Looking at the picture, you might think that story is going to revolve around dolls — humanlike, carefully hand-painted by talented artists, and, oh, so pretty! You are right, but only partially. It’s about the power of inspiration as well — all that inspires you can bring you an army of wildly-enthusiastic fans of all ages and… money.
We talked to Denis Bastien, the dolls’ father, as he calls himself, and the only employee of Affordable Designs Canada. He is in his late fifties, and his role is quite simple — he does everything — from designing the dolls, the outfit, shoes, to selling, shipping the orders around the world. Also, he alone manages social media, the website, press relations, meetups and several other projects.
His 18-year business has come a long way. Denis started from eBay, that allowed him to present his work to the world, and ended up with an outstanding website and lots of subscribers on Facebook. Now he is here to share his secrets about his remarkable experience in the eCommerce industry.
Grab your daily portion of motivation and do something great.
You’ve been running this business for over 18 years already. Wow! That’s a good deal of time. How did it all start? Who was your moving spirit, your Muse? I started the business because at the time I needed a job. Although I have never worked as a designer, manufacturer, or business administrator, everything came about very quickly and I discovered that this could be something I would enjoy doing. But most importantly something I was good at.
I see your dolls have voice. At least Leann, as she is managing your Facebook page and sends replies to your subscribers. Do you think your dolls have got a soul, either?
I decided to give Leanne a voice from the very beginning. Just because I thought it would be fun to read what she was thinking. It became obvious the collectors were enjoying hearing about her life, her thoughts. I do not really believe that dolls have souls but I do believe they provide the collectors with a way to use their imagination. By giving a voice to Leann it has given the opportunity for my customers to talk to her as well. This has given me a lot of information, inspiration to continue create for the Leeann line.
I noticed that it’s you who does the face paint and, oh, all your dolls look so real, just like living beings. Is it hard to make them look like that? How much time does it take you to create a doll?
At the beginning I worked with other artists to create the prototypes for the first collection. Each doll is hand-painted by talented artists at the factory based on the prototypes. To be honest I think the production dolls are even better than the prototypes. For me to create a doll it could take a week, a month, six months, even longer. It depends on the doll, it depends on my inspiration.
Why do people keep asking you about LOULOU? Is it a limited edition? Tell us the story behind this doll.
Every item in the Leigh Ann line is a limited edition. When I create something new for the line it gets produced in a Bergson quantity. Once they are sold, they are gone, never produced again. The reason people are talking about Loulou at the moment is that she is the latest character to be added to the line. In the future that will be new outfits, new shoes, new characters, and then we’ll talk about that. The important thing is to keep them interested, excited about my work.
All your dolls have the certificate of authenticity. Is it a kind of quick info about the item, its background?
The certificate of authenticity was created because each item is a limited edition. On one side it has all of the details about the items, on the other side I let Leeann write a page of her “diary book” in which she shares a story about the item. Yes, I do write those myself. Remember, I am the only employee at Affordable Designs – Canada.
Each doll seems to have her own story. For instance, Leann plays an amazing miniature Grand Piano, makes some notes in her diary, keeping it in a safe place so that no one could read it. Where do you get these great ideas?
I do not know where the ideas come from. All I know is that they come easily to me. Just like the people when enjoy collecting Leeann and her friends, I too feel very connected to their world. Inspiration comes easily to me. Without a story, a concept, a theme, these would just be toys. It is through imagination that they “come to life”.
Of course, word-of-mouth is the most important social media and marketing tool. But when you were just starting off there were no loyal followers or fans. How did you reach your target market? Was it hard to begin? I feel I still have a lot of work to do to reach my audience. I got little to no support from magazines and organizations because I was bringing “a new approach” to creating/manufacturing/selling dolls. I am one of the first doll company to target its audience via direct sales. Instead of selling to stores I started selling directly to customers. At the time that was fairly new and other companies did not like the fact that I could present my creation at very competitive prices by cutting off the middle man. But I believed in what I was doing and I made sure that the quality of my dolls, detailing of my outfits and shoes, the direct contact with collectors, and personalized customer support would carry the positive word of mouth to keep the business going.
April 19, 2017 — New Mexico, May 12, 2018 — Baton Rouge, LA and so on, and on it goes. There are so many upcoming events. What are you doing there? Sharing your experience and thoughts with your soul mates?
Special events are “the icing on the cake”. When a doll club decides to commission a souvenir doll from me I feel I have done my work in making the Leeann line appealing to people. I am given a theme, a budget, and off I go. I dream, I create, I design a souvenir doll but I also add multiple accessories, companion dolls, centrepieces. I also attend all events for which one of my dolls in featured. I also make a presentation with live comments. People enjoy meeting Leeann’s dad and I enjoy meeting them. In the same spirit as “direct sales” being the new way of selling dolls I felt large doll convention would soon become a thing of the past and started travelling to collectors instead of expecting them to travel to me.
You’ve launched the Facebook group earlier this year and its members are already rather active. Looks like you’ve got many fans around the globe ready to follow you. What do you think they love most? Is it the story created around these toys, some kind of philosophy or the toys themselves?
I must first say I was afraid of Facebook for the longest time. I love people, I love interacting with people, and I feel that social media is changing the way people interact with each other. And not always in a good way. I feel there’s less and less face-to-face contact, people have more Facebook friends than real life friends. But people were asking why Leigh Ann didn’t have her own Facebook page so I caved in and created one. I have to be honest and say I’m having a lot of fun. Well, Leeann is having a lot of fun. I try to keep it fun, informative, exciting, and inviting so that people participate. So far it has been amazing. There’s been a whole social side to my work since the very beginning. Facebook is now the way to do it.
You’ve got a range of carefully-written and inspiring texts and newsletters. Is that you personally who writes them? Yes, it is all me.
WHAT WILL TOMORROW BRING? I know “ALL WILL BE FINE”… for all of us. Let’s see what tomorrow brings. Maybe this is just a “difficult time that will pass”. But always remember that one thing that will never end is OUR FRIENDSHIP.
Pictures made by: Elena Stepanova (a fan of Denis Bastien from Russia)