Life’s Game of Learning from Failure – The Paul Schuytema Experience

Today’s class blogger is Marissa A. Abston.

Below, Marissa tells the captivating tale of Paul Schuytema and his more often than not chaotic up-and-down experience in the video gaming industry. This wild ride began with Paul first working for a number of different companies and culminated with him—reluctantly—at the helm of his own entrepreneurial venture; Magic Lantern Playware Incorporated (a now defunct but once highly successful video game development firm based right here in Monmouth, IL).

The class learned several valuable lessons Tuesday. One was something we had not heard before in such detail; the importance of learning from failure. Most specifically: In fast-paced, dynamic high tech industries, failure can occur when even successful firms do not see major change coming soon enough to adapt.

This leads to another important lesson learned: the need to continually scan the market environment looking for changes which may represent opportunities (to take advantage of) or threats (to guard against). With both, adaptation is necessary.

In the case of Magic Lantern, as you will read more about below, a threat was not taken seriously enough and adaptation was too little and too late to save the firm.

Enjoy!… And thank you Paul Schuytema!!

Prof. Gabel


Paul Schuytema spoke about his experiences that led him through his first entrepreneurial adventure during his visit to Midwest Entrepreneurs on Tuesday. He never set out to become an entrepreneur, it found him.

Growing up in the 1970s entertainment was dominated by board games. His family was fond of bonding through playing them. At the same time the evolution of computer technology was occurring. As a child Paul grew interested in the concept of rule sets as he played more board games, to him it made playing more interesting. “Cosmic Impounder” was one of his favorite games along with “Boot Hill,” “Panzer Blitz,” “Squad Leader,” and “Airfix.” Eventually he got into table top board games and from there acquired a special interest in “ancients” which were Greek and Roman figurine themed games.

In the 4th grade he made his own games with rule sets which was the first step towards turning his explorative gears. During that period technology was becoming more accessible to the public, and was capturing the interests of his age group. The king of tech gaming was originally the PC.

Unfortunately Paul’s father passed away when he was 13 years old, and his mom saw his interest in technology so she bought a computer to distract him and give her some mobility since she had more to take care of. His mom provided him the super tech at the time which was an hp41c computer that looked like a scientific calculator around 1975 or 1976. It was the first computer targeted to the homes of the general public. That kicked off his interest in coding as he tinkered with the HP41C trying to program games the moment he had it. Shortly after the HP41C came the Atari 800. That revolutionized not only the tech of the era, but propelled Paul’s interest in coding further. He went into detail about Atari being the first to come up with the scrollable map for the digital world. He was fascinated and excited to see the new innovation with 250+ colors and more than 1K of bytes to examine. To further his knowledge about programming Paul acquired the book by Chris Crawford: “How to Program the Atari.” One day Paul wrote him and wound up being mentored by Crawford through exchanging messages. Crawford was teaching him the secret keys to the kingdom of coding.

When he applied for Knox College his intent was to major in game programming, but since they didn’t offer it as a major he chose to forego formal education in programming and take up writing. Even though he didn’t get to go down the path he envisioned he went to graduate school. There was a chapter in his life that he worked in Monmouth before catching his first break in the field that he desired to pursue.

The first gig he attained out of college was working on the game “Mind Drive” by Atari during the time shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The “Mind Flight” system was used to operate the “Mind Drive” game by channeling human thought. An entire fleet of games was proposed to be directed by the axis of the left side and right side of the mind to complete certain functions. Paul’s experience with this project taught him that just because it is a good idea, it may not be doable; either with the current technology or it just might not take the interest of audiences.

That company went under fast and he had to adjust so he applied for the game designer position at FASA Interactive in Chicago for the epic game “Mechwarrior3”, which had a new impact on the gaming industry. He genuinely enjoyed working on this project with the FASA Interactive group. Paul was in his first marriage and also had his 1st child at the time of these developments. He was also getting paid twice as much than he had made at his previous job in Monmouth. At this point in time he still hadn’t wanted to build his own company.

