From Maker to Market.

The Maker movement seems to be all about weekend DIY projects, in the garage, with wires hanging out, and an Arduino stuck in for blog cred.  Maybe it shouldn’t always stop there.

Purple Squirrel Games is making a very simple product but doing it in an exceptional way.

Their first product is a mancala game board.  Mancala has been around for at least 1200 years so one wouldn’t think that it’s an area ripe for innovation but Purple Squirrel doesn’t agree.  And their innovation process isn’t focused only on the product.  In fact, it seems to have the following characteristics:

Innovation in design and build quality.

The board is solid walnut and the seeds are real river stones.  The pits and stores are CNC carved in a way to make picking up the seeds easy, avoid manufacturing ‘dwell marks’ and create a lovely appearance.  The board was play-tested to make sure the pit size is just large enough to hold the stones but not too large to waste material.  Everything from the raw materials to the packaging has been considered and improvements made wherever possible. The final product is beautiful to look at and feels like a solid piece of craftsmanship.

Innovation in the process.

Purple Squirrel used Maker Redux to build a virtual team around the project and control the manufacturing process. Like all Maker Redux projects the details are there for you to learn from.  (full disclosure:  I’m involved with Maker Redux and one of the associated companies)

Innovation around the edges.

Purple Squirrel isn’t done.  They’re also innovating around the marketing and distribution. I’ll post again about them soon.

So what are the results?

They sold two boards the first day it was listed on Amazon and sold out in a week.  Not bad for a product with over 500 competitors.


Here’s some of the lessons learned during this “simple” project.

  • A simple wooden gameboard isn’t simple…or just a game board.  This one is; board, finish oil, stones, bag for stones, instruction sheet, feet, box, and shrink wrap.
  • The stuff you can’t touch includes a UPC license, product liability insurance, and a sales-tax license for the distributors to see.
  • Fullfillment by Amazon fulfillment has different pricing for different size boxes.  Had the board been an inch larger, it would have cost $4.00 more to store in Amazon fulfillment.
  • Wood finishing is complicated.
  • River stones can scratch finished walnut if not polished enough.
  • CNC tools can create ‘dwell marks’ in the wood which must be sanded out.  This can significantly increase the manufacturing cost and time and require human involvement.
  • Sourcing things like the velveteen bag from China seems easy and cheap…unless it’s Chinese New year.
  • Chinese New Year lasts a month.
  • Nothing gets shipped during Chinese New Year.
  • Cardboard shipping boxes are a significant per-unit cost.  Don’t neglect them.
  • Cardboard shipping boxes might be opened by Amazon fulfillment by accident.  They should be shrink-wrapped to avoid this.
  • Shrink-wrapping adds cost.
  • Even a 1200 year old wooden game board needs product liability insurance.
  • Product liability insurance adds cost.
  • Glass beads are sold for filling vases.
  • Small polished stones are sold for aquariums.
  • There’s huge variability in the size of polished stones and glass beads.  6mm isn’t always 6mm.
  • Getting samples of stones adds cost
  • If you want a product to sell well, it needs good photography.
  • Good photography adds cost.
  • A game board without feet will slide around on the table.  This is annoying and can scratch the table.
  • People get annoyed about a scratched table.
  • Instruction sheets printed on your inkjet printer look like crap.
  • Professional printing adds cost.
  • No matter how many times you have an instruction sheet proof-read, there will be one typo found after it’s printed.
  • Product design is hard.
  • Good products sell.
  • You still have to market good products.


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