Friday, October 09, 2015

The Persian who beat Barbie

"I came here in 1971 and I was 17 years old then. I had $750 in my pocket, a one way ticket, and a big American dream. My first job was washing dishes in a coffee shop in Lawndale and I was getting $1.65 an hour working from 11 at night to seven in the morning. Then I went to school during the day and I worked through out college until I obtained a civil engineering degree. I was planning on going back to Iran and become a civil engineer but we had a little thing called the revolution (in 1979). I did go back to Iran briefly, but returned and started a company selling brass giftware from the back of my car," Isaac Larian told Karmel Melamed of the Jewish Journal in 2006.

That's it.

That's the story.

Born on March 28, 1954 in Kashan, Iran, Isaac Larian came to the United States for college, a Persian Jew in Los Angeles. School and work left him little time for play, but he did like movies. He told Forbes magazine in 2013, “My God, I loved Spartacus.”

That's an interesting choice, a 1960 independent production by Kirk Douglas that cost a whopping $12 million and ran three hours and four minutes -- longer than some double features. Yet it pulled in $60 million as its story of a just rebellion led by a wronged slave. Douglas after all was rebelling against the Hollywood studios.

Larian would stage his own rebellion decades later.

Selling brass giftware made in South Korea (and apparently not very well) from a trunk was part of his import-export business with his brother, Fred, called Surprise Gift Wagon. In 1987, they became a distributor for Nintendo, and in 1993, they became a licensee for the "Power Rangers." Toys became their livelihood. Their Singing Bouncy Baby became a hit. he changed the company name to MGA Entertainment in 1998 and two years later bought out his brother's stake in the company for $9 million.

In 2001, the company introduced the Bratz line of dolls. Like Ruth Handler, who named Barbie and Ken for her children, two of the Bratz are named for two of his kids: Cameron and Yasmin (sorry, Jason Larian). The Bratz featured almond-shaped eyes and full lips. Persian. He described Bratz to a British newspaper as "everything Barbie is not. Who in Britain can identify with a six-foot-two blonde? The Bratz exist in a changing world. Children today are exposed to change at a very fast pace, so the Bratz change too. In 10 years they will be something completely different."

The battle was on between the 10-inch underdog Bratz dolls and the 12-inch reigning queen of fashion dolls, Barbie. Within four years of aggressive marketing -- they were hip and from a variety of ethnicities -- Bratz had 40% of the fashion doll market, plus spinoffs (Bratz Kidz, and Bratz Babyz) and ancillary items such as a movie and video games. Eventually, Bratz sales eclipsed and nearly doubled Mattel's Barbie sales.

Mattel sued, claiming Carter Bryant, who designed the Bratz, was working for Mattel at the time he developed the line of dolls. MGA countersued -- and won. In 2013, the courts awarded MGA $137 million in legal fees.

Litigation did not soften Larian's atttude toward Mattel. He told Forbes: “The people at Mattel are crooks, and, yes, you can quote me on that.”

Nor should it. The court battle nearly bankrupted MGA in 2006, as a court issued an injunction to stop selling Bratz dolls. But profits from Bratz allowed Larian to buy the Little Tikes line of pre-school toys, which saved MGA.

Richard Gottlieb of Toy News reported in 2013: "I asked Isaac what attracted him to purchase Little Tikes and he responded that he bought the company for the brand.  His research showed that Little Tikes had 98% brand awareness, as big as Fisher-Price. As he put it, with that kind of brand equity he was halfway there. All he had to do was add differentiated product and great pricing and he would have a winner. It appears that it is working out that way. Isaac reports that Little Tikes was up 23% in 2012 and he is projecting the Infant/Preschool segment to be up 90% this year. That is a formidable accomplishment when you consider that the pre-school segment has been struggling for the last few years."

In 2010, Larian hit the pre-school market again with a line of plastic rag dolls called Billy Buttons. The storyline is that they came to life (plastic) when the last stitch was sewn. He changed the name quickly to Lalaloopsy. He had created the 21st century's Cabbage Patch Kids. The target audience for the toys were mothers who got the storyline. The same marketing of TV spinoff shows that made Power Rangers helped make Lalaloopsy.

Karmel Melamed of the Jewish Journal asked Larian: "What reaction have you received from Iranian Jews who come to learn of your line of work?"

He replied, "Iranians are one of the most educated group of minorities in this country and very ambitious and it’s not only in toys. For example, if you look at Pierre Omidyar, a Persian who is not Jewish — he’s the chairman of the board and founder of eBay, one of the biggest corporations in the world. We need to be proud of the Iranian community, whether they are Jewish or not Jewish. Of course the Iranian Jews have had many major accomplishments. But the reaction I have received from the community has been from people who are proud that someone from their community has been able to been have this kind of achievement. I am humbled and I hope I can serve as an example to young people. I came from very humble beginning, so I am down to earth and connect well with the younger generation. I’d like to help them in anyway I can."

Of course, not stated is the obvious: Omiddyar and Larian made it here not just because they are good at what they do, but that they had the chance to use their skills.

This ain't ancient Rome.


I am publishing the best of these tales, in Kindle and on Amazon. Volume I covering American history from the 16th through the 20th century is here. And Volume II on The Capitalists is available here.

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  1. Stories like this illustrate one of the things that is still great about this country.

  2. He replied, "Iranians are one of the most educated group of minorities in this country and very ambitious and it’s not only in toys."

    Alas, Iranians in Iran are not well educated anymore under the ruling theocracy. The Shah drug Iran kicking and screaming into the 20th Century. After the revolution, the mullahs took it back to the 7th Century.

  3. Willing to work hard, plus smart, tends toward success.