Later on Paul got offered a job by 3D Realms in Texas to be the designer of the game ‘Prey’ as he was finishing up his work with the “Mechwarrior3” project. To him this was the most awesome game he ever had developed to date. 3D Realms required him to develop a game with the title being “Prey”, starring a Native American, whose last name would be “Brave”, and it had to be the most violent game ever. This game design caused him to stretch his mental parameters further than he’d ever experienced. It thrilled him to test how far he could go with it. The fruits of his team’s work was great because this game elevated the scene of digital programing dynamically with reflective surfaces and full color radiosity lighting features which transcended the then top notch graphic designs. His team designed the game backwards by writing a novel of the game first and then wrote the game to mirror the story. The audiences for 3D Realms were 18-35 year old men. He moved to Texas with his 1st wife for the duration of his job with 3D Realms. Paul was dedicated to the improvement and continual exploration of the possibilities for software development of “Prey” setting up opportunities for new levels. 3D Realms paid low salaries with potentially huge bonuses, so the only reason to stay on was out of a passion for developing the games and hoping that they do well enough to get hefty royalties from.

Awkwardly, 3D Realms had 2 games competing with each other; targeting the exact same audience, and using the exact same tech within the company. One game was led by the company president and the other one was ran by Paul which put him in a tight situation. Through this experience he learned how not to run a company which would serve him later. Paul went into work one day and right before sending off the “Prey” game to Japan for a test the President told him the game had been killed effective immediately – no warning. He was forced into making a decision between losing his stocks but stay in the company or taking the next game offer and walking away from the company. Paul decided to leave the company responsible for the Duke Nukem franchise. This was the moment when Paul Schuytema decided to create his own company.

Thankfully Paul’s wife wouldn’t allow him to sell their house here in Monmouth, IL because they returned after the “Prey” project concluded.  He came back to Monmouth in 1999 with no real internet present yet, just dial up to work with. “Magic Lantern Playware Incorporated” is the business which Paul created without any money and rented office space.

The first venture he made was writing up to a dozen strategy guide books for playing through popular games in order to make money. Paul emphasized to us that not everything you try works! Sometimes it’s just going to suck.

The first game he made was “Second Genesis”, his first failure. It was a PC game covering the common plot of crashing on an alien planet and finding a way to repair your ship using the planet’s resources. He moved on to teach us that publishers want to make contracts with designers that are making something that’ll catch the market audience’s attention. If it wasn’t a big franchise like Star Wars, they weren’t taking it.

The second game was “Gene-Fusion AD 2310”, which was also a failure. So he sold the rights to a German company and moved on to the next project. Another token Paul gave was that you should constantly try to overlap contracts so that you are left hanging after you finish one. Have them lined up back to back in a capacity which you can handle.

The third game: “Forts- A Magic Lantern Game” was also a failure. Failures prepare you to get better at what you do. Paul met Ed Fries – head [at the time] of all games in Microsoft – and managed to present his Forts to him at a tradeshow. Fries disrespectfully dismissed Paul’s game out of confusion.

After that horrible experience he was able to do pitch documenting to Red Storm Entertainment who’s responsible for the Rainbow Six franchise. When Paul acquired the okay to present an idea to them, he made a demo to try to captivate their interests to invest in him to work on or even create their next project. He had to create the technology from scratch, designing new facets to the graphics. Once he presented it to them they sent a team to Monmouth to check out the validity of Paul’s ‘company’. So Paul went through some extravagant means to make his company seem that it was more than it really was so that Red Storm Entertainment would hire him so that he could have his breakthrough. They arrived, believed the ruse, 8 months later called him, told him yes, and gave him the big advance check to do the project.

