When my daughter received a gift certificate at KB Toys for her birthday this month, she announced her intention to spend it all on Barbie.
Never mind fact that she already owns a Veterinarian Barbie, Lifesaver Barbie, Prom Queen Barbie, two Barbie Ballerinas and a Prince Ken... She's got Barbie's Beach House, a Barbie Steering Wheel, two Barbie autos that each seat four, a Barbie tape player, Barbie Hair and Makeup Model, Barbie Nail Designer Software, and a big box full of clothes. But Megan wants to have a *collection*, a peculiarly human urge understood well by Mattel Toy Company, which comes up with all this stuff.
It's too bad they don't make a Work at Home Mom Barbie. If they did, they could draw on life of Ruth Handler for inspiration. Handler, who passed away last week, is best known as inventor of Barbie doll. She was also one of most successful female entrepreneurs of all time, beginning in an era when women were expected to stay in kitchen and out of boardroom.
Like many of us, Ruth's career as an entrepreneur began by accident. Money was tight when she married her husband, Elliot. She was working as a secretary and he was studying industrial design. He decided to use his skills to make some housewares for their apartment. *She* decided that there was a market for them. They operated their first business out of their garage. Ruth handled sales, which reached $2 million within first few years... and that was in 1945 dollars. Today that amount would equal ten times as much!
Ruth and Elliot joined with another designer, Harold "Matt" Mattson, to form Mattel Company (named for Matt and Elliot). They manufactured picture frames. Elliot realized that he could take wood scraps from frames and turn them into doll furniture. This side business proved to be so successful that company changed its focus to toys.
The folks at Mattel credit Ruth with playing an integral role in their success. Her natural talent as a marketer helped company turn a profit its very first year as a toymaker. But her biggest was her ability to identify a market void and fill it ("niche marketing," which is what experts all tell us we should be doing.)
It was just such an instinct that led to Barbie's birth. The 1950's were an era when little girls played with baby dolls -- in fact, those were just about only kind you could buy. But Ruth noticed that her daughter, Barbara, was fascinated with paper dolls representing adult and teenage women. She would change their dresses and imagine how life would be all grown up.