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.

Pay attention. This is going to be big.

There’s a pretty great new website called www.wethelobby.com. You should probably share it with all of your friends, because it’s a model that might actually make a decent dent in advancing important arguments for and against proposed legislation. It gives a productive megaphone to the 99% who can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars to have their own lobbyist on the hill, because let’s be honest, access to our government officials by individuals isn’t as simple as it should be. And, lobbyists are the chief educators outside of each officials staff, so their voices (mostly) have credence. They know how to talk so legislators will listen, and can finesse an argument in a way that an unexperienced advocate might not have the knowhow to do.

So how does it work that you get represented by a legit lobbyist in Washington about an issue that you care about by only contributing whatever amount you can? The model is powered by crowdsourced funding of causes nominated by fellow contributors. Similar to the Kickstarter model, a fundraising goal is set, people contribute any amount towards whatever cause(s) they want, they only pay their pledge if the fundraising goal is reached, and those causes that complete their fundraising goals move forward to lobby. While Kickstarter’s projects are almost all a physical product, We The Lobby’s product is to make sure a strong lobby on ill-represented issues is supported. Simple. Smart. Hopefully successful.

I love this type of pragmatic social entrepreneurship, and look forward to watching it take off!

Louis CK’s business savvy pays off

In just 4 days, Louis CK‘s new exclusive has been downloaded +110,000 times and has made (net) what many people wish they could make in a year. On top of that, it’s really, really funny. In part of a statement that he released today, the (brilliant) comedian describes his marketing attempt:

The experiment was: if I put out a brand new standup special at a drastically low price ($5) and make it as easy as possible to buy, download and enjoy, free of any restrictions, will everyone just go and steal it? Will they pay for it? And how much money can be made by an individual in this manner?

and its progress:

The show went on sale at noon on Saturday, December 10th. 12 hours later, we had over 50,000 purchases and had earned $250,000, breaking even on the cost of production and website. As of Today, we’ve sold over 110,000 copies for a total of over $500,000. Minus some money for PayPal charges etc, I have a profit around $200,000 (after taxes $75.58). This is less than I would have been paid by a large company to simply perform the show and let them sell it to you, but they would have charged you about $20 for the video. They would have given you an encrypted and regionally restricted video of limited value, and they would have owned your private information for their own use. They would have withheld international availability indefinitely. This way, you only paid $5, you can use the video any way you want, and you can watch it in Dublin, whatever the city is in Belgium, or Dubai. I got paid nice, and I still own the video (as do you). You never have to join anything, and you never have to hear from us again.

and what he’s learned (which we should all take to heart):

I learned that money can be a lot of things. It can be something that is hoarded, fought over, protected, stolen and withheld. Or it can be like an energy, fueled by the desire, will, creative interest, need to laugh, of large groups of people. And it can be shuffled and pushed around and pooled together to fuel a common interest, jokes about garbage, penises and parenthood.

Being a comedian certainly isn’t the easiest way to make a dime, even if you’re great, but it’s not to say it can’t be done. By knowing his audience, using available tools, seeking advice, taking a risk, investing time into the past and future, and having a little thing called talent, Louis CK is a great example of a fiscally successful funny man. I tip my hat and encourage you to buy this special today if you haven’t already. And if you haven’t already, don’t tell anyone because they might forever judge you.

Millennials with Gumption

I recently had the pleasure of attending two sessions at the Mobilize.org Millennial Summit with ~100 other Millennials with do-gooder visions and pragmatic solutions. Some, like Daniel, Mike, and Lana, already are making a huge dent in leading our generation to make giving a habit with substantial impact, and others like Marc, who have done some neat stuff, are continuing to become scholars in service and leadership. Some, like Allison, Jose, Chris, and Cliff, have great twitter feeds for their passions that I now follow and learn from. Still others, like the Team Rubicon guys, fell into their disaster relief model and ran with it; bringing it to admirable scale in just under 3 years.

The first session that I attended featured four 20-somethings who all started a social enterprise or nonprofit talking about aspects of the experience. Team Rubicon, for instance, discussed integrity: what it means, some difficult situations they had experienced, and how to make sure that integrity is part of the business plan. Sarah, the cofounder of Knowledge as Power, spoke about everything that can go wrong and make you want to quit, but how to stick to a vision while pragmatically refining goals as necessary and tapping into all available resources. Each speaker was introduced by a member of the Mobilize.org team, and it really highlighted the deep relationship that they have with each participant that goes far beyond the grant that a team might receive.