“Rainbow Six Covert Ops Essential Game” was his first success under Magic Lantern Playware. As he developed this game, Magic Lantern Playware wrote the largest, most comprehensive existing encyclopedia on counter-terrorism to date. It was so accurate that an interviewee they’d taken a detailed account from to include in the encyclopedia predicted 9/11 exactly as it would happen. Because of its detail their show tech engine was used to provide tactical police training programs.

Paul’s second great success was a game called “Combat.” For it, he got $40,000 for the Rainbow Six Game with biannual development report before receiving the next payment.

Success 3 was the “Survivor” game from Infrogrames, which rose to be his favorite game. At this time Paul had a formal office location in Monmouth, IL; but even with that they couldn’t get everything they were tasked with done. They had 8 weeks of work to complete within 5 days’ time due to their lack or resources and helping hands. They [Paul & his business partner] slept when they could which was rare but it was worth it because they attained huge royalties awhile after the game was put out and selling well. However it turned out to be a terrible game.

The final success Paul had was “Survivor Ultimate” which had been signed prior to the release of the first “Survivor” results came back. During this design they essentially faked the entire game just to put out a product because the target audience they had was actually totally different.

Through all of these experiences, Paul was a self-taught game programmer that explored due to a passion and learned due to genuine intrigue of how far the limits could be pushed.

Then, at the worst time conceivable, an unthinkable event occurred: all the company’s stuff got stolen in one night by a crazy man who lied with an agenda about his computer skills in order to get hired. Then the person fulfilling CFO duties stole off one day, getting Magic Lantern Playware in trouble with the IRS for having $50,000+ in payroll debt. Paul said that the lesson in this is “everyone hires at least one crazy person, eventually.”

After that catastrophe, Paul did several other games: “Foosball”, “Mahjong”, “Front Runner”, and “Video Game Tycoon” that had their ups and downs of successes. Even with the incoming businesses here and there he couldn’t enjoy the moment to the fullest because the publisher ran out of money due to poor management. This publisher told Paul that they had to kill the game and in actuality they stole his design for “prison tycoon”, went bankrupt and now he will get his money back from them.

The last three games he made were “Health and Fitness Club Tycoon”, “Texas Hold ‘Em”, and “Mahjongg Tiles of Time’.

Paul’s entrepreneurial journey in the video gaming industry came to an abrupt end in 2005. It was also the year that the industry began to vastly change because of the newer game consoles like Xbox. Paul reminisced about the website “I love bees,” which was a set up for the public because it creatively gave out coordinates of latitude and longitude that lead to real life phone booth locations with dates to go to them and that phone would ring at the given time which was how the game “Halo” was introduced to the public. He said he won’t ever forget that because this was the same weekend that “Spiderman 2” the movie dropped the weekend preceding that Tuesday that Halo was released and phenomenally broke records making a new standard in the gaming universe.

Huge blockbusters on consoles were the new wave setting the industry anew. Programming teams went from 5-10 people to 150-200 people swiftly. Quarter million dollar advances per game went down to $10,000 advances. Certified developers were the only group that made games on that platform of Xbox and PlayStation.

He then shifted into telling us a few details about his business. The main team that Paul worked with consisted of approximately 10-11 people in his company over time. They didn’t always make payroll on time however they only missed paying it once throughout the years. His mom bailed him out many times when he couldn’t make payroll so he never took loans from a bank. Paul didn’t really have the option to take out loans, because they couldn’t get a bank to be interested at the time in Monmouth or in the Midwestern areas because they had no concept of digital assets. Their mode of income mostly relied on living on advances, not royalties because of the gaming market’s structure. To be more cost efficient they outsourced the art aspect of their games and focused on the main designs. He mentioned that he had a partner running Magic Lantern Playware. This person was supposed to be the one in charge of furthering the company. However they weren’t the best organized person, and it showed in their sloppy conduct of business.

As far as a competitive shift, Paul didn’t see the console as a threat to his company because he didn’t think that Microsoft could achieve success with it. They thought it was the “Microsoft apocalypse,” not the beginning of the “PC & Atari apocalypse.”

