On November 17, 2016 Brackitz Founder Chris Cochella was interviewed on Cool Science Radio about the STEM educational benefits of Brackitz building toys.
John Wells: Welcome back to Cool Science Radio. I’m John Wells. I’m here with Lynn Ware Peek. Our first guest this morning: Local resident Chris Cochella, who is the founder of Brackitz. Cochella founded the company when he saw a need to bridge the gap between traditional stacking blocks for young kids, say three years old – around there – and inter-connecting blocks, typical for much older kids, say maybe ten years old. So this is really quite a gap that he’s covering. Block play and spatial learning at early ages has been shown to be critical for future success in STEM subjects, particularly mathematics. Chris Cochella, welcome to Cool Science Radio.
Chris Cochella: Thank you, John. I’m happy to be here.
John Wells: We’re happy to have you here because, since we started taking a peek at your company and the products, and now we have them here in front of us. Lynn, we’re playing with these. This really could be a game changer.
Chris Cochella: Well, we like to think so. Bridging that educational gap between three years old, five years old and ten years old was a big missing component.
John Wells: What was the genesis for this company?
Chris Cochella: The genesis was I was working in hands-on Science in my kid’s elementary school, and I became aware of the scarcity of STEM teaching, and employees trained in STEM skills. I brought home an engineering toy for my son, who was five at the time, and he could see how it worked, and wanted to work with it, but the snap connections were too difficult. I thought “Hey, here’s an opportunity to bridge the gap,” like you said, between regular stacking blocks and inter-connecting toys, and bring that engineering play into earlier ages.
Lynn Ware Peek: Okay. So of course, when we think, Chris, about building toys, we all think of what we grew up with, Legos, and oh gosh, what were the log ones called?
Chris Cochella & John Wells: Lincoln Logs.
Lynn Ware Peek: Lincoln Logs. Thank you, thank you. It’s been a long time since I’ve been a kid. But I have seen, and I guess I have felt this in recent years, as I see Legos’ evolution, that it’s almost taking away the creativity component and the self-made engineered structures, and funneling kids more toward building things that are already designed for them. They just build them. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I’d like to hear your take on that, because I think Legos are what we most readily identify with when we think about building toys.
Chris Cochella: Correct, yeah. Legos and many toys have evolved to the point of building specific sets, with lengthy step-by-step instructions. Like you said, there’s nothing wrong with that. At the same time, what we’re leaving behind, in focusing only on that, is the creative side; the ability to imagine something and then go and build it. The problem-solving, the challenge, and the end result of self-esteem and satisfaction of creating something on your own, is lost.
Lynn Ware Peek: Right. Okay, so it’s Brackitz. I want to spell it for our listeners. B-R-A-C-K-I-T-Z. If you’d like to look it up, it’s just Brackitz.com, because, of course, this is all very visual and we’re radio, so that’s our limitation. But we’re not limited by our creativity. Maybe you could, because you’re probably better at explaining what it looks like, what it is and what it does, just tell our listeners.
Chris Cochella: Sure. Imagine a regular block, that we’re all familiar with. The wood blocks, when we were kids. Then imagine an open channel, where you can connect the block. What’s different about Brackitz and other toys is it’s not a snap. It’s not a difficult connection to make. You can insert the block into that channel, which is a friction sort of channel, at any point along the block – anywhere along the block, as well as just about any amount. That leaves open the whole perimeter of the block, and the users can adjust the blocks in any angle and shape that they want, which allows them to build in any direction that they want, and not be limited by specific in or out snap-to connections, or set distances.
Lynn Ware Peek: So you can have a really steep roof by doing an angle like this, and you can have a flat roof by doing an angle like that, that sort of thing.
Chris Cochella: Right.
John Wells: You can also cantilever complex structures off of a base structure that you might have. On your website, again, Brackitz.com, if you want to see what these pieces look like, there was a video. I believe it was at one of the Primrose schools, possibly in Chicago. Is that where it was?
