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Malaville Dolls: running a successful e-commerce business

Business · 5 min read

Meet the Owner: Malaville Toys

Mala Bryan went from collector to creator in 2015 when she launched Malaville Toys. A set of dolls that began as a response to a social movement to help reinforce positive body image among young girls of color, which continued to grow into a business that battles clichés and stereotypes to create a true representation of black women, for the next generation.

How did the Malaville Toys journey start?

Well, the journey started when I began collecting dolls; I realised that there was something missing from the market – more dolls of color. Dolls that represented not just people of color, but also people with albinism.

At the time there was a big natural hair movement – and that wasn’t being represented in dolls. So I went to China and I was able to source a manufacturer that understood what I was looking for. Because I went through the natural hair relaxing process myself, getting the hair on the dolls exactly right was really a big a deal for me. 

I design dolls based on my personal experience and based on what it is that I know a lot of people like me are going through. I know a lot of young black girls get their hair relaxed to make it easier; more manageable, and are told that straight hair looks better. I got my hair relaxed when I was seven and found out first hand what problems it can cause.

There can be significant risks in relaxing your hair, and there's also a huge skin bleaching epidemic happening across the Caribbean and Africa. Black women are not accepting their skin because they feel lighter-skinned people have more opportunity. So, for me, we need that representation in toys and dolls, so that young black children – including my daughters – can appreciate their skin, their hair, and their eye color.

I created two different head moulds, because, for instance, some African women have straighter noses and people don't believe that. I got responses such as, 'We're in Africa, the nose should be wider', to which I have to respond that I don't know what the notion of an African nose IS, because I'm black, but I have a very straight nose. I just felt like a lot of the bigger brands had failed to understand what the environment is and what's really needed. So I took it upon myself to see what I could do to fill that gap.

Did you have to do a lot of research and design around dolls that might be more suited to different markets?

I didn’t really think about specific market placement for each doll because black people come in so many different shades. I've been in the fashion industry for a long time – while being a model for 16 years – and from meeting different people from all over the world, I'm able to draw from personal experience to influence the design of my dolls. I've got extremely dark friends, but they have extremely sharp noses. It's a thing!

So you still have to battle the doll cliché – white girl, blond hair?

Yes, I do. I started collecting other brands’ black dolls, and I noticed that there was a stereotype within them – the 'side eye' expression. Most of the dolls had this look… they were just giving a sideward glance, the bright pink lipstick wasn’t complimenting the skin. That's what people would call ghetto, and that's not how I wanted to be represented on the shelf. 

I've lived in Miami for a long time, so I know what that look is and what it makes people think. You don't want someone of another race looking at these dolls and saying, "Oh, yeah, that's what they look like; that's what they do."

Most of the dolls all had straight hair and we, women of color, are not just about that. We look beautiful without makeup as well. We look beautiful with our Afro hair and our natural hair. We don't have to wear colored contact lenses. For me, a lot of the dolls had this ‘angry black woman’ tag that we keep being typecast as. I looked at it and said, "No, we can do better. We can do a lot better."

How important is it for young girls and boys to see people like them represented in the toy market?

I grew up with only white dolls. I didn’t have a problem with it – I still felt like I was beautiful with my dark skin, my thick lips. But children nowadays are being taught differently.  Things have changed. Parents teach their children differently. So now children want to see dolls that look like them.

But I think children from every race need every kind of doll. That's what I believe, because of how children are, and how children play. I tried to tell a lot of the black parents that they need to give their child a white doll, but also make sure that she has black dolls. I tell the white parents the same thing, to make sure that they have black dolls in their child's collection, because children re-enact so much of their school day at playtime.  If I'm a white girl and I have a black best friend, where is she represented in my doll room? They’re tiny details, but so important.  Representation is very important to me.

In 2019, do you think companies are doing enough to be representative?

Not really. They’re definitely starting – a lot of companies are waking up. To be honest, I think Malaville made a huge impact when it launched in 2015. My dolls went viral and, as a result, a lot of similar companies launched after me.

Most of those companies are really more about tapping into a market – and for me, I'm not worried about the money that I'm making out of it, it's just important that my dolls are out there. I designed and launched my company because I am a doll collector, and this is what I want. I want little girls to feel good about themselves. Especially when I designed Alexa - my doll of albinism – which took two years to get right.

I pay a lot of attention to detail when it comes to my dolls, whether it’s adding some freckles here, or having a redhead doll – because you have black redheads as well, another thing people don't know about in black women. The large companies are now doing it, but they’re still not getting it right. I've seen some dolls out there, and for me – as a doll collector – even if I hadn’t created my line, I would not buy these dolls.

I genuinely have a love for dolls – sometimes more than human beings! 

What's been the key challenge in developing the dolls? 

Actually, it was quite easy. It's crazy because when I was in China I clicked with the manufacturer. She got it, she understood because I make wigs, I know how to manipulate hair. So, it was just easy – all you have to do is just describe it. It's so easy to do an Afro, but if you don't take the time and if you’re not into that kind of thing, you just think curls are curls… but curls are not just curls. It's not even a black issue anymore. It's a curly hair issue.

When I launched, I did quite a lot of interviews. I had women; white women, and women of color here from Africa, who would be crying because they were not fully accepted in their families because they had curly hair. Some of them have not seen curls in a long time, because every morning when they wake up, they have to flat iron their hair.

A lot of curly-haired people don't like their curls. Yet, one must embrace the curls – and it's starting to happen in the real world. I'm always thinking of Malaville, but in the real world, people are learning to embrace it too.  

Do you think that this resonance you have with people of color and curly-haired people is what helped you go viral in 2016?