In the end of his business during 2005 Paul was just broke. No debt, no profit. Fortunately he didn’t have to declare bankruptcy despite how often he got gipped in business deals. Prior to ending this journey he had bought a building in Monmouth with his own money envisioning that Magic Lantern Playware would be able to expand and move their offices in making it a tech center sometime in the near future. In a sense, it was a smart move not purchasing the building using company money because that allowed him to close it down without being in debt. But in reality Paul still owes money to pay for it.

To close out, Paul told us that even though he failed in this venture as an entrepreneur, his journey as an entrepreneur hasn’t ended yet. While he is currently the Director of Economic Development for the City of Monmouth, IL., he also does web development work for his wife Susan’s entrepreneurial business Market Alley Wines.

Paul’s story is one of perseverance which hopefully will carry him further with his gained experience as he works on his next entrepreneurial adventure.

Marissa A. Abston

Randy Vickroy ‘76: Intrepreneur Turned Entrepreneur, Helping Utilities Reach Their Full Potential

Our most recent guest speaker in the Midwest Entrepreneurs class was the most explicit and detailed example of some taking advantage of an outsourcing-based entrepreneurial opportunity that I have seen in nearly four years of teaching the class.

Randy Vickroy, a 1976 graduate of Monmouth College, came and shared his amazing story of developing unique expertise within large corporations which was eventually leveraged into consulting entrepreneurial success.

Randy is currently Executive Financial Consultant for Liberty Consulting Group of Pennsylvania, and is based in Denver, CO.  More about his firm can be found at: Key to his entrepreneurial success via outsourcing has been to do things utility firms could do themselves not only cheaper, but also more efficiently and otherwise better.

I turn things over to class member Cary Wicker for more details on Randy Vickroy and his ongoing outsourcing-based entrepreneurial success story.

Prof. Gabel


This past Tuesday we had the pleasure of having Randy Vickroy present to our class his career working within the Utilities industry and discussing how he developed entrepreneurial opportunities before turning to management consulting in the industry with Liberty Consulting. This was an especially unique presentation because Randy is  a graduate of both Monmouth College and Monmouth High School that was raised locally. In addition, his family has run a local business—Vickroy’s Furniture (—for over 60 years.

Mr. Vickroy began by going over how he started his path towards getting into the business of financial analysis, corporate finance, asset valuation, financial planning and management consulting. He decided shortly after graduating from Monmouth College to pursue an MBA from the University of Denver and specialized in finance. This in turn made him a very attractive and competitive job candidate and after a conversation with one of his professors at the University of Denver he was able to land a job within three days through his network.

His first position when hired by a gas and electric utility company was financial analyst which tasked him with finding ways to raise money to build power plants and transmission lines. He was able to do this by issuing stocks and bonds, leveraging assets and finding ways to saving the company money through the funding of these projects. This is where the gears started turning for Randy once he was promoted after a few years to a managing director.

As managing director he had a team that helped him develop and manage innovative alternative financing methods to fund infrastructure projects for the company. This is where Randy had the idea to refinance several groups of assets through captive finance subsidiaries, and to eventually retire the traditional utility mortgage. This saved the company in excess of $20 million annually and, as you might guess, attracted the attention of senior management.

Continuing in this line of thought he found more ways to save the company money and tried to show ways that he could provide his expertise to assist in forming these financial instruments for the industry as a whole through his contacts at Merrill Lynch and Lehman Bros. Alas, these banks turned down the offer because they were receiving enough commission selling mortgages. Randy saw an opportunity at this point to pursue consulting on the same re-financing opportunities with other companies, a market of about $70 billion, and founded his own consulting company.

When only 35 years of age, Randy folded his consulting into the Liberty Consulting Group, and helped Liberty to develop a consulting business with high-profile utility clients that thrives to this day. Randy works with a team of other utilities experts to provide consulting services to some of the largest utility companies and their regulators in the US.