There was a 25 minute break before the next session, so I went to Starbucks with several participants. I spoke with some about their involvement with mobilize.org, and they couldn’t say enough good things about the summits, both in terms of connections made and advice received. They keep coming back because” it would be a loss not to”.  Business cards were flying, questions about “why do you do it?” were being sincerely posed across lines of geography and program area, and plans to connect after the summit were inked onto calendars.

The next session was a more intimate (~16 people) breakout to discuss social enterprise in the future. There was a lot of diversity of opinions and experience in the room, and it showed as folks discussed everything from the merits and pitfalls of Apple’s successful business model (which brushes off charity and perhaps too environmentally friendly production of materials) to how to best structure an innovative idea in a way that makes the risk marketable to funders. During the loose panel / conversation, people were also referencing early conference speakers very specifically, which to me showed a very comprehensive agenda that was resonant with participants. Not only was it a good conversation, but people certainly left with a refined thought process on solutions to social problems and their role(s) in doing so. They broadened their understanding of social entrepreneurship as each of an idea, a model, and a goal by integrating others’ thoughts and experiences. I enjoyed speaking with the StartingBloc, Nexus: Global Youth Summit, and One Percept Foundation folks after this about their role in the sector, and found a surprising level of awareness that they’re doing something big coupled with confidence to keep learning and improving.

I was in the middle of writing this blog post – still without the right word to describe the individuals in attendance – when I shamelessly watched The Holiday and Eli Wallach’s character explained gumption best: In the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. Leading ladies [or gentlemen!] have gumption. Everyone at this conference has gumption and will undoubtably create something positive and innovative to impact the world.

Better than Paint by Number: Paint by Beard!

It’s true. Great art with even better motivation. Graham Clark, who’s a super funny and cool guy living the dream in Vancouver, started churning out these ridiculously talented paintings using his newly-grown out beard as his paintbrush, and is selling the works to raise money for his buddy Ryan. Ryan, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, needs funds for a wheelchair, and even Canada’s awesome health care system has limits. I fully support Graham’s crusade to be a rockin’ BFF and make up for deficiencies of the system.

So far, the paintings are selling! I think they’re really neat and am considering getting one. See:

That’s a pretty cool interpretation of Norman Rockwell if you ask me! Read more about it or put in your bid for the original, signed piece here. And at the very least, tell your friends! This is art, philanthropy, and friendship in a nutshell, folks!

Check out the trailer for a new film by Mary Mazzio called The Apple Pushers. It’s an absolutely phenomenal exploration of the intersection of immigrant entrepreneurship, obesity, and access to fresh fruits and vegetables through compelling characters and thoughtful storytelling.

You can like it on Facebook,  too, and check back here for the website that’s launching next week. Please share with whoever you think might be interested! The film will be available for general viewing this fall, but there may be opportunities for advance screenings after the premiere in Aspen this month.

This guy looks happy studying abroad! You can too! Primarily catered to college students, but also to high school and post-grad kids-at-heart, Abroad 101 is the new leader in figuring out where to go, how to best do it, and what you need to know (nothing more, nothing less). It’s peer written, so information is relevant and recent, but university approved, so they buy it too. Just like Kix. Everyone knows someone who can use this service, so pass it along!

Muses

My friend started a company called Audrey and Emma. I really like how she came up with the name, which also carries a story and philosophy that I think defines the brand.

About Audrey & Emma: The Women

Audrey Hepburn is one of two muses behind our namesake. Many know Ms. Hepburn for being the picture of grace and style – singlehandedly making the Louis Vuitton Speedy famous in 1965. But fewer may know of her remarkable humanitarian efforts. Ms. Hepburn dedicated many years of her life helping children in need. She served as a UNICEF ambassador raising international awareness for children dealing with hardships. Please visit the Children’s Fund created in her honor.

Emma Coccia is the other muse in this story. Unlike Ms. Hepburn, she was known by very few. She had never starred in a movie. Never married. Never owned a luxury handbag or travelled the world. But, much like Ms. Hepburn, she was a warm and compassionate woman. A woman of grace and style. And an iconic figure to the founder of this company, her great-niece.

 I would love to be an inspired entrepreneur one day, and what’s awesome is to see this inspiration coming from anywhere or anyone. So, eyes and ears are always open.