The co-founder of Modi Toys offers advice for entrepreneurs facing competition and copycats.
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It’s not every day you hear that a plush toy for children has become a hit with adults, but that’s what happened to Avani Modi Sarkar. As the child of immigrants, Modi Sarkar created Modi Toys with her brother to help connect families to their Hindu heritage. She sat down with Jessica Abo to share how her company is manufacturing hope and joy and her advice for entrepreneurs facing competition and copycats.
What motivated you to start Modi Toys?
Avani Modi Sarkar: The birth of my daughter and my niece is what gave birth to our company. My brother, Viral Modi, and I both became first-time parents four years ago, we realized that we didn’t have the right type of tools or toys or books to help keep our children stay connected and appreciative of their culture and their roots. So we decided to make what we couldn’t find.
What was the first step you took to get your company off the ground?
The first step that Viral and I took was developing the prototype. There was no playbook out there for us to follow, so we brought our imagination to life and created the type of toy that we thought would appeal to our kids. And once we had the prototype in hand, I joined Facebook mommy groups all around the world, and I posted a photo of my daughter holding our prototype toy. I basically asked them, “What do you guys think? Give me your thoughts.”
I received an outpouring of comments and encouragement which gave me and Viral the confidence to move forward. Fortunately, people put their money where their mouth is when we launched in late 2018 and immediately sold out. That’s when we realized that we had a hit product on our hands.
What was the first product that you made?
We first launched with Baby Ganesh. It’s a mantra-singing plush toy, so when you squeeze its belly, it sings Hindu prayers. It also comes with the corresponding children’s illustrated book. Because of the popularity and demand we saw with Baby Ganesh, we decided to launch Baby Hanuman and Baby Krishna collections the following years.
Is there a meaning behind your toys?
What’s really interesting is that although what we manufacture is simply toys, what people buy from us is a symbol of hope and joy. It’s not often you come across a toy that holds so much meaning and reverence that more so than kids, it’s the adults who are drawn to it. One of the things that makes our products special and unique is that each one of our plush toys represents a unique trait embodied by the respective Hindu deities. Ganesh represents hope and luck during new beginnings. Hanuman represents strength. Krishna represents love. People turn to each one of our plush toys depending on the unique challenges and struggles they’re facing in life.
At what point did you realize that your customers were adults buying this toy for themselves?
Honestly, it was customers telling us themselves. We designed these toys for our children and for children all around the world. But when we began hearing feedback and testimonials from our customers that they weren’t buying these toys for children in their lives, but really for themselves, that’s when we realized that we actually have something special on our hands. We started hearing really, really heartwarming and sometimes even heart-wrenching stories of people bringing their toys along with them when they’re going to the hospital, sometimes for chemotherapy, sometimes because their babies were in the NICU or sometimes because their loved one is on hospice care at home.
We would have never known had the community that we’ve built around us not been so forthcoming and vulnerable in sharing their personal stories. Time and time again, we would hear how our toys are helping give them hope in a moment of need. And hope is such a powerful medicine that sometimes you seek it in ways that even science can’t provide.
What do you want to say to other entrepreneurs out there who have an amazing product and they’re starting to see their competition pop up?
I give kudos to everyone who wants to bring their vision to life. But ultimately, I think what’s going to set you apart from others is the community that you build and make sure that they continue to rally around you. Ensure they’re not just investing in you financially by buying from you, but they’re investing in your brand emotionally as well. With every win you have, they experience a win. Every loss you have, they experience a loss as well. It’s the community that’s going to carry you through the highs and lows. But in addition to that, you also want to remain really prudent by working with a lawyer to ensure that you have the right set of patents, copyrights, trademark agreements in place so that should you ever need to exercise those, you can.
What’s next for you?
Expansion, expansion, expansion! We are expanding both ways: with our product line and globally into new regions. Later this year we are launching a musical crib mobile, along with our first ever Goddess collection. The three plush toys in our current collection represent male Hindu deities, so there’s a lot of excitement around our first-ever musical Goddess plush called Saraswati Devi. There’s also a corresponding book to go with it called Desi Devis: South Asian Women of Wonder from A to Z. It’s a deviation from our current collection of children’s books inspired by Hindu theology, because this book is meant for everyone from all backgrounds. The book features 26 inspirational women from the past and present from the South Asian community and hopefully helps little girls feel more represented by seeing women of color from an early age.