Randy has helped Liberty build a very successful practice. This would not have been possible if he had not first been so highly motivated to develop his specific expertise and parlay it into an entrepreneurial consulting opportunity. Helping these enormous utility companies has been a wonderful achievement in assisting them to better finance and efficiently use resources to continue to help build American infrastructure and develop American energy to be the competitive industry that it is today.

Cary Wicker

Alicia Pence ‘11: Defining Heroic Entrepreneurship

Our first guest speaker the last Thursday before just-ended spring break was Alicia Pence; a December 2010—but officially a 2011—graduate of Monmouth College with a Major in Psychology. She is founder and director of the Family Outreach Community Center in nearby Stronghurst, IL. See her company’s webpage at:

I have said elsewhere of Alicia’s visit that I have come to feel that she is the most inspirational speaker that we have had to date (over the course of my three and a half years of teaching the class). And while all of our speakers are in some way inspirational, Alicia inspires in a very special and different way. She exemplifies, above all else, that the reward for an entrepreneur need not have anything to do with profits or selling anything other than love and hope.

Class member Tooba Ahmed echoes these sentiments—and more—below.

But first a note of clarification… In her telling of the heroic entrepreneurial story of Alicia Pence, Tooba refers to “scaling challenges.” The terminology may not be familiar to many. It comes from a “Global Perspectives” class Tooba took last semester on the topic of economic development and its relationship to human development in which social entrepreneurship is a key topic addressed. In short: (1) social entrepreneurs are persons running organizations focused on non-profit, social goals (e.g., alleviation of poverty and food insecurity), and (2) “scaling challenges” are challenges commonly faced by social entrepreneurs as they try to “scale up” their achievements from—say—one village or city to entire nations or regions of the world. Many may not think of this type of business activity as being needed in the United States. It is needed and, unfortunately, there is need for far more of it.

Enjoy (and be inspired)!

Prof. Gabel


What is a hero?

Someone may answer Superman, because he rescues people and saves the day, or maybe an idol that a child looks up to and thinks he or she may one day be.

Sometimes we think of peaceful leaders like Martin Luther King Jr, the Dalai Lama, or Gandhi but we usually stop short and don’t look around us. There are some people nearby that sacrifice their time and spend their lives focused on others rather than themselves and these people are nothing less than heroes.

We were lucky to have a hero in our class on Thursday (March 3).

Her name is Alicia Pence and she is a Social Entrepreneur, the first social entrepreneur to visit our class. Alicia had graduated in December of 2010 in Psychology, earlier than most so she could focus and kick start her business. Early on, Alicia worked hard, working 2 to 3 jobs to get through college, as well as being youth leader at her church. There, in Henderson Country, she saw families struggling to get by. Kids came to their programs with tattered up clothing and after talking to a little girl who ate rapidly at the programs, she learned that some parents were not eating to feed their kids the little that they had.

This angered Alicia Pence as well as the other youth leaders. Alicia started to call other community leaders to start something and with this she was able to make a nonprofit board. Alicia Pence had founded her non-profit organization, Family Outreach Community Center, in Stronghurst, IL. This was all while Alicia was still at Monmouth College, however, so she didn’t really know how to go about starting a business like this but she was motivated so she learned. She called the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) almost daily. Also, she needed to establish a mission statement. According to her company’s webpage, that mission is: “The Family Outreach Community Center exists to improve the quality of life for residents of Henderson County, Illinois by providing assistance for families in need, implementing programs targeted towards strengthening the community, and assisting other existing outreach programs in the county.”

When you start something as a social entrepreneur, you have to take risks and do other work that for-profit businesses do. This is what makes a social entrepreneur just as much an entrepreneur as anyone else starting their own business. In addition, social entrepreneurs routinely face a number of special challenges that more traditional entrepreneurs do not. These are known as “scaling challenges” and are faced as the social entrepreneur tries to expand achievement of their social objectives. These challenges include: Staffing, Communication, Alliance Building, Lobbying, Earnings generation, Replicating, and Stimulating market forces. Alicia Pence faces and overcomes these challenges in inspirational, heroic fashion.

