Catching Up With Tegu, 2 Years Later

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Tegu PrismTegu Prism

Tegu Prism: a mini-set for on-the-go play. Photo: Jonathan Liu

Tegu is two years old now, and to celebrate they’re introducing a new “pocket pouch” set of their magnetic blocks called the Prism. It’s a little felt pouch with just six pieces: four triangular shapes and two parallelograms. They come in different colors and the pouch is just big enough to hold the blocks in this Tangram-like configuration, so they’re perfect for portable “thinkering.” (Just don’t throw it in the same bag as your credit cards, since I’m not sure how they’d react to the strong magnets in the blocks.)

Tegu Prism shipTegu Prism ship

The portable pouch with my "spaceship" model. Photo: Jonathan Liu

The Prism set is a lot of fun — they sent me two in different colors to try out — and my kids have made some pretty wacky things with them. However, I will say that the triangles and parallelograms are a little tougher to use than the cubes and rectangles in the regular sets. (There is also a pocket pouch that uses the rectangular shapes, in case you prefer those.) It’s fun to have a bit of color, though I may still prefer the “natural” look. The other set (not pictured here) had a couple of the darker-stained blocks, and those are really gorgeous, too. The colored pieces are painted and it’s hard to tell if the color will chip off over time, but I imagine the stained blocks will retain their color better.

Tegu Prism PouchTegu Prism Pouch

The blocks tuck away nicely—if you remember the shape. Photo: Jonathan Liu

The Prism pouch sets became available this week and retail for $30.

When I first learned about Tegu two years ago, they were just getting ready to release their toys to the world, and I spoke to co-founder Will Haughey about the vision for the company and their toys. Last fall they introduced the Tegu Mobility line, which includes wheels that attach magnetically to the blocks so you can create vehicles. One of the coolest things about Tegu is that the company was formed around the idea of supporting Honduras — providing jobs, educating the kids, and letting Honduras profit from the business, rather than just using its resources.

I interviewed Haughey again to see how Tegu’s first two years have gone. But first, you can get a sense of Tegu’s mission and direction from the video below (which was released during the holiday season last year):

Liu: So, Tegu has been around for two years now — congratulations! What have the past two years been like? Have things gone as you expected?

Haughey: It’s been an amazing ride, to say the least. I mean this in every sense of the word. There have been ups and downs, big wins and parking tickets for the Tegu truck — everything we expected as entrepreneurs. It wasn’t that long ago we were sitting around friends’ and family members’ kitchen tables, showing them our prototype and trying to raise seed money for our vision to create a for-profit, socially-minded consumer goods company in one of the poorest countries in the world. Since that time, we’ve introduced dozens of products to our award-winning line and already we’re seeing an impact in Honduras. We’re thrilled to have delighted children and their parents along the way with our magical Tegu blocks and vehicles, and our sales continue to grow steadily.

Liu: How many people does Tegu employ now? Is it still mostly folks in Honduras, or have you had to open offices in the US for administration and operations?

Haughey: Team Honduras, led by my brother Chris, is comprised of about 60 people. Making these blocks requires an extremely high level of precision, and so it’s necessary we invest a lot of resources into training and educated each employee. This equips them with transferable skills so it’s more than just a job, it’s a career. In the States we have nine employees, five of whom are moms with young children who work at least part of the time from home. We’re thrilled to have parents on the team whose own families use Tegu every day. Two of our US employees are in California: our product-developer is in San Francisco and our in-house designer is in Los Angeles. I think it keeps us balanced being on both left and right coasts. Once a year the entire Team USA travels to Tegucigalpa to meet with Team Honduras and we battle it out on the soccer field. They usually win.

Liu: Do you feel that you’re accomplishing what you set out to do? How much money has gone toward schools? Have you been able to make a dent in unemployment in Honduras? Has the community responded positively to Tegu?

Haughey: I do think we’re on our way to achieving the goals we originally set out to accomplish. In two years we’ve expanded to 60 employees in Tegucigalpa, have planted 35,000 trees and donated 3,500 days of school. Also, we’ve learned that 206 additional people in the community are being supported as a result. The feedback has been very positive; Tegu blocks are something Hondurans are proud to put their name on and deliver to the global consumer.

Liu: What’s the most popular version of Tegu blocks?

Haughey: I would say our pocket pouches, which are like the fun-size candy bar version of our larger sets. They fit in your palm and make a good travel item for keeping little hands busy in the car or plane. They also make an awesome desk toy. We often “thinker” with a couple of blocks when we’re on the phone or brainstorming as a team. Kinesthetic learners — which describes most kids — need to use their bodies as they think and learn.

Liu: Two years ago you were wanting to sell direct-to-consumer to avoid a lot of the hassles of retailers, but you mentioned that they might start appearing in some stores. I know that some of your sets are now available on Amazon, for instance, but have you gotten them into toy stores and other retailers, or are you sticking with online sales?

Haughey: That was the thinking at the time, but our strategy evolved as we heard from increasingly more Tegu fans who wanted to see our blocks in stores. We now are carried by over 800 bricks and mortar stores in the US, Canada and Europe, including the Museum of Modern Art, Barney’s and Brookstone. We’ve been fortunate to have wonderful retail partners who are eager to tell customers about Tegu’s social story, which is so central to who we are as a brand. The ability to play with the blocks in person and feel that magical tug of the magnets, the percussion of the wood — it leads to that wonderful “aha” moment when a person realizes that what they have in their hands is a most special toy.

Liu: Do you have any favorite stories about Tegu from the past two years?

Haughey: We strive to give our Honduras employees more than just menial jobs, but to instead grow them as employees and give them careers with transferable skills. One of the first people we hired in 2009 was Martin Alvarado, a young man who suffers from cataracts which were causing blindness in one eye and basically prevented him from seeing at all when outdoors. Despite these challenges, Martin has been an invaluable team member and today he manages about half of the factory floor. A few months ago when it came to Chris’ attention that Martin could have surgery to restore his eyesight but couldn’t afford it, Chris didn’t hesitate to pay for the surgery for him. We are thrilled that Martin had a successful surgery and can now fully see from both eyes.

Another tidbit: The first holiday season Chris and I were still finalizing the magic/secret sauce needed to create Tegu Blocks. That plus overwhelming initial demand when it launched on DailyCandy kept us in the factory helping produce blocks while monitoring every step of the process to ensure customers received the highest quality product.

The second holiday season we were again overwhelmed with demand due to a special relationship with Amazon and the Tegu Live campaign where the Tegu Genius would build anything you wanted. The Tegu Live campaign generated a lot of buzz and interest that led to so many sales that the team felt it was important to go ‘all hands on deck’ to ensure no kiddo was left without their holiday present. And in the end, we fulfilled every order we took.

We showed last year at the New Parents Expo and our booth fell over. Twice. The walls would have crushed a small child for sure; we were fortunate that no one was hurt. We did, however, take out the booth behind us in the process. They were none too impressed. Definitely a Murphy’s Law moment.

At Toy Fair this year, we learned at the last-minute that the Tegu Truck needed to have less than 1/8 tank of gas per fire code if we wanted to use it in our display. So, we quickly drove it back outside the Javits center and made circles around the block, revving the engine at stoplights to try to drain the fuel tank before we had to be back inside and they locked the building. It was nerve-wracking, to say the least.

For more about Tegu, visit the website at www.tegu.com.

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