This is a follow up story for Mini Materials. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published over 2 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
Hello! We are Mat Hofma and Erik Polumbo, co-owners of Mini Materials. We manufacture and sell realistically made miniature building supplies, such as miniature cinder blocks and red bricks.
Our target market ranges from hobbyists like dollhouse makers, model train customers, fingerboards, and diorama builders to educators in STEM/STEAM and even promotional swag sellers all around the world. In 5 years, we have grown our product line to just over 70 SKUs with all but a handful made completely by us here in the USA.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
Since the last time, we chatted our business is still growing. We’ve experienced about 15% YoY sales growth each year since our inception in 2015. We’ve focused our attention on the promotional industry where companies and organizations can add their logos to our products as promotional giveaways or customer retention gifts. We’ve gotten into several school supply catalogs for educators with a focus on the STEM and STEAM aspects of learning.
Put more effort towards those and less effort towards the rest.
Our products are mathematical to scale, giving the student an ability to build using math equations or teaching architecture skills and foundational knowledge in the construction industry. We’ve also continued to advance our novelty reach. We add unique products regularly, like for the 4Q holiday run-up last year we put together a warehouse rack full of building materials just like you’d see at Home Depot or Lowes, just tiny.
Consistently producing new products allows us to create content for marketing efforts across all of our channels. Miniatures resonate well on social media channels since they photograph so simply and by adding a scale reference like a hand, coin or something catchy like a banana our posts can go viral fairly easily. That attracts people to our shop who very regularly either spontaneously or eventually (with retargeting) convert to sales.
We’ve added a few more staff members, a lead graphic creator who handles our product design, social media channels, and design work as well as additional warehouse staff assisting with manufacturing, packing, and fulfillment. We now employ 4 full-time employees and hope to add one more by the end of the year.
Our marketing efforts are pretty simple. We maintain all the basic channels and post regularly on Social. We have a growing email list of about 24,000 subs and try to get 1-2 emails a week out to our subscribers either introducing new products, sending content videos or blog posts of what we’ve built/designed, or a sale we are having.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
We get regular requests for mini versions of a prototype or finished product. Mostly for sales pitches to their potential investors or customers and they’d rather not lug around a heavy cement block to a sales meeting.
Last year we banked on a couple of larger prototype customers coming through that ended up not purchasing once we put a ton of R&D into the prototype. It’s been a challenge working a tooling fee upfront from customers that may not be certain this is something they’ll take all the way to production. So tinkering with our vetting process to make sure the endeavor is worthwhile before we put a ton of time into it has been challenging. It’s amazing how many people want you to make something no one has ever made and are amazed that you need to charge them for your time.
Some trends or global issues that have actually benefited us are with tariffs and even recently with the coronavirus concerns which have helped keep some customers from going overseas for manufacturing purchases. We’ve seen a healthy dose of inquiries of various product development concepts that would ordinarily automatically go to China or another location with cheaper labor.
We continue to search out more efficient ways to manufacture our products. We’re now capable of making 5x the volume of product per day than we were less than a year ago. Some of that is simply added labor, but we’ve also made some changes to our production processes that have improved our efficiency and profit margins. Even though the raw cost of goods is low, labor adds up when you are waiting on cement to cure.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
We signed a licensing agreement with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to partner on selling some of Mr. Wright’s textile blocks in miniature adaptations. We are excited about this opportunity and hope to have our first product released in the next 4-6 weeks.
Our 5-year plan is to continue to grow our market reach and solidify ourselves as a perennial powerhouse in the miniature building material market, we are coming for you Lego and Lincoln Log!
Short Term Goals include getting into several of the FLWF shops and museums. Long Term we are hoping that Mini Materials is a mainstay in your house, that instead of stepping on a Lego and cursing them, you step on a mini cinder block and curse us. We will accomplish this by getting into the Targets and Walmarts.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
Erik here, I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, after enjoying reading his book Outliers last year. The Tipping Point is a book discussing how the smallest of things can affect the future in the largest ways. He discusses some pretty deep concepts but in a much more basic thought, it can relate simply to your business or your daily life. Focusing on predictive behaviors can help you to understand and therefore better predict the future. He has 3 rules that explain if or when a product or idea will tip; the law of the few, stickiness factor and the power of context. Definitely worth the read!
Mat here, I regularly listen to Comedy Bang! Bang! The podcast with Scott Aukerman. It’s not related to business specifically, but it’s a very creative comedy/improv type of podcast that kind of gets the creative juices flowing for me. I find myself trying to improve/be funny along with the podcast and once you get your mind really thinking you can then come up with some pretty creative stuff - usually product ideas or marketing ideas in my case.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
Go after the low hanging fruit. What are the top 20% of marketing schemes and the top 20% of products that you have? Put more effort towards those and less effort towards the rest.
Getting out of your comfort zone is also important. We started out marketing to who we knew, we are both the same age with similar interests and knew how to attract buyers within that market by basically speaking to ourselves and what interested us. But, that only gets you so far. We realized quickly that we had to figure out how to position the brand for a wider audience which required evolving our marketing and our voice.
This might also mean seeking out people that are good at reaching out to a particular group that you aren’t accustomed to. For example - neither of us used Pinterest or really had any interest in it, but our wives do, so we asked them to take a look and put some energy into it. They were quickly able to grow it from nothing to 250.4k monthly viewers.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Not currently. Once Q4 comes around we definitely will be.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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