Toys Supporting Special Needs
An Interview with Alphae Toys
Danielle Montalvo is the face behind Alphae Toys, a company making beautiful and functional toys for special needs children. Alphae Toys has also become a resource for parents of special needs children, providing advice and information. She shares the story of growing her business.
Name: Danielle Montalvo
Store Owner Since: 2008
Opened on Storenvy: 2013
What is your favorite place in the world? Being on the ocean at night, or Del Taco. It’s a tie really.
Storenvy: What has been the most rewarding part of starting Alphae Toys? What is the most inspiring experience you’ve had from running your business?
Danielle Montalvo: The most rewarding aspect of Alphae is knowing that I am doing something I love, and I’m doing it to the best of my abilities. I am constantly challenged by my company, and even when I receive letters or compliments, the drive to be better is always there.
While I’ve had inspiring experiences through the company, the most rewarding experience I’ve had came from a personal one. My son was born with a complicated case of club foot. In the first few years of his life I spent my time creating a social life with doctors and nurses during visits every week. I felt sorry for myself, was bothered by stares and whispering, and his incapability to be “normal.” Even though I was slowly building the company, I didn’t have focus with all the noise buzzing through my head. When he received his surgery after four years of leg braces and therapy, his roommate ended up being a little boy who had just had brain surgery. When his mother walked through the door she wasn’t what I expected. She wasn’t frazzled or tired looking, like I was. She held herself upright, coming in and out from work, and taking care of her other child by herself. I wanted to be that. I needed to be that. From that moment on, each task, each bump, became an opportunity to stand a little taller and be better, for better or worse, and I’ve tried to keep that humility and that driving force front and center with each year that passes.
What has been the most difficult part of running your own business?
The biggest hurdle has been not undermining myself and keeping my confidence high. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you plan, or a promising avenue falls through. Compliments are great, but can deflate you when you don’t succeed. However, failure is the best tool for small business owners. You have to look at your mistakes, or the failures, and analyze why it didn’t go through or why you didn’t succeed, and then fix it. If you aren’t fixing your problems, or admitting that there is a problem, you are going to continuously make the same mistakes. If you don’t know what you did wrong, ask. Do not be afraid to ask either. Asking says, I care about what happens to this company and I want to be better.
Alphae Toys products are as beautiful as they are functional. Where do you find the inspiration to create such practical, eco-friendly, and tasteful toys?
I try to talk to everyone I possibly can as much as possible. I make it a goal to create a substantial conversation with one stranger everyday. Some of my best ideas have come from talking to strangers who happen to have a child with special needs and mention to me what they are lacking resource wise. Going to school for art helps as well, but really inspiration can be found anywhere. Sometimes I’ll go into a craft store and look at material until something jumps out at me, or I’ll go to a hardware store and see how many uses I can think up for a particular item. I look at other sites to see what they have and how I can improve on it, and I also ask a lot of questions. You have to train yourself to look at the world differently and see what isn’t there yet, but could be.
How do you balance running an online business as well as taking on the huge project of being a resource and source of knowledge of parents of special needs children?
My biggest life saver has been staying organized. I have twelve alarms (yes, I said twelve) on my phone that break up my time throughout the day. I also make a to do list for my day. The most important tasks are placed in the top ten of the list, and then everything else behind that. Sometimes it can have up to 30 items, but if the first ten get finished, that is what is most important. You can’t beat yourself up about it either. There are only 24 hours in a day, and there is always tomorrow.
Make sure you set end of the month, quarterly, and yearly goals for yourself as well. List the main tasks that need to be accomplished to reach those goals, and then break it down into smaller more logical goals. Each month you should be able to say you’ve reached that month’s goal. If not, you’re either not utilizing your time well, or you’re overworking and losing focus.
What advice would you give to other store owners tackling multiple projects at once?
Multi tasking is the name of the game of any small business owner, but if you find yourself in a situation like mine where the face of the company is multifaceted, the best advice I can give to you is to delegate. I thought I was a crafter who wanted to work on my own terms, so I felt obligated to do everything, but soon I realized that I wanted to grow my company to become bigger than me, and to do this, I needed to think like a business owner. If you can find someone who can do your job as efficiently as you do, who has better ideas than you, is smarter than you, or does your job better than you are capable of, hire them.
Recently I’ve started an initiative to combine my efforts with other small toy companies who have less of a social following and build them up with us. I find small businesses that have the quality and look for which Alphae is known, and I showcase their items on our site. Listing items built by other companies is not a new idea, but it’s a concept that works for us, and helps our customers discover an entire world of special needs toys that they didn’t know about.
You still have to be on top of the quality of work that is associated with your company, but by no means should you keep to the mantra “if you want to get things done right, you have to do it yourself”. This is untrue and unproductive. Find the best people, and then be the leader you are capable of becoming.