Staffing: FOCC is fully volunteer run. There are many older church members around the age of 55. She has 70 volunteers. Staffing is interesting for a social entrepreneur, not only are you trying to get people to believe in your cause, you are wanting them to believe in your cause to the extent where they are willing to work for you. For free. You need some great communication skills and it is impressive that Alicia is able to have so many volunteers.

Communication: This is a crucial one. You not only have to communicate in order to get volunteers for the staffing challenge, as a social entrepreneur you are also trying to get people to fund you by believing in your cause by how you present it. You are asking for time from people as well as money. You also need to communicate to the actual people in need to come to you for help.

Alliance building: This refers to the partnerships, and other means of linkage to help in bringing the desired social change. Alicia does this by contacting other community leaders to start FOCC and help support its ongoing operations.

Lobbying: For a social entrepreneur, this is getting governmental support but this doesn’t affect Alicia too much since she is not heavily funded by the government to do the work she does.

Earnings Generation: This is where the money is coming from. This is also crucial for a social entrepreneur because unlike other businesses, you are not making money to put back into the business. This is money that has to be coming constantly from different funders to keep the program running. This is an extra challenge for an organization that is not funded by the government but Alicia didn’t show that there was a problem with this aspect. She gets no state funds but gets non-governmental grants and gets money from churches and other private organizations.

Replicating: This is the idea of being able to do one thing in another place effectively. There is not one way in creating economic or human development; if this was the case, world poverty and other things that can be changed would have been by now. Every area is unique with its own culture and its own unique group of people. Since Alicia is focused on one local area, she doesn’t have to worry much about replicating but the ideas she may have gotten from other social service organizations can be instrumental in her effectively replicating them for those in need in Henderson County.

Stimulating Market Forces: This is how well an organization can create incentives which make people want to utilize it while still helping the community. This could be micro credits which Alicia does not do or inexpensive health remedies. Alicia has a community garden which feed people, support community programs, and sell to farmers markets.

As we can see, Alicia jumps over the hurdles that come at her quite well and she is able to overcome the struggles many social entrepreneurs have. FOCC is intended to be a supplement according to Alicia. The people who come to her are not just supposed to receive free things but to actually work. When they work, they learn their skills, volunteers help with cover letters, how to dress for interviews, and how to make resumes. This way they find their goals for life and learn the skills to get them started. Alicia helps others help themselves; which, as social entrepreneurs know, is much better than just giving them things for free.

There are many different programs: a nutrition program, a parenting assistance program which gives diapers and such, and an employment and career development program. One really awesome thing Alicia does is Operation Backpack. Volunteers give some food to kids on Friday to help them get through the weekend. This not only makes the kids full when they could be hungry; it helps in their education because then the kids come back to school on Monday, they are not just waiting for lunch time to eat but are actually more focused. This indirect encouragement to learning is what can slowly help pry open the cycle of poverty where most of the kids are coming from.

There are also programs to help the parents and adults as well. There is a financial peace class which helps people get out of debt and gives them guidance on ways they can save more money for when they really need it. Alicia has volunteers that even have the power, of course with the permission of the person needing help, to take their debit card and force them to save. Volunteers teach people how to shop as well. This gives the family which is at rock bottom education to get out of the cycle of poverty, it gives them hope that someone is there each step of the way, and it gives them a lens in seeing a better future for themselves and for their children and this is what really makes Alicia Pence a hero.

Thank you for visiting our class and showing us a new way of entrepreneurship!

Tooba Ahmed

“Lightning” The Sole Propitiating Dirt Midget

The Midwest Entrepreneurs class was host to two guest speakers the Thursday before just-ended spring break; Alicia and Travis Pence.

