Photo of a Barbie doll created by Ruth Handler who had business lessons we can useThe Barbie movie has taken America by storm, drawing immense attention from various media platforms and entertainment enthusiasts. Amidst the Barbie frenzy, it's crucial to recognize the marketing genius behind this global phenomenon – Ruth Handler, the founder of Mattel. Last weekend, the Wall Street Journal had an interesting article about Handler, The Ruthless Business Titan Who Made Barbie Huge. It presented a variety of interesting business lessons that we can study from Ruth that are as prescient today as they were nearly 80 years ago.

Ruth was a "workaholic entrepreneur" who embraced risk, was data-driven, embraced technology, and understood who the true consumers of her product were. These traits were groundbreaking in the 1940s and are a solid foundation for a business in 2023. There's of course a caveat, she was charged by the SEC with a variety of white-collar crimes, including fraud and false reporting, in 1978. She ended up being fined and served community service after a plea, but her bet on advertising on the Mickey Mouse Club commercials stands as a defining moment in the toy industry's history.

So just as today, when we see our titans of technology push the boundaries and sometimes get held accountable, Ruth Handler was already ahead of that game 80 years ago.

Business Lessons from Ruth Handler

Anyone who can grow a small toy company into the global behemoth that is Mattel is obviously worth studying from a business perspective. It's an example of "going viral" before going viral was a thing. So while you and your small business may not be on the path to become the next Mattel, there are lessons we can learn and adapt for our businesses:

Lesson 1: Embrace Risk ~ Taking Ruth Handler's key quality as an entrepreneur was her willingness to take risks. When introducing Barbie, a novel doll in the market at the time, she fearlessly explored various marketing strategies. To thrive in the business world, embracing calculated risks is essential, but one should not overlook the potential legal implications. It's vital to consult with attorneys to assess any legal risks associated with new ventures, market expansions, or collaborations with unfamiliar parties.

Lesson 2: Be Data-Driven ~ Handler was a glutton for data, constantly seeking insights into her product, customers, and market trends. Today, successful businesses follow suit, collecting and analyzing data meticulously. However, while data collection is essential, it must be done responsibly and in compliance with data protection laws. Entrepreneurs should be aware of relevant regulations and ensure proper data handling to avoid potential legal repercussions.

Lesson 3: Embrace Technology ~ Handler vigorously adopted new technologies to enhance her business. Similarly, modern entrepreneurs should keep abreast of emerging technologies that can optimize their operations, marketing, and financials. However, it's crucial to be well-informed about the technologies being adopted to mitigate potential risks and ensure compliance with applicable regulations.

Lesson 4: Know Your True Consumers ~ One of the most crucial insights Handler had was that Barbie's true consumers were children, not parents. Understanding your target audience is vital for any business. If marketing products to children, entrepreneurs must be especially cautious regarding advertising practices, as there are stringent laws governing marketing aimed at minors. Engaging legal counsel can help ensure that marketing efforts are in compliance with these regulations.

Ruth Handler's journey with Barbie serves as an inspiration to entrepreneurs, highlighting key business lessons that have stood the test of time. Her fearlessness in taking risks, data-driven approach, embrace of technology, and understanding of her true consumers were pivotal to Barbie's unprecedented success. By learning from Ruth Handler's experiences, modern business owners can navigate challenges and propel their ventures to new heights in the dynamic and competitive market landscape.

Do I Need a Business Attorney?

If you or your business want to discuss business tactics or review these lessons (I won't require you to wear pink if you mention Barbie), let's schedule a Legal Strategy Session online or by calling my Edina, Minnesota office at (612) 294-6982 or my New York City office at (646) 847-3560. My office will be happy to find a convenient time for us to have a phone call to review the best options and next steps for you and your business.

Andrew Ayers
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I work with business and estate planning clients to craft legal solutions to protect their legacies.
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