from Funkit does great work as far as innovation, aesthetic appeal, and accessibility goes. We are really in a maker Renaissance right now, so it’s hard to choose!
 
[Fergus] Best and worst bit of starting up your shop?
 
[Steph]  As with starting any business, the fear of failure is the worst. It can really feel paralysing at times. There’s no one to pass any blame to, is there? On the positive side, I get to collaborate with some really remarkable people. I constantly get to delve into an ever-expanding and shifting pool of knowledge about toys, sex-positivity, etc. As far as this most recent incarnation of the shop in Portugal goes, it’s equal parts exciting and intimidating learning a whole new landscape.
 
[Fergus] Do you have any pearls of wisdom for other shops looking to start up?
 
[Steph]  Pearls of wisdom for others looking to open a brick and mortar sex toy shop? First off, it’s a good idea to expect to put in about 50% more work and money than you first imagined. Aside from that? Create a thorough business plan so you are really familiar with your market, and can honestly plan for the first few years’ expenses. Hire people to offset your shortcomings. For instance, I have ADHD and am pathologically messy and disorganized. I now know I need to outsource some of that, so I can still run things kind of smoothly. Also hire and consult with people who come from different backgrounds than you. That way you A, don’t end up creating an echo chamber, and B don’t limit the scope of your appeal to customers. Last but definitely not least, don’t push your own agenda on your customers: If you’re opening a store, there’s a pretty good chance you’re in touch with your sexual identity and expression and are probably comfortable with talking about it!
 
Depending on where you are in the world, this is not going to be the case with the majority of people who walk into your shop. For many people, walking into a store and talking to a stranger candidly about their sex life will be one of the most profoundly vulnerable things they’ve ever done. Meet everyone where they are, and let go of what you think is “right” for them and what the “best” toys are. Guide and suggest, but most of all, listen. Oh yeah, and however much you think you know about the world of kink, fetishes, etc, there is always something out there that people are into that will still blow your mind! 
 
Pearls of wisdom for opening an online, indie silicone dong shop? Learn the craft and don’t be afraid to reach out to other makers-if a maker gives you the cold shoulder, that’s not the brand you want to emulate. Find your unique perspective and don’t copy designs. Don’t cut corners. Respect your customers by offering the best products you can possibly make.
 
Create and maintain firm policies so as not to let those very rare asshole customers bully you. Keep learning. Remember that while making rubbery falluses is a truly wonderful hobby, second job, or even career, it’s never a reason to take yourself too seriously. Keep learning…
 
[Fergus] When developing a new product, what is your process?
 
[Steph]  Developing a new product? I’m not a professional artist or designer, so I don’t have that discipline of creating things on a regular basis. I kind of wait for the lightning to strike and then I take to Blender to start messing around. Then I tweak and tweak until I think I have something that is ready for feedback. Then I ask a few, key people what they would improve, and go from there.
 
Then I print a half-scale model to see if I like the balance and shape when it’s off the computer screen. Then rinse and repeat until the design is ready to spring forth into the world. As I’m sure you know, it’s nerve wracking putting a new toy out there for the first time! I always have that moment of insecurity where I’m like. “ugh, I hate the color of that one!”, or “I wish that one, minute curve that no one is going to pay attention to was at a slightly different angle!”.
 
[Fergus] What is an insane idea that you want to do but just can’t right now, for whatever reason?
 
[Steph]  Create a system for making affordable, mycology-based packaging. Packaging is one thing that makes me want to weep. Even the so-called biodegradable bags are mostly cynical, “green-washed” nonsense, because they often still clog up landfills. I’d love to offer packaging options that are legitimately eco-friendly, and mycelium seems to be one of the keys to that.
 
It already exists in some forms, but is prohibitively expensive for the average, small-scale maker. It is absolutely possible to do, but it just takes more time, money, and energy than I have right now to make that happen. Relatedly, I spend a lot of my time trying to come up with ideas for tamper-proof and hygienic ways to ship and store toys that don’t involve plastic bags.
 
[Fergus] If I gave you a huge sack of money to invest in your business, what would you do with it?
 
[Steph]  I have fantasies of having a Strange Bedfellas-style workshop here in Portugal and creating some well-paying jobs for a handful of people. Success is something to be shared and to be used to lift people up around you.
 
[Fergus] What should we expect to see from you in the near future?
 
[Steph]  Many more Dirty Birdy designed toys. With the new, Near Clear silicone, I am definitely going to take the smaller toys I was pouring with Sorta Clear to bigger, better, and squishier levels. I also used to make some leather goods back in the US under the Moontower label. I’m expecting to get back to that soon. I would very much be open to collaborating with another US company or two-I have one in mind, so maybe I’ll have another announcement coming sooner or later.
 
Of course we’ll be launching more from the Strange Bedfellas side as well, once Dirty Birdy gets rolling smoothly, and we get a better sense of what the people over here are looking for.
 
[Fergus] Where can people go to find out more about you and buy your things?
 
[Steph] dirtybirdytoys.com or dirtybird toys.eu, depending on what country you’re in. There’s also Twitter @dirtybirdyreal and Insta @dirtybirdytoys
 

Final Thoughts

This has been an interview with the shop owner of Dirty Bird. It’s been interesting learning more of the people who create these amazing products and to get an insight into what goes on in an independent shop.

I want to thank the awesome Fran for their time and my pestering questions. If you are interested in more interviews then give us a shout on Twitter or [email protected]monstersmash.co.uk.

Equally, if you think you might have an interesting story to tell and want to talk then feel free to contact us as well, we would love to hear from you.

Also feel free to talk to us on our discord server!