Chris Cochella: I think it was in Denver. Primrose in Denver.
John Wells: In Denver, okay. You now have 300 of their schools that are using your products.
Chris Cochella: 300 schools, 1200 classrooms or so.
John Wells: In this particular video, there were a whole bunch of kids that were playing. Some of the kids were on their own, playing on their own with the products, but several of them were playing collaboratively with these other kids. You know, they’re sort of playing together, and they’re kind of designing this thing. They’re kind of nudging each other for “What can we do with this?” That was kind of cool to watch that, because the structures that they were building, and they appeared to be maybe five years old, six years old.
Chris Cochella: Five to six, yeah.
John Wells: These weren’t just base things. They were kind of rolling their own and trying some things. It was fascinating.
Chris Cochella: That was a wonderful surprise. I tested this product in schools and classrooms quite a bit, and because the pieces are big, and many toys today have gotten smaller and smaller. Our pieces are really big, but they’re also durable. So once your structure gets outside of your personal space, kids then become willing to share. To build together, to take their structure, let’s say an airport, and connect it to another kid’s structure, let’s say a zoo, and now you have a city going on. That collaborative nature still gives me goosebumps to talk about it, because all of a sudden, kids are sharing and designing and building, all on their own, and together. It’s a wonderful feeling, something all of us need to do more of.
John Wells: I was taking a look at this, Lynn, a couple of days ago. I was thinking back to a dinner that I had this summer, with a couple of guys from N.A.S.A. One of the guys was responsible for all of their satellites, and the other guy was responsible for the International Space Station. These two guys – I’d say they’re in their late 30’s – had so much enthusiasm, and it struck me that they were just like kids. I was wondering if we had pulled a couple of these boxes out and threw them on the table, because these guys were constantly sketching, constantly moving their hands, trying to describe different things with these satellites and things that were going on at the International Space Station. I thought, you know, they’d get a kick out of something like this.
Chris Cochella: Yeah. We’ve had lots of comments from retired Engineers that are now grandparents, to existing Engineers, that say this is a really fun thing to play with as an adult, as a parent or a grandparent. We’ve even done corporate sort of break-out, and leadership sessions with executives, to get out of their comfort zone, to build and create, and think about innovation.
Lynn Ware Peek: It’s really great.
John Wells: What are you building over there, Lynn?
Lynn Ware Peek: Can I stop asking questions, because I just want to build over here for a little while.
John Wells: Lynn wants to play.
Lynn Ware Peek: It’s really great. I wanted to ask you, Chris, about innovation, about kids, their access to technology, and the fact that they know how to, as little digital natives, they know how to design in a two-dimensional, I suppose you would call it, on the computer. They use design programs. They use drawing programs. I’m wondering if you’ve seen, because you have kids of that age, and because you’re in the mode of design here, how has it shaped their ability to go head-long into something that’s tactile? They’re so used to doing it on the computer.
Chris Cochella: This is a big topic, of course, with iPads and digital devices in our kids’ hands. My thought is that any time a kid is able to be creative, to solve problems, whether that’s involved in designing on a computer, or sitting down with paper and scissors and crayons and tape, you’re engaged in problem solving, doing something new. If it’s prescribed, whether that’s a physical toy very prescribed on the table, or a prescribed video game, now we’re talking about eliminating that creativity. Of course, computers and games are very much prescribed, so there tends to be more of that on devices, and it captivates kids and we, as parents, say “Hey, they’re quiet. Great. It works for me.” Creating is maybe not as quiet or not as clean, because you leave scraps of paper and pieces of tape. That, I believe, is a missing component in our kids’ lives.
Lynn Ware Peek: Very interesting. You know, we do encourage them to go outside and be physical, and do lots of sports. But again, you’re trying to bridge this gap and fill this void. We don’t often, past the time that they’re six or seven years old, ask them to pick up this, say “Go play with your Brackitz.” Now we can.
