It's a warm July morning and Rita Morris is in her immaculate kitchen at her home in Arlington staying close to the phone. Any minute, she keeps hoping, the buyer from FAO Schwarz will call and place a huge order for the rag dolls she and her two partners have created.
At the January 1998 Toy Fair in New York -- the giant industry showcase of old hits and new ideas -- the buyer had been very encouraging about the dolls, Morris explains. As a brand-new company, it was a coup to even get a meeting with the FAO buyer. And it was even more of a coup that the buyer, chic and dressed all in black, liked what she saw. Rag dolls, the buyer said, were coming back. The only holdup was that Schwarz hadn't decided if it was going to make a "rag doll statement" for Christmas at its flagship Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan -- Morris recalls the buyer's exact words.
"I just really want my dolls at FAO Schwarz," she says, betraying her emotional investment. "That's my dream."
Fast forward five months. Christmas is almost here and Morris's dolls are not in FAO Schwarz. But this is not the typical story of entrepreneurs with a great idea and unrealistic dreams. This is a longer story than that, because making a successful product -- imagining it, manufacturing it and marketing it -- is a long process.
Usually, dreams have to be revised and ratcheted down, or at least given more time. Morris and her partners, longtime friends of hers, have done that. And that is why the three women are now sitting in Darlene Ducrest's living room in Arlington talking about how happy they are with the business.
"I think we're doing really well," Ducrest says. She looks to her partners.
Mary Denise, the lawyer among them, agrees. "We haven't hit the lottery yet, but with some marketing, the dolls are going to start really selling," she says.
Denise talks about turning a profit soon, and about the business being self-sustaining. The dolls have found a robust market with several online toy retailers, she says. About half of the original 5,000 dolls they had made have been sold, she explains. It's a long way to come in just a year.
Morris nods in agreement, but she's reserved. Is she still hoping for FAO?
"Oh, yeah," she says.
Brainstorming a Business
The idea for the dolls came, as so many ideas do, from having children. Morris's daughter, Hadley, now 8, loved nursery rhymes and knew all the words. So Morris wanted to buy some nursery rhyme character dolls -- Little Bo Peep and all the rest. But she couldn't find any.
"I couldn't believe it," she said. "You'd think!"
Morris is famous among her family and friends for her better-mousetrap ideas, but everyone agreed that nursery rhyme dolls was a good one. So over the years, as Hadley grew out of toddlerhood, Morris kept her eyes open for nursery rhyme dolls. She never saw any.
A couple of years ago, with both her kids in school, Morris had to decide whether to go back into the work force or start her own business. One day she was brainstorming with Ducrest, whose three children were also in school, about what they could do together.
"The dolls were one of the best ideas we thought about," Ducrest said. "Let's see, perennial gardening was another. And taking care of other people's sick children."
They all laugh. Denise got in on the deal, too. A single mother, Denise had just started a one-year maternity leave for Grace, now 2 1/2 and a rag doll fan.
"This was one of Rita's harebrained ideas that actually still sounded good after thinking about it for two days," she says. They laugh again.
The business started slowly, with research. A trademark search found no nursery rhyme dolls on the market and no barriers to copyrighting the product. They looked in old nursery rhyme books for clothing styles. They argued about whether the dolls should have blush (they don't, although Ducrest says she'll never give up the fight). And then they found a couple of local seamstresses to make a prototype.
In January of last year, they went to Toy Fair in New York and did more legwork. At first, it was a bit discouraging.
"I just wanted a simple, nicely made rag doll," Morris said. "But nobody seemed to understand. They kept making suggestions, like, `Why don't you put a chip in the hand so when you press it, the doll says the nursery rhyme.' I mean, that's not a bad idea, but it would've been really expensive. And it was so much not what I wanted. I wanted an old-fashioned rag doll."
Toy Fair did allow the partners to find a manufacturer in China ("If we made them here, they'd sell in stores for $80," Rita explains). By August 1998 they had invested more than $20,000 -- but had a finished product to sell.
Morris and company went back to Toy Fair, hopes brimming. It was difficult at first for Morris to see past her disappointment that FAO had not bought a bunch of dolls on the spot. But her company, Roundtable Dolls, actually did very well in New York. Etoys placed an order, and in the spring, the dolls got an award from Dr. Toy's Guide, a toy-rating service. In May, Amazon.com also placed an order, and so has Toysmart.com. The dolls are also stocked in several local toy stores, such as Kinderhaus in Arlington and Once Upon a Time in Vienna.
The bigger dolls sell for about $25 and smaller versions are about $12, although they cost about the same amount to manufacture. They are selling well, the partners think, but it's still too early to tell how big a Christmas Roundtable will have.
The women are excited, yet it is also a great relief that the big orders are out of the way. For six weeks, Morris and Ducrest worked from morning to night inspecting dolls, trimming the yarn hair, straightening their clothes, picking lint off their faces and attaching little cards that include the nursery rhyme for the doll's character. That was 10 or 15 minutes per doll.
"When you're putting it out there with your name on it, you want it to be perfect," Morris says. "We are neurotic about it. Of course, we won't always be able to do that, when we get bigger."
Denise got out of this nitpicking work because she was diagnosed this summer with breast cancer and has been focusing on her therapy. But she, too, envisions a much bigger company in five or 10 years. Morris pictures a whole line of decorative accessories, like lamps and wallpaper, with nursery rhyme themes.
"Our main problem is we need to get a professional sales force," Denise says. "I think it could be a national organization selling to major chains nationwide."
For now, the business pays for itself -- though its owners have yet to pay themselves. They make a few dollars of profit, after shipping and insurance, on every large doll they sell wholesale. They make almost nothing on the small dolls, but those are cute and people seem to like them, so Roundtable Dolls will keep making them. When you are emotionally invested, you make decisions like this.
"The more we order, they cheaper they'll be for us to make," Mary explains. "It's not profitable now, but if we make it big and we sell a lot of dolls, then we will make a profit."
And even if FAO hasn't called -- yet -- Morris is thrilled that her idea is working. Back in her own house, sitting in her super-neat living room (she swears it's not always this way), she is able to see that her dolls have already done better than many inventors' products. She feels emboldened about the potential of some of her other harebrained ideas. But she also feels lucky.
"Just by the luck of the draw we have started this business just as e-commerce is taking off," she says. "It's such a traditional toy, and these Web sites are so nontraditional. It's just a fluky, fluky thing."
Then again, maybe it's not. After all, rag dolls are coming back.
If you know about an interesting entrepreneur or small business, send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. And tune in to Margaret Webb Pressler's business report weekday mornings on "News 4 Today."