A few months ago I (virtually) sat down with Avani Sarkar, Co-Founder of Modi Toys to talk about building brands through personal storytelling. And I came across this again recently and relistened and realized “wow, this conversation is GOLD — there’s a treasure chest of knowledge in it!”
Avani’s reason for co-founding Modi Toys with her brother comes from a deep, personable place so naturally, her personal story found a place within the brand. In this discussion, she shares how people buy from other people (not businesses) and that when it comes to sharing your stories, you want to be really grounded and connected with your why behind the business.
Keep reading for this amazing conversation we had about being a woman, a minority founder, & a mother!
Listen to this amazing conversation and continue reading for an edited transcript of it all!
Akansha: How has storytelling shown up for you in your life? How has it served you in your life?
Avani: I’ve always been a bit of an introvert growing up so for me from a very young age, like 10 years old, writing has just sort of been my outlook. I used to have diaries, you know when those were a thing.
Growing up, I had a website where I went in and wrote which is a creative outlet for me. Because writing was always very therapeutic for me. Some of my best pieces really came to light when I was going through a hard time, or just needed to process a lot of emotions.
It was during a time when I really needed to deal with whatever it was like dealing with at the time, and I stopped writing when I felt like the place I would write from was no longer authentic.
I didn’t really write creatively until we started Modi Toys. That’s how I use Instagram to tell our brand story, and create engagement is really top of mind. I’ve been fortunate in the sense that I’ve been able to tap into something that always came naturally to me, but now applied for a very business critical reason.
Akansha: I think you bring up a good point, there’s something to say about taking that time to sit with your thoughts and journal, essentially. So one thing I think is helpful, especially for my own clients, is to sit with your thoughts and actually journal 10 minutes a day, because having that time and not having the pressure to have this perfect right away, gives you the flexibility and freedom to really hone and find your voice. I liked how you said that because I do think that’s really, really valuable for anyone, even if they don’t feel like they’re a great storyteller or storyteller at heart.
Avani: So, if someone told me to just write in a journal like every single morning for five minutes a day I don’t think I could do that because I couldn’t force myself to write when I didn’t feel like writing.
The only time that I was actually able to sit down and blog is like when I felt like this immense internal need to just get something off my chest. And that was the only time that I could whip something out in literally, like 10 minutes, that’s when the words kind of flow out of me.
I think it does have to come from a place of authenticity and for me it’s hard to do that when you are kind of trying to be structured or be more regimented. But that’s just me, everyone works differently.
Akansha: The beautiful thing about the writing process is that everyone has a different approach and different way to explore it.
Though I’ve found that sometimes I can make excuses for not feeling inspired and put up these blocks. So I’ll give myself the space of 5 or 10 minutes to sit with it & if something comes or nothing comes then that’s fine too. It’s kind of like meditating in a way…
Avani:You’re right, that’s why I’m so bad at it…haha!
Akansha:It’s not perfect!. Also, I’m not saying I’m doing this every single day to T but to who is going anything perfectly all the time?
Akansha: You do such a great job about bringing in your personal stories, the more overarching brand story and also bringing in customer stories and their lives. You do it so beautifully by integrating all of that together.
What is your thought process or strategy around it? How do you think about how to weave in all these interesting stories and thoughts into your brand & Instagram presence?
Avani: When I first started our Instagram account, a year and a half ago, I had like zero strategy in place. Now I’m kind of figuring out what works, what doesn’t & where I feel more natural and authentic. I try to stay true to myself as opposed to sort of following whatever the trend du jour is.
Our company was obviously inspired by my family, my daughter, my niece, even to an extent with my mom and my husband, because they all played such an integral role and they are weaved into the “why” of our brand, it’s impossible not to get personal.
If I really want to tell people about how we came to be, well, it’s impossible not to tell a story about how my daughter and my niece were born a week apart, and how the fear of not having your mom around forever, kind of gave us this idea of “well, how can we leave their legacy behind in a way that we can still help them stay connected to their roots after the people that we turn to often are long gone?” We take it for granted that our parents are there, but what happens after that?
We realize that a single toy is not the end all and be all solution to this, this massive profound problem. But it’s a step in the right direction. And it’s something that we had to take a chance on.
Even until this day, I struggle with the imposter syndrome every single day. I keep toggling between, “well, it’s just a toy” versus “Well, no. It’s really having a profound impact on the lives of so many people, not just children, but their parents too.”And I keep going back and forth between like, “it isn’t really that special??” to “Oh my god, it’s like, amazing what we’ve created!”
So it’s hard to separate the two (personal and business). My family really is the inspiration behind everything that we’ve created so far. And that’s always going to be the case.