Chris Cochella: Yes, absolutely. And you could do it with your kids. They’re big enough, and the satisfaction is really wonderful when you build something big on the coffee table, and it’s bigger than your kid, and the whole family is engaged in building a new tower, or we invented a space station, and we built it together. That’s a great feeling.
John Wells: How many times have you been to the toy show in New York City?
Chris Cochella: I have been four times. The Toy Fair in New York.
John Wells: So the first time you went to the Toy Fair, you were probably under the radar. You were out there just scoping it out, and introducing your product and everything. Now, up to four times. Are you on peoples’ radar? Have people, companies, figured out a way to get around the patents that you hold? Do you have competitors that are looking at this in different ways?
Chris Cochella: Every year we go, and every show we go to, we’re less and less under the radar. We’re more visible, and people begin to see the vision of what the product offers, and our new products that are coming out. That draws attention to people seeing your success. They want to maybe take your success, or be part of your success, which on the one hand, is a wonderful compliment, because they see the value in it. The customers have seen the value in it. The toy Buyers have seen the value in it. So I’ll take that as a compliment. At the same time, we do have patents and we do enforce them strongly. Those that are going to cross that boundary, they will hear from us.
John Wells: Right. Exactly. Have you seen any competitors yet?
Chris Cochella: There have been a few. I’m not really worried about it, because their product is not as open and flexible, and I don’t think the quality is as high.
John Wells: What are some of the fundamental challenges that you have right now, in getting your product in peoples’ hands?
Chris Cochella: I think the message of open-ended play, and not prescribed play. It’s a harder message to convey, that you’re going to get your child a toy that allows them to explore things that we can’t put on the package. But that is the glory of their imagination and their own innovation. That’s one part of it. Then I would say international distribution is a big factor for us, and coming up with new products. We’re doing that all the time. It’s a challenge to come up with quality products, you know, year after year.
Lynn Ware Peek: It seems as though the last building products that I purchased for my kids (who are now in college and, I might add, would love to do this. They’re coming home, so I think I need to get one of these sets for Thanksgiving.), is inter-locking with magnets. I can’t think of what they’re called now. I’m sure you know about every product that’s out there. Why did you decide to go with the particular way of inter-locking that you do, which is just kind of fitting, right?
Chris Cochella: Correct. We looked into magnets at one point early on in our story. First of all, they’re quite expensive. Second of all, again, they prescribe the connection. You can only connect where there are two magnets. Imagine two squares, a magnet in each corner of the square. You can connect them at their corners, but that’s where it stops.
Lynn Ware Peek: Right.
Chris Cochella: A Brackitz block, as a rectangle, can connect anywhere along the rectangle, and I can adjust it as I go. The ability to form my creation to my imagination is wildly more open-ended and creative than any snap-to connection.
Lynn Ware Peek: Yeah, okay, this is making sense, especially as I’m building my whatever-it-is here. Your building can evolve. Your structure, your design, can evolve as you go along, which really makes your creativity explode. You know,” I don’t like the walls that are actually this high. I think it would look better if I lowered the walls a bit.” All you have to do is slide the joint along the rectangle.
Chris Cochella: Correct. You can manipulate it. The Lincoln Logs you mentioned earlier, they lock together at a certain joint. Tinker Toys also are a fixed sort of connection. Brackitz are not that at all.
John Wells: I can’t tell you why, but I never lined up with Lincoln Logs for some reason.
Lynn Ware Peek: Well, it was very limited, what you could do. You couldn’t make a parallelogram-shaped building.
John Wells: Exactly. So you have an angel investor. What’s the end play? Would you like to continue to be private? Would you like to be acquired? Would you like to go public?
Chris Cochella: Oh gosh. It’s really hard to forecast that far out. Right now, we’re very much focused on continuing to build our line in the STEM area, Engineering, Physics, basic Mechanics, and fun, imaginative play. I could keep doing that for a very long time, so it’s hard for me to see how that road stops.
