As the millennial 80s and 90s kids who have friends and cousins struggling to find the Holy Grail to pacify their toddlers’ unruliness, we quickly assume the roles of those old uncles and aunts, click our tongues, and mindlessly gadget-shame them for using iPads and mobile phones to keep their children occupied. Passing value judgements from the outside is easy, but upon closer inspection, you will see that the options for recreation, especially those quintessential Indian trinkets that kept us all enamoured and entertained as little ones, are getting sparser and sparser.
I mean, where are those brass-and-wooden pop-up kitchens that opened up a vortex into a whole new world seen in your toy stores anymore?
Where are the toys that would make the days effortlessly disappear into the nights for you and your friends—like the seven stones you stack up only to topple them again, over and over, for the thrill of a perfect score?
The issue is not evolution, but availability. Not a love lost, but a lost treasure. Swapna Wagh, however, went a step further, to hold children's hands and walk them down memory lane.
Back to the start
The 35-year-old's passion for what she does stems from her love for toys and games that gave her some of the most joyful moments in her childhood, when she would leave behind the din of Mumbai to get together with her gang of cousins for the two-month summer break at her native place, in a remote village in Maharashtra. The children never assessed the toys and games in terms of gender, and they had a crack at all the toys—the gili danda they themselves made, the catapult to break mangoes from trees in the farm, lagori, pachisi, which is a board game, quite literally, sketched out on a wooden plank with chalk and played with half cut tamarind seeds as dice, spinning lattus, and so on. Swapna says,
“My childhood was full of life playing all these wonderful games. With the limited options in the gadget world, I always think my childhood was way better. This is exactly what made me start Desi Toys, because one doesn't get to see such toys in good quality sold in cities today – not to mention that the prolonged use of gadgets causes health issues, and also affects children’s skill development and physical movement.”
Upon completing her MBA and Executive Retail course at IIM Calcutta, Swapna worked for more than eight years in organised retail firms, but as the corporate dream got too monotonous, she decided it was time to go back to the drawing board and get cracking on that childhood dream. “I started Desi Toys to expose today’s tech-savvy generation to the wonders our country has to offer with its rich collection of toys and games,” she says. But she kept her day job a while longer, and researched for almost two years before she was ready to take off the training wheels.
A desi fix
Desi Toys are comeback toys—that is, traditional Indian toys and games with a touch of Indian art, making them truly Indian and unique. “They say there's a 30-year-cycle of the 'Nostalgia pendulum', and we are targeting the real market of people with disposable income who are nostalgic for their childhood and want their young ones to play with these childhood toys and games,” Swapna explains.
Her Desi Toys are hand-made by artisans, and hence, she had to visit remote villages across India to assemble her artisan team, a team that would go on to become the backbone of Desi Toys. This would often be an unnerving experience, but her husband accompanied her in order to make the journeys less daunting.
“Thankfully, my supportive husband would accompany me then to all these places, as being a woman, these were not the safest places to travel alone. With a team, this work will be done differently now,” she explains.
She then ran a pilot at a popular mall to understand customer acceptance. “The customers loved the concept, and there was no looking back. That made the plunge easier. Staying afloat while being an entrepreneur, especially in the initial years, when my daughter was just six months old, made my life very demanding, but now, when I look back and think of that phase, I feel that that is what made me more stronger,” she recalls.
Authentic all the way
She started out by scouting for artisans who already made Indian toys, and simply purchased their wares. Slowly and savvily, though, she felt the need to design her toys her own way, and have them completely child-proofed and crafted in superior quality. The small kiosk in a mall in October 2012 turned into a 300 sq ft store in another mall a year later; the need to tap into online audiences surfaced soon enough as well, and they started listing their products on marketplaces like Flipkart, Snadeal, Firstcry, and Amazon in the same year, only to later launch their virtual store, www.desitoys.in.
“We noticed another segment that was buying from us – foreigners and NRIs. So, we sought the opportunity of setting up at the SIS stores at airports. To reach out to these customers, apart from being at the right places, we are currently working on strategies to make them aware that we exist,” she says.
Some of her best-sellers include the Putt Putt Boat, which is a steam boat, the Gulel, a slingshot/catapult, the classic gili danda, spinning top or lattu, the choupad or pachisi board game with the Nanha Kanha theme, a chauka bara board game with the Ramayana theme, and the quintessential brass miniature kitchen set that was a part of every happy childhood.
Swapna claims to have been operationally profitable from year one, and has already crossed the Rs 1 crore mark in net sales, with 40 percent sale streaming in from their standalone stores.
“'Toys is very price-sensitive category, mostly given as gifts; so it was very challenging to ensure that my price brackets were affordable, considering that the toys we offer are not machine-made but handcrafted. Alternative ways of making the products and vendor negotiations helped me reduce the costs to some extent, making them affordable. And I consider my artisans as my business partners—they get a 10-15 percent margin over their cost,” she reveals.
They have bootstrapped their way to sustainability, but she is chalking out an extensive expansion plan, and would be looking at external funding in the near future. The plan entails expansion to every existing platform, with more retail stores in high street malls, Shop In Shops, and an increased team size.