Below, class member Cole Trickel reflects on the Travis’ entrepreneurial venture; Biggsville, IL-based Lightning Designs. The start-up company custom designs vinyl signage for businesses, automobiles, race cars, and more. Details about the firm can be found at its webpage:

As you will see, Cole focuses on issues that have become fairly commonplace amongst our guest speakers this semester; starting a business based on a passion and the importance of treating customers and others with respect. Heavy usage of social media as a means of cost-effective marketing communication is another entrepreneurial approach we have heard before.

Prof. Gabel


Travis Pence started his business Lightning Designs in 2012. Travis got the name of his business because of his nickname “Lightning.” Travis told the class his business was an easy start-up business because the only thing he needed was his graphic design printer.

The only piece of equipment that Travis actually invested into was the graphic design printer because it was low risk and he could make his money back in a relatively good time. He already owned his home computer and basic home printer. Travis started his designs by creating small decals for windshields and eventually worked his way up to this big vinyl printer that he was able to do work for several businesses including local ambulance services and fire Departments, Maude Specklebelly’s in Monmouth, and several other businesses around the area. Travis can print designs for many surfaces such as car windows, windows in front of your shop to attract customers, full body designs on company vehicles, and for emergency vehicles that are rushing to save lives.

The majority of Travis’ customer base comes from other local businesses trying to get their name known. This is when Travis explains to us that marketing is the easiest thing to do when starting a business because it is “free” and all starting businesses like the word “free.” Marketing is “free” because of social media. Social media has made it easy enough get names and places out there that most people would have never heard of without social media. “Oh, hey look!… So and So was here…and they said it was really good or that looks really nice… maybe we should check that place out.” Travis said it was literally that easy. I guess it also helps that Travis promotes his company by racing dirt midgets—with his business name emblazoned on the front—on Friday and Saturday nights and hundreds of people go to these races and there again, its “free” marketing.

The final idea that Travis wanted to leave with us is: “Treat people with respect…You have to give respect to get respect.” He, like many other speakers in class this semester stated that respect means a lot in the business world. The more people that know about your business and know that you’re a respected business man, there is a higher probability that customers are going to want to do business with you because you are going to have respect for one another.

Cole Trickel

Mike Acerra and Lux: An Unconventional Entrepreneur in the Midst of a Wild Entrepreneurial Ride

Last Tuesday’s guest speaker in the Midwest Entrepreneurs class was someone that I and my departmental colleague Lee Miller have been working with for several years; dating back to when the unconventional entrepreneurial journey we heard about was little but a dream. We—and the students in the class Tuesday—knew that what we would be witnessing would be both exciting and unique. But even I was surprised with the ongoing wild ride of Mike Acerra and his amazing Lux blocks. See the following links to Mike’s/Lux’s webpage and Facebook page.

Ironically, the very morning of his visit, I ran across a call for papers for a special edition of the Journal of Business Research entitled “Sources of Unconventional Entrepreneurship: Passion and Consumption.” As soon as I read the title, I thought of Mike Acerra. Then I read further… Quoting from the call for papers (with my emphasis added)…

Entrepreneurship is rapidly changing. There is an urgent need to rethink its conceptual framework along new lines. Unconventional entrepreneurship – that is, entrepreneurship not bound by, or in accordance with, the conventional endeavors of planning, launching and building a venture – is at the core of several theories which are distancing themselves from the mythical figure of the Schumpeterian entrepreneur. Of major relevance for these new theoretical frameworks are the contexts in which individuals acquire the resources and the courage to undertake entrepreneurial ventures. Nowadays, during their everyday activities people learn and develop skills that can become resources for innovation. Passions developed in a wide range of leisure or hobby activities may lead to new forms of entrepreneurship. Indeed, an entrepreneur’s commitment may be fueled by motives that go beyond the rational search for profit; it could be based on passions unrelated to professional experience, but linked instead to personal aptitudes and leisure activities… At the same time, most passions also foster the development of competencies, skills and knowledge, which in turn foster innovation (Martin and Schouten, 2014).”

