Hands-on meets high-tech at a startup that created a unique kids building kit. The next goal: big-time sales and chain stores.
Starting a business isn't easy. Especially when you're in a new country where everything — the language, terminology, measurements — isn't what you're used to.
“All is different,” says Andreas Boll. “To bring our first package to the post office took us a day, because we didn't know how it works. But the United States is the country where everything is possible.”
Boll and his wife, Marianne Boll, first came to Sarasota on sabbatical from their jobs as educators in their native Switzerland, where they founded and managed a small private international school. Like many others before them, they fell in love with the area and decided to move to Sarasota permanently.
After shaking up their personal lives, they wanted to try something different professionally as well. So the parents of two explored the world of 3-D printing. They combined this new passion with their education experience to form a company they call Ingocraft. The name encourages people to “Invent Good” with their own hands.
The centerpiece of the business is a kids' building kit that functions like traditional construction materials and can be assembled with or without the use of hand tools. The Bolls came up with the idea after their son got a plastic play tool set from his grandmother. “He immediately started to play with it and tried to screw something, tried to hammer,” says Andreas Boll. “But he couldn't do real stuff with it.”
Kids can use the Ingocraft kit to build everything from doll furniture to vehicles. To bridge the real world and the digital realm, there's also an Ingocraft app, available for iOS operating systems, where users can learn about 3-D modeling by constructing with virtual building pieces.
For those who want to take things further, the kit's components can be 3-D-printed at home. Users can expand the original kit or even experiment with creating their own parts. “The next skill our young people will need is how to deal with 3-D files,” says Andreas Boll. “We would love to teach kids how to do it in a fun way.”
To assess interest in the idea, the Bolls took it to crowdfunding site Kickstarter in November, with a goal of raising $15,000. In 22 days, they'd surpassed that mark, raising $16,899 from 229 backers.
“Kickstarter encouraged us to go forward,” says Marianne Boll. “We said if we reach this goal, we go ahead; if we don't reach it, then we stop the whole project.”
Since then, the couple has been working on bringing the Ingocraft kit to market. They've sold about 500 kits, at $57 each, through their website. And they recently signed a deal to sell kits on a popular gift site, thegrommet.com. The Grommet asked for an initial order of 500 kits, which have been hand-packed by the Bolls, ready for shipment.
Other than the Kickstarter funds, the Bolls have relied on their own money to create and run the business. (They declined to say how much they've invested to date.) They'd be interested in partnering with investors for help in marketing and getting into chain stores; Andreas Boll says his dream is to sell 20,000 sets a year.
While struggling with idioms and thinking in inches rather than centimeters hasn't been easy, the Bolls know they probably wouldn't have taken such a risk back in Europe. “When I was in Switzerland, if I had an idea like this all my colleagues and friends would say, 'Are you sure you want to do that? That's so complicated,'” says Marianne Boll. “And here everyone said, 'Oh, that's a cool idea. Just try to do it.' That was very encouraging.”