2016 was a very hard time. An especially tough time in the US with Black Lives Matter. I think I did launch it at the right time. It was a time where a lot of people wanted to support small businesses. They wanted to support black-owned businesses. They wanted to support female entrepreneurs, and I did fit in all of these brackets.

I was in a doll collectors’ group. I said “Hey guys, please give me your opinion on my dolls. I've just launched them and I want to know what you think." Then an interview came in, with a writer who was a contributor for the Huffington Post. At the time, I didn’t know that. I called him, answered this interview, and from there it all fell into place. The Huffington Post has the Black Voices section – and a lot of black people were angry. They were angry and it helped.

What influence do you think it's had on Malaville Toys that there's a real face to the brand, and is that part of your marketing strategy?

I do everything myself. I don’t have a team with the exception of my assistant, Tanya. That's the company. I had zero strategy. I just wanted some dolls. Being a fashion model, it was good timing for me because then people wanted to say, "Look, models do more. Not all models are stupid," and some used me as an example. 

Fashion magazines, like Vogue and Elle, were saying that a "model launched this, a model launched that." Usually I don't label myself as a 'model', because I am very shy but Mala Bryan is a bit of a name, I guess. At least now it’s Mala Bryan model and entrepreneur and I love that a lot more. 

When you’re launching a product – rather than a brand – does having a very open and human angle to the company help sales?

Definitely. For eight years I had this little doll that I would travel with. I would take photos of the travel doll anywhere we were in the world, and post stories. Then the collecting started, and I thought of posting them in a human way, and I gave them a story.

When you have a story, you can have fun with it. I just feel I go naturally with a lot of decisions, but then people who are in the marketing world say "Actually your marketing strategy is really good," But that's just how I do things naturally, I don’t think about it as being a marketing strategy. 

Sometimes I say that my dolls have a much more glamorous life than I do, and that they’re living their best life - people actually used to send me messages telling me they would literally wake up looking for a new post from the dolls.

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Where do most of your sales come from?

It's all direct. I do everything myself. I have help with my website, but apart from that I do everything myself. Social media is extremely important. If I do a really cool post that resonates, I’ll get sales right away.

How important is the marketing style on your social media for your sales platform?  

I'm good at reading people so I know when to release a new doll. I like to include Malaville’s followers in the development of the dolls; getting their opinion on things makes them feel like they’re part of growing the brand at the same time.

Does it help you with repeat customers, or is it about finding new markets?

For every collection I launch four dolls, and the collectors tend to buy all four. So, I don't just have one person buying one, I have one person buying four – and sometimes eight. Some of them want to open them and some want to keep the four in packaging for later. I only make 2,500 of each, so they’re all limited edition.

What is the appeal of a limited production run? You’re aligning the dolls to the real-world shopping habits?

People want what they can't have… As a collector, I know what it's like to be searching for that one doll that's not available! Everyone is still asking me for the first collection, and I have to tell them that they're not available. Sometimes I'll find one in the backroom, and the moment it goes online it gets bought right away, because it's the thing they’re all looking for..

How did you end up partnering with DHL Express?

Before the first collection came out I was already sorting out how to package these things to be shipped. I wanted to be selling overseas, because the people that had shown interest in my products come from all over the world. I never focused on my local market, the moment I launched I was already focused on selling internationally online.

I had my packaging, I knew the size, and I had the container coming to me in South Africa. During the first meeting I had with DHL Express, they said “Okay, it can fit in our flyer bag." So, I had to design a cover to protect the actual doll, because collectors are crazy when it comes to their packaging being damaged. I had to go and design an outer packaging for it, and make sure that it fit in the flyer bag. Then I was given a deal, "If it fits in the flyer bag you can ship it." That's all I needed. 

From the very first meeting, everything was sorted. The flyer bag option was perfect, and there was no other reason to go anywhere else. The price was really good, too – the cost to the US and to Europe was amazing. When I got the product, I tested it online with pictures, and asked people what they thought. Most of my customers were already following my page, and a lot were from the US. So I figured, "Okay, US$12 – that's no problem.”

I thought of my experience as a collector and I thought, if I were to order a product from Amazon in two, three days, what would the cost be? It's the same price with DHL Express - and I'm coming from South Africa! You order your product on Monday, by Wednesday you get it – there's nothing better than that. It was just the best deal from day one. I did check out the competition, and nothing compared.

Have DHL Express been involved in your growth journey since?  

I've told them if all else fails I can work at DHL – because when I set up my system I didn’t expect sales like I did. I woke up one day and I just had hundreds of orders. It was like, "Okay, how do I do this?"

The system wasn’t automatic… so I ended up having to send thousands or products manually. Then, when you don't understand something, you can call – and the advice will be "Okay, that's a remote area," and so many things like that. From the beginning they were questioning who this new customer was, sending out hundreds of packages a day. Being in Cape Town and with the DHL head offices in Johannesburg. They flew down where I revealed that "Yeah. It's just me."

I've had a really good relationship with DHL Express – not just being a customer, but building friendships. They always call me to speak to new customers, to potential customers - it's, "Hey, by the way, Mala can tell you what it is that we do!”

What's next for Malaville?

A DHL doll. Yeah. So I mentioned it to the team earlier this year. They sent me all the corporate colors and logos. She's almost done, actually. I've designed it almost like a cheerleading outfit. She's got a DHL jumper on, I've tested it with the team and they think it's really cool.

And finally, what’s the one piece of advice that you would offer to entrepreneurs looking to start their own e-commerce business?

Find something that's needed in the world. Find something that makes people feel good, but make sure it's something that you’re passionate about, because people buy more into passion than anything else. Find something that’s missing, and provide a solution.

Sam Steele
Sam Steele Discover senior writer