There is no other guest entrepreneur speaker in the class that I strive to “keep up with” more than Mike Acerra; inventor and presently Chief of Product Development of Galesburg-based Lux Blox LLC (a maker of highly innovative construction toy products).
This desire to “keep up with” Mike and what he is doing and planning is based on (1) having interacted with him since the product was but a concept (printed out one block at a time on his personal 3D printer), (2) my son being a very early-stage “product tester,” and (3) the joy in seeing good people—Mike and company President Heather Acerra—with good, highly innovative ideas succeed (on an increasingly grand scale).
However, while there is no one I strive to “keep up with” more than Mike, there is also no class guest speaker I have a harder time keeping up with. This is because he plans and innovates and travels constantly; often at a frenetic pace. After class, he summed this aspect of his entrepreneurial venture by telling my son and I that “the ground is always moving.”
I take this to mean that he must keep moving—and the product must keep evolving—in response to ever-changing marketplace circumstances and consumer needs and wants. Not just that; he cannot merely react but must strategically move in proactive fashion ahead of the changes (necessitating a keen focus on the market and consumers and the retailers who sell to them). I have seen great ideas from—and great success for—Mike Acerra but it is clear that “nothing is ever good enough” for him.
I turn things over to class blogger Cole Downey for more on Mike’s scintillating visit to the class this past Tuesday.
Mike Acerra began his presentation by outlining his activities directly after his graduation from Knox College: Two years living isolated among the trees in a yurt. After joking that he fully embodied the stereotypical Knox College graduate, he explained how he used this time to study nature, geometry, and whatever text he could manage to lay his hands on.
Constantly throughout the class Acerra would break from information regarding his entrepreneurship in an effort to teach the class about whatever his stream of conscience had led him to. It became obvious from the start that Acerra wasn’t just enthusiastic about his explaining his product, he was enthusiastic about explaining anything.
Mike Acerra is an inventor, whose inspirations range from the ratios mathematicians found in nature to great architectural and scientific minds such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller. From these minds he drew inspiration for Lux: The Principled Block. The blocks (or “blox” as they are referred to on his website) fall somewhat but not squarely into the same category as toys such as LEGO, but attempt to present more advanced building opportunities. The single square shape cannot only be created into rigid and single planned structures, but can also be put together into more complex structures such as gears.
He and his wife were inspired to create the blocks in an effort to open the minds of children to genuine learning, as opposed to the well-worn path of teaching that suppressed natural inspiration. Their mission extended towards production, where he had ensured the manufacturing for his product occurred in the USA.
Acerra moved back to Chicago in 1990. After working with his wife to develop the idea of what they hoped to create, he carefully patented his idea; specifically the hinged connectivity that allows structures made from Lux to move. Acerra expressed the importance of being careful with the patent system, as being ignorant to the rules could mean publicizing or killing an idea without the ability to protect it. Instead, he promotes the idea of continuance, allowing patentees to hold onto multiple ideas by taking legal action against those who attempt to make a similar product with the case that they were “going to patent it eventually.” This led into his presentation on funding, which came down to a clear and succinct motif: “Don’t show them a mission statement. Show them a profit and loss statement.”
Despite his vast knowledge of the many national and regional trade shows that he has attended, Acerra admitted that he didn’t attend under the principle that he was an enthusiast of his product. His love for explaining often overpowered his need to sell, which prompted him to send the “closers” instead. Nobody could argue that Acerra loved to talk. With the brief exception of the questions that occurred during his presentation, several of the students were left to wonder whether or not he had taken a breath in the last hour.
Similar to years past, Acerra was already outlining the steps he wanted his product to take for the future. His social media presence was littered with futuristic and abstract art that was meant to mirror the same utopian learning values that his product embodied. He emphasized the importance of moving towards the Amazon market place, as he believes the “Ma and Pa” retail store model he has relied heavily on in the past may see difficult times ahead. However, this did not dampen his support of these family owned businesses (as he is still at heart a home grown Midwesterner still mourning the loss of several factories that had once made his home town of Galesburg a powerhouse city).
Finally, he was in the early stages of unrolling a new box/packaging. While the previous one was aesthetically pleasing, the lack of detail and information made for a product that appeared more intimidating than it did welcoming. One past challenge that he discussed was his decision to begin including instructions in the box. While this conflicted with his idea of genuine, free-form learning, it allowed for less inspired customers to more easily participate in the building culture which once again is found all throughout his social media.
Mike Acerra seemed completely content with his lack of an off-button. His presentation was lively, sporadic, and energized. I imagine that in the toy industry, this is a trait desired by many who are looking for an individual who is both inspired by their product and their mission. I have no doubt that this same energy will carry him towards many future victories with his product.
Thank you Mr. Acerra for coming to speak to our class!