By Kathleen Gallagher of the Journal Sentinel
March 19, 2011
Hartland – A clock, a briefcase, a watchdog – the little static-cling creations that Greyson MacLean dreamed up filled his company’s booth at Toy Fair 2011 in New York City.
Unfortunately, the inventor couldn’t attend. Greyson isn’t old enough to be on the floor.
He’s 11. You have to be 18.
So Greyson’s parents and an aunt and uncle touted his reusable cling decals for Legos and other toy bricks at the toy buyers’ convention last month.
Since launching in January, Greyson’s decals, called BrickStix, are in more than 50 stores in 20 states, said Matt MacLean, Greyson’s dad. Retailers in other countries have shown interest, and the family is in discussions with international distributors, said MacLean, who during the day is general counsel and chief operating officer at Red Granite Advisors LLC in Milwaukee.
The MacLeans also fulfill website orders from a curtained-off area in their finished basement.
They sell three different sets – metro, space or transport themes – in two-sheet packs of 84 stickers for $5.99 each.
“I can’t even describe the feeling,” Greyson said. “You feel excited when you hear someone just ordered 15 of your product.”
That feeling has been happening more often for Greyson, who confirmed that in terms of orders, he’s had “more in the month of March so far than in the month of February.” That’s all the family will say about revenue and expenses so far.
Greyson’s decals are the second invention the Hartland family has on the market. The first, devised by Greyson’s mom, Amy, with help from his 8-year-old sister, Lily, is a plastic gadget they named a loopteeloo that girls can use to cinch the bottom of their T-shirts.
There’s a patent pending on the loopteeloo, and Greyson, his mother and his uncle Nate have another pending for the reusable stickers on building bricks.
The traditional toy market they’re breaking into totaled $21.9 billion in U.S. sales in 2010, not including video games, according to the research firm NPD Group. Toy building sets accounted for $1.2 billion of that.
The MacLeans have formed a company called BrickStix LLC for the stickers.
Everyone involved has ownership and a business card with their official title: Greyson’s dad Matt is “legal guy.” His mom Amy is “idea maven and go-to gal.” Uncle Nate Vrabel, an art director at a Chicago publishing company, is “visual linguist and chief stix maker.” Aunt Christa Vrabel’s social networking skills earned her the title of “web spinner and social butterfly.”
Greyson is “dreamer and inventor.”
Research shows there’s a huge tie between creative and inventive thinking skills and the entrepreneurial mind-set, said Maryann Wolowiec, vice president of program development at Invent Now Inc., a Canton, Ohio, nonprofit group that promotes innovation and runs summer programs called Camp Invention.
Innovation drives as much as 50% of our economy’s growth, and it doesn’t spring from rote learning or the ability to take standardized tests, said Jack Samuelson, a science and engineering education consultant who is a lead instructor for Marquette University’s engineering outreach programs.
“The only way you can teach innovation is to present them with opportunities to innovate,” Samuelson said.
Greyson’s innovation, like so many others, grew out of his desire to solve a problem.
The Swallow School fifth-grader didn’t like using manufacturers’ stickers on his bricks because they wouldn’t come off, stymieing his rebuilding plans. So Greyson started making his own decals on paper and taping them to the bricks, but he dreamt of better solutions. He even thought of a name: BrickStix.
Greyson’s mom, Amy, stumbled on the solution when she bought a new pair of sunglasses. She peeled the cling decal off a lens and asked her son to go down to the playroom and get a Lego.
The two tried the cling decal on the Lego, then on other brands of bricks. Soon Amy MacLean was buying different materials and they were testing their Stix’s durability in the freezer and on Greyson’s goalie mask during hockey games.
“I don’t remember thinking, ‘We’re going to own a toy company,’ ” Amy MacLean said.
BrickStix LLC is a great example of how so-called bootstrapping ought to work, said Tim Keane, who runs Marquette’s Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship.
“You do a minimum amount on a product to gain acceptance, then let the market talk to you about what it wants,” Keane said.
The market so far seems to like what it sees.
BrickStix are well-packaged, have high-quality graphics and they allow kids to use their own creativity rather than relying on already-told stories with licensed characters, said Deb McCollister, brand and product communications manager for Early Learning Centre, U.S.
The MacLeans “won’t get rich overnight,” but should see a slow, steady buildup in sales, McCollister said.
“I think if you take the idea that bricks are in almost every house and you’re adding something that allows them even more creative play, the potential is limitless,” said Ann Kienzle, a toy industry consultant and owner of a Chicago toy store called Play. Kienzle helped the MacLeans arrange distribution and is a part owner of BrickStix.
BrickStix are manufactured in the Milwaukee suburbs and the MacLeans say they’ve got many more ideas for Stix designs and new formats and markets.
Their third and youngest child has an idea for something else as well. Annie, 6, didn’t want to share that idea with a reporter, but the way her brother sees things, it probably has great potential.
“Anyone can do anything if they set their mind to it – even a kid,” Greyson said.
Wisconsin retailers that sell BrickStix are Board Game Barrister, Bayshore Mall, Glendale; Learning Express, Brookfield Square, Brookfield; Playthings, Madison; and thinkTOYS, Mayfair Mall, Wauwatosa.