As for how I’ve been able to really create this community to be a safe haven, I think I really owe it to our followers more than anyone. Many of them actually started reaching out to me via DM last year after we gained a little bit of traction and after we officially launched baby Ganesh.
I received so many messages not just from moms, but even like people who were trying to conceive. They share really personal stories about how they can’t wait to bring baby Ganesh home, or like they want to bring one home right now in hopes that it brings them luck.
They just shared really really intimate details of their lives, their pains, and their struggles. I felt somewhat helpless, because I obviously can’t offer anything besides this toy that I have. But if it brings them some comfort, some joy, then that’s all I can hope for.
Because they were so open and being vulnerable to me and with me, I felt that I kind of owed it to them. So when the tables were sort of turned & I was going through a really tough time in my personal life earlier this year, I opened up and I shared a public post about about my miscarriage, and that really kind of opened up the floodgates, and I did not expect to receive the kind of response that I did, from so many people who have either experienced a similar loss themselves or know someone that had.
That’s when I realized this brand, Modi Toys, goes far beyond just me selling a product. People really see me as the person behind the brand. That’s when I felt really comfortable opening up and bringing more of myself out into the open, as opposed to just kind of strictly focusing on the brand itself.
From that point on, I’ve been really fortunate in that a lot of the stories that I featured around IVF, babies, premature babies who were hospitalized in the NICU they all kind of came forward to me on their own, I didn’t go seek these stories out. But when they came forward, I just felt so compelled to want to share. Things kind of spiraled.
I got some other ideas along the way. For Valentine’s Day, instead of doing a very traditional Valentine’s Day celebration, I decided to feature interracial couples who had children and wanted to talk about how they were raising them in this Modern Family era. It’s still very much on brand with what it is that we’re all about. It’s about “how do we help our kids stay connected to their roots when they’re growing up outside of India essentially?”
Whether you live in America, in a very Indian household or you live in America, in a mixed household, the fact remains that you’re probably struggling, just like everyone else out there and trying to impart the values or the types of values and cultural learnings that you grew up with.
I keep going back to what it is that our brand stands for. For me it’s always been about helping people stay connected. Because these tentacles about kids and family touch so many different facets, whether it’s about IVF, or miscarriage or babies in the NICU or mixed families, it’s allowed me to kind of branch outside of just talking about a toy. And that’s the beauty of allowing me to really grow this space into a community.
Akansha: What I hear is that you started with, “what does this brand stand for”, and got really clear that “This is more than the toy, it’s actually a deeper purpose and mission around getting people connected.”
What I find really interesting and fascinating is that people are coming to you with these stories. I feel so often what’s happening here is that you’ve opened up this channel for conversation, you opened up your own vulnerabilities to invite those in.
It’s a two way street. If your audience and your customers choose to share some really intimate details with you, you’re doing them a service by giving that back. It’s almost like if you’re talking with friends, and only one person is spilling their heart, the other person’s nodding with the stern face, it doesn’t cultivate that same sort of connection.
I feel like you’ve done that really well, where not only are you giving them a product or a toy, you’re actually giving them space to listen, and holding that container to really have these conversations where we may not be having them elsewhere.
Avani: I guess I didn’t really realize this but I don’t know if there are enough other pages or brands or what have you on Instagram that are enabling these types of discussions so openly.
I know there are a ton of other media publications that are focused on South Asians that cover a broad range of topics… but I feel like perhaps or there was a void which is why people are really gravitating to want to open up now that there is a space created.
Akansha:I think there’s a huge void for minorities, especially South Asian immigrants/first-generation. I do feel like there’s a need for us to be seen more and truly have these conversations. I think it’s just the beginning.
Akansha: Do you have any advice for founders, especially a female founder who might be afraid to share their story, afraid to share their journey, the imperfections of it? And is there anything actionable advice that you can give where she can take this right now and implement it… today or tomorrow?
Avani: As women we experience so much — everything from infertility to miscarriages, to balancing mom life and work life, dealing with your in-laws, the list is kind of endless, right?
If you really think from the mind, but speak from the heart you can really connect with people. Because at the end of the day, people buy from people.
People ultimately buy from people not from a company, not from a website, they buy from you because they kind of can see themselves in you. They connect with you at this indescribable level, even though they’ve never met you, even though they’ve never really spoken with you.
But there’s something about you, about the way you write perhaps, about the way you just say certain things, whatever it is, but it makes them feel like you’re approachable and that you’re real.
Ultimately that’s what makes someone want to support you.
For example just yesterday, I was honestly really blown away at how many people were sending us their well wishes for our first birthday/anniversary. I was really humbled because I didn’t ask anyone to tag me or anything but so many people did.
I think that just goes to show that people connect with Modi Toys in a way that I didn’t realize that they do.They think of Modi Toys as a brand that elicits happiness and sparks joy in them. It’s a place that makes them feel like at home.