Mike Acerra is most certainly not a conventional entrepreneur. When he first started visiting classes here at Monmouth College—with his 3D printer and early prototype blocks—this lack of conventionalism likely led some to believe that he would “never make it.”

Well, it looks like he is well—and rapidly—on his way to making it very, very big. He, along with assistance of his wife Heather, has taken his unbridled and interconnected—Buckminster Fuller-inspired—passions for art, nature, innovation, learning, and sustainable, community-focused business and turned them into a highly innovative toy product rapidly expanding across the nation at a rate that surprised even me; someone fully confident in Mike’s ability to succeed from the first day I met him.

I turn things over to class member Tiffany Reed to share with you the rest of what the Midwest Entrepreneurs class was privileged to experience last Tuesday afternoon.

Prof. Gabel __________________________________________________________________________________

On Tuesday, we had the opportunity to listen to guest speaker Mike Acerra. Acerra is the main inventor behind a fairly new toy product called Lux: The Principled Block. As a graduate of Knox College with a degree in Studio Art, Acerra knew from the beginning that he did not want to follow the corporate path lifestyle. He wanted to create his own unique path and that is exactly what he did.

While in college, Mike became fascinated with the work of Buckminster Fuller. He knew that he wanted to invent some type of unique product, just as Fuller did in his lifetime, and what better than inventing a new toy based on structures found in nature. When deciding exactly what to build, one of the first things to come was the idea of a snapping hinge that did not require a pin, which he was later able to patent. Acerra eventually decided on a building block that was more unique than anyone has seen before. Soon Mike began creating prototypes on a 3-D printer and the start of his company was beginning to bloom.

These Lux blocks are unique compared to something like LEGO. They are flexible and can be manipulated into circles, bend, move, curve, and be made into fun and unique objects. Some examples that he brought to class included a dinosaur, Ferris wheel, and he showed us pictures of an 8 ft. Eiffel Tower that was made out of these blocks. Unlike LEGO, when you buy this toy, it purposefully does not come with instructions. This leaves the person playing with these blocks to have full control over want they want to create, rather than being told what to build with them.

Another unique factor about Acerra’s company is that they do not sell to Amazon or related online stores.  He said that, “Companies that sell on these sites take away from small business”. After growing up in Galesburg and living in small towns most of his life, taking away from small business and the community is not something that he is interested in doing. He will only sell to small and unique toy boutiques. They are not looking to become a mass market toy and sell out to get rich quickly. Another thing is they like to keep production and manufacturing fairly local. The blocks are made in Elroy, WI and Bloomington, IL while the packing is done by disabled persons at Bridgeway in Galesburg (see:

Today, Mike Acerra travels all across the United States to attend toy fairs to get his product name out there and find more places to sell it at. Some of the places he has recently traveled to include Atlanta, Dallas, Minneapolis, and New York (and he told us he was taking off for a big show in Las Vegas by the end of the week). Not only does Mr. Acerra travel to these toy fairs to sell his product, but he also goes to meet his sales reps that he has in different areas all across the U.S. so that they can listen to him talk about his product and have a better understanding of what they are selling. One quote he used when talking about this is: “You’re always selling to someone”.

In the next few years, Mike Acerra has the potential to make his product as popular if not even more popular than LEGO. Since September they have already expanded the stores they are in from 25 to 150. At toy fair in New York, Acerra said, “the prime spot to be is on the 3rd floor”, and while recently there, he was able to land a spot on that floor. He has had articles written about his product in the Chicago Tribune which only further helps to get his name and product out there. At this fast growing rate, it is clear that the Lux block could soon be a toy that nearly every child across the country has.

Thank you so much Mr. Acerra for coming and talking to our class!

Tiffany Reed