John Wells: Yeah, because the Amazon relationship is going to get your product out in front of a lot of different people, and I’m sure people go to Amazon just to see what’s hot. You can look at trends that way.
Chris Cochella: Sure, and Amazon has done very well for us, as have Barnes and Noble and Target.
John Wells: What has most surprised you in your business, since you’ve started this?
Chris Cochella: I think any small business owner would say just the challenges of being a small business. You have this idea, and it’s a great idea and things look grand, and day-to-day business is difficult. But I have to tell you that it is a thrill, and it is so fun to be creating a valuable product, and to work with kids, and to see the shine on their face after they’ve built something they’re proud of.
Lynn Ware Peek: Have you been surprised, for example, these hundreds of schools that Brackitz are now in? I think it’s interesting to see educators and how they can build an entire unit, or entire learning model, around a product. We see it a lot. Has that been something that you’ve been surprised about in STEM education, how they take your product, and then build a whole lesson plan around it?
Chris Cochella: I’m not really surprised. I designed the product for that purpose. It came out of a classroom setting. I intentionally designed the product to have big pieces, to be able to fit in a setting where multiple kids could play at the same time, build big stable structures in a messy environment. A classroom is kind of a messy environment. Most toys don’t work in that area, while also keeping it fun for play at home. The colors are gender-neutral. It’s imaginative, fun play. I started out with that as an intent. We actually have our own curriculum, and other schools and other groups have integrated us into Robotics curriculums, as the fundamental steps, as well as the Primrose curriculum. So I’m thrilled, and I’m surprised with the success, but not surprised that they’re doing it. That was our intent.
Lynn Ware Peek: Talk about the local production. I understand it’s all Utah. It’s made here, your employees are here. Why did you decide to go with that model? Was it particular, or it just happened to be easier than to get these built or produced in China, for example?
Chris Cochella: Well, there are some advantages to staying close. Those are the ability to deliver in smaller quantities when you’re starting out, and solve problems quickly and rapidly, which is very much an innovative kind of process. You can’t go too far without re-circling back and solving those problems. Utah is very much a business-friendly state. It’s good to distribute from here. There are a lot of folks that do injection molding and that kind of work.
Lynn Ware Peek: Oh! Is that right? Is there a carryover into, for example, our recreation industry, with injection molding for ski boots and things like that? Why do people do that here?
Chris Cochella: I’m not really sure. I don’t have a good sense of that, but there are a lot of outdoor products. Medical devices are also pretty common in Utah. There are a number of good injection molders and toolmakers, to make the tools that produce the parts.
John Wells: You know, there are big trash cans and there are ski boots, and all this big stuff, right? But small pieces, there’s a tremendous market for that, and injection molding companies need to be very precise, and really need to work with the right tool and die makers, and those sorts of things. I was actually in that business for a while, and it’s fascinating.
Chris Cochella: It is fascinating. It’s fun to see a tool come into place and see your parts pop out.
John Wells: We’re here with Chris Cochella, who is the founder of Brackitz. Again, this is a fascinating company, bridging the gap between traditional stacking blocks for young kids, and inter-connecting blocks. Go to Brackitz.com to take a peek at what these products are. Lynn and I are having fun playing with them. We want to thank you so much for being with us this morning. Lynn, did you have another question?
Lynn Ware Peek: I do. I’m blanking, I don’t know why. I’ve been in there a million times, but the toy store at Kimball Junction, can I find these there?
Chris Cochella: Yeah. JW Allen and Mega-Genius Supply.
Lynn Ware Peek: Oh, and Mega-Genius as well.
Chris Cochella: Yes. Here in the valley, the Leonardo Museum.
Lynn Ware Peek: Right here. Mega-Genius on Swede Aly, across from KPCW.
John Wells: Chris, thank you for being with us. We wish you the best of luck. We hope you’ll come back and update us in maybe a year or so.
Chris Cochella: John and Lynn, it’s been my pleasure, and I would love to do that.