Interview: Will Sakran, Product Engineer / Inventor

When I moved to New York, I learned of a fun group of buddies calling themselves MetroMetro who, among other things, hosted Board Game Olympics, which clearly I attended often. This is how I met Will Sakran, who was among the organizers and who I also learned is also a thoughtful entrepreneur. I interviewed him about his new product Toobalink, a product manufactured through Metre Ideas and Design that connects together paper towel and toilet tissue tubes to build kid-sized structures. Here’s what I learned:

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Jen Bokoff: Toobalink’s so smart but so simple! What sparked this idea for you?

Will Sakran: I’m happy you feel that way about it, because we think that’s the real beauty of the idea.  It’s one of those ideas where people say, “I can’t believe no one thought of this earlier!” The initial concept came from a clever and talented industrial designer that I work with named Sara Ebert. As a student at Pratt, she took a class that focused on classic play and came up with the idea while observing children play with everyday objects around the house. It was around this time I left my job as an engineer in the toy industry to start my own product design company. I thought the concept was brilliant with lots of potential, so we teamed up with me handling the final design, productization, and manufacture.

JB: How did you settle on the final design and colors? Are you a Mets fan? 

WS: I do like the Mets, but that didn’t have any bearing on the color scheme. Sorry. [Editors note: As a Yankees fan, I’m relieved.] The very first prototypes were blue and orange and it felt right from the start. There’s definitely something about orange that feels “construction-y”. The final shade of blue is not quite at dark as what was originally planned, but it was always blue and orange together. As for the design itself, it’s quite different from where we started. The original concept used fixed parts that were more like pipe fittings – there was an elbow piece, a straight connector piece, a cross piece, and so on. I was concerned that this approach would limit what kids could actually build, and I didn’t want to manufacture ten different parts to make the product work, so I starting thinking about how to make it modular. In the end, there are five unique parts which can be put together in any combination to make the fittings that you need. Then you pop the paper tubes onto the fittings.

JB: What do you like to build with a Toobalink starter kit? Any favorite design or type of structure?

WS: Just putting the Toobalink pieces together is really fun, I think – seeing what combinations there are and what you can do with them. I also like the idea of building without a goal in mind, and I secretly hope that kids like this, too. You can absolutely make specific structures if you want to, but I like the abstract stuff. Just building.

JB: Toobalink tangibly feels to me like Tinkertoys, but recycling-friendly and more “DIY”.  How are you starting to market the product so it can reach the same scale?  

WS: Even though Toobalink is just hitting the market now, prototype versions have been shown at trade shows going back to January 2011. It’s been really well received, buyers are enthusiastic about it, and we got some great press. This gave the product a lot of early exposure and helped us build up a retailer base that was committed to stocking it once it became available. So it’s out there now in many specialty stores – gift shops, museum stores, that sort of thing. We’ll continue to do trade shows to reach more retailers, but now that Toobalink is out I’m turning my attention to reaching individual customers directly. This is mainly though online channels – the Toobalink.com site, Facebook, Twitter, and through really helpful people like you, Jen. [Editors Note: Awwwww!]

JB: If you had an afternoon to construct with Toobalink beyond your wildest dreams, what kids snack would best power you through? 

WS: Grilled cheese sandwiches and the occasional Hostess Ding Dong.

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A Toobalink starter package is available for purchase online now, so you should probably buy one. Or two. You can also find Will teaching at the Brooklyn Brainery, but that’s an interview for another day.

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