When thinking of plush toys, organs with smiling faces aren’t generally the first thought that comes to mind. But Nerdbugs’ brightly colored organs have become a hit, launching Madison-based Dr. Ronak Mehta’s online business and reaching nearly six figures in sales after just more than a year.
Mehta, 34, a family practice doctor with UW Health, launched Nerdbugs last July with five different stuffed toy options — a heart, a pair of lungs, a neuron, a kidney and a uterus — which could be bought through her website or through Amazon.
Nerdbugs has since grown in popularity. Mehta is one of six finalists for woman-owned small business of the year in Amazon’s first Small Business Spotlight Awards.
“The easiest way I could describe it would be these fun, vibrant, doe-eyed, bright plush toys that could easily be used from the hospital room to the classroom,” Mehta said. “They’re used as a (tool) to teach, whether it’s about illness or just about human anatomy in kind of a fun, light-hearted way.”
Mehta, a native of Marshfield, had been mulling the idea for Nerdbugs for almost 10 years. While in residency in Chicago about five years ago, she saw adult and child patients alike recovering from surgeries or various illnesses. On their bedside tables were the typical gifts, such as flowers, cards and chocolates.
Mehta imagined selling cute stuffed organs that customers could gift to patients who may have had a related illness, she said.
“I thought, ‘How cute would it be if they had a little plush organ that would bring them some smiles?’” Mehta said.
The toy designs came from a book she had written about 10 years ago, “The Extraordinary Expedition Into the Human Body.” The colorful picture book featured Dr. Seuss-like rhymes to describe different organs and their functions to make learning about anatomy more kid-friendly.
Each Nerdbug is named with a pun — some more cringe-worthy than others — including “Neuron my Mind,” “Breast is yet to come,” “Intestined for greatness” and “Go on, liver little.”
The stomach, “I’ve Gut a Good Feeling,” and the brain, “Love On the Brain,” both come from song titles — a Black Eyed Peas song and a Rhianna song, respectively.
Nerdbugs’ success hasn’t been the only big change in Mehta’s life. About a month after launching, her now-husband proposed. The two married this summer and just moved to Madison in August from Utah.
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It’s been a crazy year, Mehta said.
The Nerdbugs offerings have grown to 13 and now includes organs such as the gallbladder, liver, brain and more. The uterus and kidney are still some of her best sellers though.
“A lot of people buy the kidney ones for patients who are either on dialysis or getting a kidney transplant,” Mehta said, adding that the uterus toy is gifted to people who have had hysterectomies.
While Nerdbugs has been a successful side business for Mehta, that success has not come without its challenges. Mehta said she had to do a lot of research to decide on a manufacturer, warehouse and shipper.
“One of the biggest things I faced early on was trying to figure out the shipping and logistics part of this whole situation,” Mehta said. “I absolutely hate using the postal service of any kind.”
When Nerdbugs started, Mehta had used a shipping fulfillment center in China, where the toys are manufactured, but shipping products to the U.S. from that far overseas led to delivery problems. The plush toys could take more than a month to deliver, and sometimes they never showed up at all. When that happened, Mehta would give the customer a full refund or send them another toy at no cost.
Those refunds and free second items were a huge expense for Mehta, she said, but she didn’t want to leave customers disappointed.
“I wanted to run this business with integrity, and that’s how I would want to be treated,” Mehta said.
Those delivery problems have mostly gone away since Mehta began contracting with a fulfillment center in the U.S., she said.
Mehta plans to expand the host of organs available for purchase as plush toys. She’s gotten requests including for fibroids, the bladder, prostate and even testicles, she said.
“I’ve gotten a lot of men asking, ‘There’s breasts and uterus, but what about the rest of us?’” Mehta said.
Mehta also hopes that with continued success, Nerdbugs might also be able to have a charity component. She envisions a buy one, give one model, where a plush toy might be donated for each one purchased.