Q&A, Erin Black, Founder of Lyla Tov Monsters

Lyla Tov Monsters is a line of plush dolls created by the mother-daughter team of Erin Black, and her daughter, Lyla Black. Recently, The Toy Book had a chance to sit down with Erin and talk to her about doll-making, launching a Kickstarter campaign, the future of the specialty doll space, and more.

The Toy Book (TTB): Starting from the moment that you first saw Lyla’s design for the dolls, can you take us through the development process?

ErinwMonsterErin Black (EB): When Lyla was three years old, she drew a picture of a “good” monster and asked me to help her, “make it real,” as a gift for her daddy. We raided my bins of fabric scraps, and she picked out the perfect fur for the monster body, a well as appropriate fabric for all his limbs and accessories.

My husband loved the monster and suggested we make more to sell. I had a booth reserved at a local craft fair to sell some other products I had made, so Lyla and I decided to make a batch of 20 monsters for her to sell there as well. The monsters flew off the table and into the hands of eager customers, and Lyla Tov Monsters was born.

We first sold a few Monsters on Etsy, and then quickly moved to having a web site of our own, from which people could order their one-of-a-kind Lyla Tov Monster. Soon we had some local retail shops interested in carrying Lyla Tov Monsters, and the demand for our product outgrew what Lyla and I could produce off the dining room table.

We ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund our first run of factory-produced Monsters. Once we had sold enough of these initial two Monsters, we reinvested the money to create two more styles. We now have four limited edition Lyla Tov Monsters in our line.

TTB: The doll space is a very competitive one. How do Lyla Tov Monsters stand out amidst a crowded field?

ForrestEB: I think Lyla Tov Monsters are appealing for several reasons. Their bright colors and interesting patterns and textures make them stand out on a store shelf. Also, they are somewhere between doll and plush toy, so children can hug and snuggle them like they might a teddy bear, but also give them the same life and personality that they might with a doll. Because Lyla Tov Monsters were designed by a child, they resonate well with a young audience that connects to their simple shape and cheerful faces.

TTB: According to the Lyla Tov Monsters home page, you oversaw patterning and fabrication for the doll line. For readers who may not know much about those aspects, can you talk about what that entails, and how it’s important for making a good doll?

EB: Before diving into the world of toy production, I was a costume designer for the Jim Henson Company. Part of my job there was to make patterns, choose fabrics, and stitch garments.  These skills all came into play when I started to fabricate the initial Lyla Tov Monsters prototype from Lyla’s sketch.

I’m used to interpreting a two-dimensional drawing and turning it into a three-dimensional object, so I was able to stay true to the spirit of Lyla’s vision while making sure to create a toy that was interesting and well-constructed. This was especially useful when we started to use a factory for production, as I could send them a finished prototype as well as my flat pattern pieces to work from. This saved us a lot of back and forth in the early stages of our relationship with our factory.

TTB: Kickstarter seems to have become a viable new way for launching a toy. From your experience, what would you say were the greatest advantages and disadvantages of using it as a fundraising tool?

Lyla Black, with monsters

Lyla Black, with monsters

EB: We were thrilled when we met our Kickstarter funding goal within the first eight days! It was a fantastic way to not only get the seed money we needed to produce our first factory-run Monsters, but also to test the waters and make sure there was an audience for our product.

It felt like less of a risk to take the plunge into mass production knowing that people out in cyberspace believed in what we were doing and were willing to back our idea. The only real downside was that it took a lot of work to create the video, and to set up and promote our Kickstarter campaign. It was well worth it because we reached our goal, but it would have been frustrating to have invested that time and energy and come up short.

TTB: What is the current retail situation for Lyla Tov Monsters? Besides Amazon and at craft fairs, where else can they be found?

EB: We do a lot of our Lyla Tov Monsters sales direct to consumers from our website at www.lylatov.com! We are also in several boutique toy and gift shops across the country.

TTB: You recently attended the American Specialty Toy Retailers Association (ASTRA) Marketplace and Academy. What was the experience like? Did you encounter many specialty retailers who hadn’t encountered Lyla Tov Monsters before, and how were their reactions?

CharlotteEB: We had a fantastic time at the ASTRA show. We had the chance to meet and network with shop owners as well as other toy manufacturers. We were thrilled by the number of people who had heard of Lyla Tov Monsters and knew our story prior to the show, and excited about all the new orders we wrote at the show.

Some people came to our booth because they had read about Lyla Tov Monsters prior to the show and knew they wanted to carry them in their shop. Others stopped as they were walking by because they were drawn in by our display. The response we got was very positive and we thoroughly enjoyed everyone we met!

TTB: Given the success of the first wave of dolls, what does the future hold for the line? 

EB: We hope to expand our line in the next few months so that it will include six varieties of Lyla Tov Monsters. We have found that customers really love to have a choice and spend a lot of time deciding which is the perfect Monster to buy as a gift, and that retailers are eager to display an assortment of Lyla Tov Monsters. Lyla is already working on the designs for the next two Monsters we will make!

TTB: What do you think the future holds for the specialty doll space? What is it about this type of dolls that’s so appealing to consumers?

EB: There is a bright future ahead for specialty dolls and toys. I think these days people are really drawn to small manufacturers, supporting family businesses, and having the chance to give a gift or buy a product that isn’t available on every corner. Boutique stores like to sell toys that have a story to go with them, and customers feel more invested in their purchases if they feel part of that story.

ASTRA Sees Growth Continuing for Independent Retailers this Holiday Season

AstraLogoThe American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) is optimistic about growth in customer traffic and sales for independent businesses during the upcoming holiday season—with hopes of matching or exceeding the 5.3 percent growth posted last year.

According to a consumer survey conducted during the second quarter of this year, six out of ten customers say they go out of their way to shop at small, locally-owned businesses. The U.S. Department of Commerce predicts that over 90 percent of fourth quarter shopping will take place in brick-and-mortar stores.

Advocates for Independent Business (AIB), a coalition of trade associations and other organizations concerned with the success of locally-owned, independent businesses, documents that locally-owned retailers have a far greater impact on their communities than national brands. For every $10 million in customer spending at amazon.com, for example, amazon.com creates 14 jobs. Meanwhile, the same amount spent at local brick-and-mortar stores creates 57 jobs, or 75 percent more. ASTRA is a founding member of AIB.

An infographic for retailers to use in their stores and around their communities to reinforce the value added aspects of shopping locally can be downloaded and printed here.

November 13th Named Neighborhood Toy Store Day

The American Specialty Retailers Association (ASTRA) has announced plans to make the second Saturday in November an annual and nationwide celebration of local toy stores. During this year’s Neighborhood Toy Store Day (NTSD), ASTRA will announce the winners of its 2010 Best Toys for Kids awards. ASTRA is also providing its member retailers with ready-to-go press releases and a step-by-step retailer guidebook filled with tips on how to use the event to attract new customers. For more information on NTSD, visit ASTRA’s website.