As a matter of fact, I received a message last night from someone that said, I just got home from a long day at work, and I just came on your page and it brings me so much joy. I’m always taken aback when I get messages like those because I sometimes feel like I’m just sort of like riding in a vacuum and I don’t know what impact I’m really having on someone.
Just because someone double taps on your post that doesn’t really mean all that much but when they actually take the time to write to you. I always appreciate whenever someone does write to me and I always try my best to get back to everyone. I think it goes a long way.
If you really are trying to build a brand whether it’s through storytelling, or otherwise, you really have to take the time to engage back with the people that take the time to engage with you. Even if it’s just to say thank you, or whatever it may be, remain grateful for the people that helped you get to where you are, because whether you have 5000 followers or 10,000 followers, ultimately, these are the folks that have supported you from the very beginning. You can’t lose sight of that.
What worked for you in the beginning is what’s going to continue working for you, as you get bigger and bigger. So I do see sometimes that you know, brands like once they get to a point where they’re so big that they feel like perhaps they don’t need to really engage with their followers as much & they stop doing it. I think it’s really hurtful as someone who’s been a loyal supporter from the very beginning. Just continue to do all the things that you were doing when you had, you know, 100 followers to when you have, you know, 50,000 followers.
Akansha: It could even be if someone isn’t leaving comments, go check out their stuff and go check out what your clients and customers are doing. Sometimes it feels like we’re talking to no one but in reality I feel like so many of us are silently stalking, silently watching.
Avani: I’m totally guilty of liking so many posts mentally but just forgetting to hit “like”. I am not the type to just leave like an emoji. I want my comments to have some substance to it.
If there’s someone that or brand that you really want to connect with then definitely make the time and effort to connect with them.
I do get messages every so often where I’ve never really spoken with this person, like ever. And they’re like, “Hey, I’m new… can you follow me?” Or “hey, do you wanna do a giveaway?” And I’m like “Wait, who are you?”
This is really a long term play. I did not just create my Instagram account yesterday and end up with the followers I have. Everyone starts off with zero followers, every single person that’s on Instagram today does and I hope people don’t lose sight of that.
Definitely take the time to really nurture those relationships online because in the real world, you would never go to a stranger you just met for the first time and be like “Hey, do you want to hang out this Saturday?”
So it kind of goes the same way in the online world.
I would say whether you’re female or not, there’s an abundance of inspiration from your personal lives that you can draw from to talk about. And don’t be afraid to talk about it because ultimately people are connecting with people online the same way they do offline.
Akansha: I like how you bring that up. And there’s this term, you know, how we have like b2c marketing and b2b marketing. And those terms are definitely there for a reason. And there are different strategies for b2b and b2c.
I forgot who coined this, but there’s some guy who coined human to human marketing, H2H marketing. It’s a fun way to say that at the end of the day, behind these screens, behind this product, behind all these little tools and frameworks we’ve created. We’re just people.
Avani: Exactly. I think a perfect example is Deepica Mutyala of Live Tinted, she has two separate accounts. One is obviously her own personal influencer brand. And one is obviously a product brand. But there’s a reason why her personal brand, Deepica has over 200,000 followers, whereas her Live Tinted, still hasn’t broken that hundred thousand followers. It is because people like following her for who she is, and perhaps they don’t really have a need for her products just yet, whatever the reason may be.
People still continue to see you for who you are behind the brand. Even if this doesn’t apply to you, if you are not an influencer yourself, or have a personal account, you can keep bringing yourself out to the front of your company in a manner that it’s not so “in-your-face”. You can weave your personal story into your brand narrative without having to put yourself front and center.
Akansha: Right, it doesn’t have to be ego-centric. It’s not necessarily about you all the time but what is your story doing, what kind of purpose is your story serving overall, to the brand, and to your audience and customers?
Avani: So many of the brands that I personally follow were founded by their own personal challenges they were experiencing. Because they became moms and they realized they couldn’t find the perfect clothes for their children or they were experiencing postpartum depression and they realized there weren’t the right tools out there to help them deal with those things.
These problems oftentimes really originate from your own personal life. So don’t lose sight of the fact that what’s really got you to the point where you want to solve that problem, not just for yourself, but likely thousands of others who are dealing with the same issue. There’s no reason why you can’t draw from those experiences in a way that feels natural and authentic to your brand.
Akansha: I agree that so many women are starting businesses because of what’s available out there, whether it’s societal, cultural…whatever construct it might be, it’s not really serving them fully. So it comes from a very deep and personal place.
So I thank you for sharing that. And thank you so much for sharing all your advice related to branding, storytelling, marketing and just being really honest and transparent about your journey.
Last but not least, everyone can find Modi Toys on moditoys.com and on Instagram @moditoys!