“We never really felt like we had left home,” says Avani Modi Sarkar, an entrepreneur who immigrated to New Jersey from India when she was eight years old. “I grew up around a lot of diversity,” she says. “We spoke our mother tongue at home, ate homemade ethnic food, and watched Indian shows on TV.” That cultural connection became even more important when Sarkar and her brother, Viral, had their first kids just one week apart.
“As parents, we were beginning to ask ourselves, ‘How much of our culture is important for us to retain?’”
They looked around their kids’ bedrooms and saw an opportunity. “We felt like plush toys were our gateway,” she says. Sarkar and her brother came up with the idea for a plush toy that connects Hindu children to their faith. Modeled after Hindu deities, the toys sing prayers when squeezed. At first, they thought a toy like this must already exist, but after an exhaustive search, “[Viral] kept coming back empty-handed. That’s when we knew we were on to something,” says Sarkar.
The first product the siblings created was a plush toy that looks like Ganesh, the god of new beginnings and one of the most well-known deities. “We said let’s start with this one. Let’s see where we can take it.”
Sarkar and Viral have taken Modi Toys far — today, their idea has bloomed into a direct-to-consumer toy company that helps parents teach their kids about their roots. In fact, 40,000 Modi Toys products have been sold so far across 28 countries.
“I’m doing something to keep my kids connected to our culture,” explains Sarkar. “It’s not about where you live, but what lives inside of you that’s important in raising your children.”
What’s next for Modi Toys
After launching their first product, Modi Toys became an overnight hit. “We sold out of our first batch,” remembers Sarkar. “This was all done organically through word of mouth.” To build off of that initial success, Sarkar is taking thoughtful steps to evolve her company to sell more culturally rich toys, books, and games.
Modi Toys’ main focus area is product development to help the business expand. “Up until now, we’ve only launched one product at a time because it was a side hustle for my brother and I,” Sarkar explains. Since starting, Modi Toys has launched five SKUs, including new plush toys, a crib mobile with a detachable music box, and a self-published book.
Expanding internationally is another key focus for Sarkar, and it hinges on working out the kinks with shipping. They currently ship to 35 countries, but that doesn’t include India or South Africa, two countries with the largest Hindu populations. As Sarkar explains, “The regions we haven’t been able to tap into are our biggest markets: India and South Africa. So it’s really held us back from growing exponentially, because we know it can double our sales.”
Now, they’re shifting their attention to the Indian market. “We assumed people in India weren’t our target customers because they could always stop by the temple around the block. But people who live there see a lot of value,” she explains.
Connecting Modi Toys with India also involves moving their manufacturing services there. “Our whole product and brand is based on the concept of preserving our South Asian culture and heritage,” Sarkar explains. “It’s just the obvious thing to do.”
They’re looking to build a long-term relationship with a manufacturer so they don’t have to switch again and can support a vendor for the long run. “Our customers find it to be a bit of a disconnect that we’re not supporting our own people,” says Sarkar. “Our customers see it, and we see it.”
What’s helping Modi Toys get there
To achieve their company’s growth goals, Sarkar relies on a few important tools and resources to get her products into the hands of kids and adults around the globe.
Building their email list
Before Sarkar’s first product launch, she conducted informal market research by posting about her idea to Facebook groups, sharing her prototype with Indian moms, and directing them to sign up for the waitlist to get updates. “It was a big part of our launch strategy,” says Sarkar. “We had to make sure we had an active email list because even if I had 2,000 people sign up, not all were going to convert.”
Even though Sarkar has five products out, the waitlist is still on her website, helping to capture people’s interest, build her email list, and let them know about discounts as the company releases new products.
Investing in tools and staff
“It’s really challenging to get publicity,” admits Sarkar. She’s been running the show with marketing and PR so far, but realizes that she has to bring on more experts. “I need to begin delegating because currently I am the marketing and PR team, and that’s not going to be sustainable going forward.”
So she’s investing more in digital ad spend and hiring a PR agency to help her company get more media coverage. “Our product is very niche so it’s hard to pitch it to the press because they don’t want to talk about things that sound religious or faith-based,” she explains. “If it’s [about] Diwali, they want it, but not at other times of the year.”
Sarkar also manages the content on the Modi Toys website and on their social media accounts. She relies on Canva daily to help her easily create the content, in addition to Google Analytics for a deeper look into how her site is performing, along with the whole Google Office suite.
Using Square Reader at events
When Sarkar attends in-person festivals and fairs, she brings Square Reader to make it easy for customers to purchase items from her booth with chip cards or contactless cards. Using Square Reader makes it easy “on the finance side of things,” she says, since everything is tracked and it connects with other Square products.
Using Reader also makes Sarkar feel more official as a business owner. “I had never used it as a merchant before, just as a customer,” she says. “It was really cool.”
Applying for — and winning — business competitions
Modi Toys has been the recipient of a variety of business competitions, which has opened doors by getting their name in front of more people. Sarkar made the Next 1000 list, an initiative sponsored by Square and Forbes to highlight bold entrepreneurs paving their way forward. She was also selected as a recipient of the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest, receiving a cash prize and additional exposure for her brand.
Sarkar and her brother Viral have turned a side hustle into a successful international company that is amassing a huge following. And they can trace that entrepreneurial drive back to their parents.
“My brother and I don’t come from a toy manufacturing background,” she says. “My parents owned a convenience store. I think the fact that we had both of our parents take on this entrepreneurship journey themselves, and they figured it out as they were going along, that subconsciously planted the seeds,” Sarkar explains.
“It gave us the confidence that, look, if they can do it with much less resources, we can obviously do it too.”