Social Media, Bootstrapping, Doing Well—and Doing Good: The Doll Clothes Superstore

Mary Ann Walsh, owner and founder of the Doll Clothes Superstore, is connected to the products she sells by bonds of love, loss and empathy.

Raised from infancy by her father, Mary Ann played with dolls with a precocious desire to give her dad respite from the cares of single parenting. Dolls also allowed her to create an imaginary world in which her family was whole and she had siblings at whose side she could triumph over every adversity.

“Those early promptings,” says Walsh, “helped develop my character and the ability to know what I wanted to do with my life.”

What she wanted to do with her life was work with young children—and to that end, she became a kindergarten teacher. “I had empathy for the needs of children and an appreciation for the importance of their development.”

In 1980, married with young children of her own, Walsh moved with her family to Jakarta, Indonesia. She started teaching kindergarten in a private school, set out to learn the language and made weekly visits to the sick and poor as a volunteer with a local church. That’s when the first seeds were planted for the business she would start 18 years later, after her husband’s death from melanoma—although she had no idea yet that her sustaining connection with the world of dolls would come full circle to sustain her again. “I saw people who I thought had the potential to become self sufficient,” she says of the single moms she got to know, “if they had some kind of trade or skill.”

Walsh’s allegiance to her students led her to finish out the school year in Jakarta, in 1998, the year her husband died. “So many things were going through my mind as I went through the grieving process. One was that I might have difficulty getting a teaching job when I returned to the U.S., as it was nearly impossible then to interview for jobs from that distance.”

She needed to find a way to make ends meet during the time it would take to re-establish her teaching career back home.

Walsh reached into her own past to find a solution, recalling how, when she was a stay-at-home mom, she loved making clothes for her daughter and her dollies. Suddenly it seemed like she might have found a way to help her own family while also helping the single moms she got to know in Indonesia.

Like her, these women needed a source of income, preferably one that would allow them to work from home. “I came up with the idea of teaching the young mothers with children to sew doll clothes. I also began to visit marketplaces in Indonesia that were selling doll products.”
The year was 1999. “I knew nothing of starting a business,” says Walsh, “never mind an online business! I started reading all I could online to get some direction.” She continued, “Yahoo’s store had the highest ratings. I saw that I could use their templates and be ‘walked through the process by the computer’—and that even with my very limited knowledge about computers, I could get an online store going in almost no time.”

Once her supply paths were established, Walsh packed up her life and moved back to her home in Tolland, Connecticut, to be near her children and grandchildren. She got a job teaching kindergarten in the neighboring town of Manchester—and began to build her website. “I loved the fact that all the tools were there. How to get paid was a big question of mine, and Yahoo had it all there and easy to set up.  I also loved the fact that I would benefit from Yahoo promoting their stores, and that I would not have to do all the marketing myself. Basically everything I needed to build and run an online store was set up by Yahoo.”

The time from when Walsh sat down at the computer using the basic templates to build her store to her first online sale of hand-made doll clothes was exceptionally short. “I think it was all within a week or maybe less!”

All the clothes—which include hand-sewn matching girl and doll clothes—are made in Indonesia. Some of the clothes are ready-made from Indonesian markets. But most of them are sewn at home by the women Walsh trained (and with whom she maintains an ongoing personal connection, traveling to Indonesia twice a year). “The doll shoes,” Walsh says, “are from Indonesia and China. I design many of the clothes myself and give the samples to others to sew.”

The Indonesian women who sew the clothes, Walsh stresses, aren’t her employees. “They work for themselves, producing clothes at a pace that suits them.” Walsh simply buys their products. “This is a family business. I am the main employee. My son, daughter and significant other also give their time, energy and support.”

Walsh’s job as a kindergarten teacher keeps her in touch on a daily basis with the interests and concerns of her target market. I would venture a guess that her students have the best-dressed dolls in New England.

What advice does she have for others thinking of starting out as online entrepreneurs? “When I had the first thought of starting my online business, we sold some doll clothes at craft shows, just to see if there was a market, and if the clothes were well received.”

There was and they were. Walsh stopped the craft show trial sales and went straight to growing her online store. “We receive orders from all over the world, at all times of day and every day! My advice to others is to sell a product or service that you love—because the hours and devotion you need are endless.”

I wondered how, without a business background or advisors, she figured out how to price her doll clothes. “I wanted the prices to be as reasonable as possible, so that they’re affordable to all kids. I see some doll clothes sold online for higher prices than the clothes I myself wear to school! I consider the cost I pay for the product, the costs involved in selling the item and a slight mark-up for profit.  I use the theory that selling reasonably means selling more in the long run.”

Social networking has been a huge boon to online entrepreneurs, and Mary Ann Walsh is no exception. “We have a presence in Twitter, on Facebook and the Doll Clothes Superstore blog, as well as some videos on YouTube and in SlideShare. We use Vocus to send out press releases for new products, sales and special events.”

Altruism is a virtue that Walsh has managed to pass on to her children. “My daughter just ran the Boston Marathon under Team In Training. We announced in a press release through Vocus that anyone donating $6 to the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society through her Team in Training web page would get an outfit from the Doll Clothes Superstore, shipping included.”

Walsh has come a very long way from the person whose knowledge of computers, in 1998, didn’t go very far beyond the basics of email. “Currently,” she reports, “we are doing the SEO ourselves. At different points in time, we’ve hired companies to help us with that, but we’ve found all of them to be very expensive—and for the ever-so-slight increase we received from their services, we decided not to continue. Using a company for SEO cut far enough into our profits that we would have been forced to raise our prices, which we’re always working hard to keep low.”

Walsh had more kudos for Yahoo on that score. “Yahoo’s support staff have been absolutely incredible beyond belief. Nathan from Yahoo support periodically calls and says he noticed something we were not doing, or not doing consistently, that would improve our SEO. When he calls, he tells us all we need to know to make the changes ourselves. Recently he called and said he noticed that the ID's of our products were not all SEO friendly, and told us how to correct it. We love this part of Yahoo service. After that one call, we began to take care of the ID's ourselves and improve the rankings with just a little extra work on our part, and no extra fees to another company. Just this part of Yahoo services offsets the monthly fees!”

I asked Walsh whether the income stream from her business has met her hopes and expectations. “Originally I was just hoping for some extra income beyond what I would earn in my full-time job. This has been surpassed by far.”

The well-loved kindergarten teacher from Tolland has some parting words of wisdom for all of us. “I learned that enduring hardship and emerging successfully is dependent on our will to survive and the energy and resourcefulness we put into it. It also helps to have a good sense of humor—and a belief in the goodness of mankind.”

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