Imagine building a bow and arrow out of flexible toy bricks. Imagine using that same bow to shoot an arrow 15 metres.
Perhaps that is the best illustration of the way a small New Zealand company, Flexo, is preparing to propel itself further into a global toy bricks market.
But wait a minute. Toy bricks? Isn't that Lego's domain – a US$9.5 billion market of which they have 80 per cent?
While there is no doubt Lego is the proverbial 600kg gorilla in that space, Mark and James Stolten, a father-and-son company with six full time employees, have designed and built Flexo's toy brick system that takes things further: real, easy, flexible building systems that let the imagination leap further.
Like building a bow and arrow. Like one fan in the US who built a dress out of Flexo bricks which she wore to a convention; another fan built a ball and another constructed a huge, floppy 30cm x 30cm starfish which can be thrown like a frisbee.
Even more cleverly, Flexo are not trying to compete with Lego but have pitched their products to complement and integrate with them; Mark has been to Denmark, seen Lego's concept lab and, while he doesn't talk to them on a daily basis, has a healthy relationship with the giant.
Flexo have giant ambitions of their own – which is why the Stoltens entered the BNZ's SuperSizeSME to access experience and know-how to help them go "next-level".
Interested SMEs pitched their business challenges to an expert panel, including Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking, BNZ's Director of Partners Shelley Ruha and John Holt, founder and chairperson of Kiwi Landing Pad, which helps high growth New Zealand technology companies expand, particularly in the US.
The secret of Flexo's flexibility came in one of those "lightbulb moments" when Mark Stolten was sitting in a physiotherapist's office eight years ago, waiting for treatment on a tendon problem. In front of him, on the wall, was a schematic diagram detailing the muscle, bone and tendon systems of the human body.
"It was strange because I am not a biology person; much more a mechanical and engineering person," says Mark. "So I'd never really seen the human body without skin before and that was the lightbulb moment: the body is of such rigid construction but look at what people like gymnasts can do with it. That got me thinking about the tendons."
One thing led to another and Flexo's unique system was born, with flexible bricks connected by "tendons" which imitate the human body – allowing kids and others to enter a whole new kingdom of shapes and sizes. While other major toy brick makers sometimes need hundreds and even thousands of pieces to construct something complex, the Stoltens say it is amazing what can be achieved with their four basic brick shapes and tendons.
"That bow and arrow, after it was built, we decided to try firing the arrow," says James. "It went 15m and really blew our minds."
What also blew their minds was the enthusiasm shown by crowdfunding investors when they launched an initial Kickstarter campaign to gather $120,000 (they ended up with almost $300,000).
Earning funds is one thing; putting them to best use another. Harry Ferreira, BNZ's Head of Small Business, says small businesses than need a business plan and an execution plan; they need to build a network of advisors; understand their customers to a highly developed degree; to plan for growth and then secure additional funding to fuel that growth.
Flexo have been clever, he says, in the way they have taken advice and learned from others: "Mark and James are absolute sponges, soaking up information and learnings. They know they have a terrific product and they understand the market they are in.
"They know they will never win if they fight against Lego, for example, so they have been very smart in establishing a relationship there and also establishing that theirs is a complementary product – working alongside Lego and learning about its business."
Flexo is distributed across New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, the Middle East, US, Canada and Europe. They have been in business only for 18 months and are now putting together an investment memorandum as a result of meetings and workshops with BNZ – to raise capital to enable Flexo to scale up and accelerate into the next couple of years.
"New Zealand has a heap of talent who have proven themselves and taken a large slice of the global market in their areas of expertise," says Mark. "Entering SuperSizeSME has allowed us to gain access to some of the talent and to networking we could never achieve on our own."
Follow Flexo's SuperSize SME growth journey here.