Iranian born Isaac Larian is the Chief Executive Officer of MGA Entertainment, the biggest privately owned toy company in the world and notably the maker of Bratz dolls. Bratz are an American product line of fashion dolls and merchandise manufactured by MGA Entertainment. Their unique features are what separate them from other toy figurines aimed for young children. In 2001, four exclusive characters were created: Yasmin, Cloe, Jade, and Sasha. Bratz dolls have provoked controversy in several areas as they were very different than the norm during this time. They had bright colored hair and makeup, fuller lips, oversized heads and pop culture fashion — opposite of the popular Barbie dolls. In some ways, they were considered the “anti-Barbie” dolls which gave rise to conflicts with Mattel Inc, American multinational toy manufacturing company responsible for creating Barbie. Mattel was threatened by this new Brand and began suing Larian’s MGA Entertainment for more than a decade.
Van Nuys, CA based MGA Entertainment took in $820 million in sales last year. That makes it the largest private toy maker in the U.S. and the third largest globally. The 82% of the company that Larian holds is worth roughly $1.1 billion. Just seven years ago, MGA had been on the verge of going out of business. The company was burdened by legal debt due to a court injunction which forbade the sales of the Bratz dolls. Undaunted, Larian moved forward and used his determination to beat Mattel at its own game on his way to his billion-dollar fortune.
Isaac Larian was born in Tehran, Iran. He has 3 sisters and 1 brother. His father was a textile salesman who believed that death is the best time to sleep, something Larian also believes. His family had very low-income and everyone had to work hard to earn a living. In 1971, 17-year-old Larian bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. With only $750 to his name, Larian got a job as a waiter to earn enough money for college and housing. He graduated from California State University, Los Angeles and earned a degree in civil engineering. He had initially planned to return to Iran and work but this was interrupted by the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Ayatollah’s takeover scared Larian from returning home. And so, he started an import-export business with his brother Fred Larian.
In the beginning, the Larians started selling cheap brass figurines from South Korea out of the back of their car. Their first success was from selling consumer electronics. The Larian brothers repackaged Nintendo’s Game & Watch, a precursor to the GameBoy, and made $21 million in sales in the first year. The fervor for that product only lasted a few years, but it gave Larian enough of a taste of the toy business to intrigue him. In 1993, MGA became a licensee for the Power Rangers, which was one of the hottest toys at that time. The Power Rangers put MGA on the map as a major toy company.
In 1996, Carter Bryant, inventor of the now famous Bratz dolls approached Larian for this talking doll design called Singing Bouncy Baby. Bryant was previously rejected by various companies and Larian was his last hope. The Larian brothers took a chance and Singing Bouncy Baby became a top hit, it was considered the best toy in 1997.
Further fueled by this success, Larian challenged his team to develop his next hit. He wanted a new doll—one that would overtake Barbie for market supremacy. However each design always seemed to resemble Barbie in one way or another. It wasn’t until eventually Carter Bryant was once again able to design a unique doll that seemed almost the opposite of Barbie. Barbie was tall and slender with beautiful blonde hair and blue eye. Bratz dolls were bolder and with exaggerated proportions (big head, puffy lips), bright colored hair, outrageously trendy fashion and came with different ethnicities. It was so compellingly different that Larian almost did not invest in it at all! It was because of his young daughter, Jasmin, who saw the design and loved it immediately that changed his mind. This primarily motivated Larian on promoting the Bratz brand.
Bratz did something no other doll had ever achieved before. The doll knocked Barbie off her throne as the top selling doll. In 2005, MGA was selling about $800 million worth of Bratz dolls while Mattel was selling $445 million worth of Barbie dolls. Bratz reached great success and the original line of dolls was expanded with a number of spin-offs like Bratz Kidz and Bratz Babyz. The media also featured the Bratz dolls in a web series, movie, TV series, music albums, and video games
The success of MGA’s Bratz dolls ignited a war. In 2004, Mattel sued MGA alleging that Bryant had come up with his design for the Bratz doll while working for Mattel. The world’s largest toymaker also accused MGA of bribing and secretly hiring Mattel employees for side projects.
MGA countersued, alleging that Mattel spied on its salesmen by pretending to be customers. Larian’s company also claimed that major retailers were paid off to promote Barbie and rearrange shelves to showcase more Barbie products over Bratz. The never-ending lawsuits reached as high as the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. It was at this point that MGA nearly went out of business. The cost of the battle with Mattel was exorbitant. Fortunately for Larian, their purchase of Little Tikes (an infant and toddler toy manufacturer) in November 2006 was the factor that saved them from bankruptcy.
Eventually, the courts ruled in MGA’s favor and the company was awarded $137 million as reimbursement for legal fees. In 2005, global sales were two billion dollars. With popularity increasing that Christmas, Bratz had about forty percent of the fashion-doll market by 2006.
While conflicts with Mattel finally ended, Isaac Larian faces a new opponent with the rise of his Bratz dolls success. His brother, Fred Larian, sold his 45% of the company in 2000 for $9 million, right before the debut of the four original Bratz dolls. He claimed Isaac hid information about the pending Bratz doll and its potential to be a huge success. Fred eventually dropped the case at the behest of his parents. The brothers haven’t spoken to each other in years.
At 62, Larian shows no signs of slowing down. He still makes all of MGA’s decisions right down to the fabric of the clothing and type of shoes a doll will wear. He continues to insist that he works because he loves what he does, not just for the money.
His daughter and inspiration Jasmin, who famously convinced her dad that Bratz were appealing to young girls, is the most likely successor. Currently, she has a small office at MGA where she runs her women’s accessories business.
From penniless Iranian immigrant to billionaire toy manufacturer, Isaac Larian has lived a true rags to riches story. He has worked hard for the success of Bratz and did not give up during the challenging years of court and sales competition. He demonstrates that determination and perseverance can overcome adversity. It is worth mentioning that he was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for the consumer products category in 2004 and overall national Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007.