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Midwest entrepreneur encourages Monmouth students to go against the grain

Barry McNamara
Mike Acerra, shares his success story with students in the Midwest Entrepreneurs course on Tuesday.
Monmouth College students in the “Midwest Entrepreneurs” course learned recently that in order to be successful in business, sometimes you have to be willing to take a risk and go against conventional wisdom.

That was the lesson they were told on Tuesday by Galesburg-based entrepreneur Mike Acerra, who shared his success story and offered business advice.

Acerra’s best nugget of advice was: “If everybody’s doing it that way, I don’t want to do it that way.”

Acerra, who is experiencing success with his company, Lux Blox, has been following that creed since graduating from college in 1989. His first move after college wasn’t to attend graduate school or parlay his degree into a promising job. Rather, he moved to the woods in Maine, lived for two years in a small dwelling called a yurt and read a lot of books – including, appropriately, works by Henry David Thoreau.

While reading those books, Acerra said he learned of blocks created by German education pioneer Friedrich Fröbel that were the foundation of his innovative kindergarten curriculum. Fröbel believed that rather than telling children what to learn – so they would essentially parrot what their elders knew – it was essential to give them tools and let them find their own patterns.

“They won’t be a predicted outcome,” Acerra told the Monmouth students of Fröbel’s philosophy. “They’ll be a surprise. ... Fröbel wanted to make geniuses.”

Armed with that inspiration and having moved out of his yurt, Acerra set out to make “a toy that would be the Fröbel blocks of the 21st century.”

After about 4,000 hours on a 3-D printer and thousands of blocks later, Acerra’s idea evolved into Lux Blox. The blocks utilize a square shape, which Acerra calls “the chameleon of the geometry world. Squares make all the shapes.”

He added: “The problem with blocks has been their own world view. Nature’s not brick-like. With our blocks, you can make everything, and those shapes will do things we never knew they could. I call our blocks ‘the little square that could.’”

A Chicago Tribune article titled “Lux Blox toy builds on Legos’ shortcomings” explained how the blocks operate with a snap-and-lock hinge, so they curve and bend. The article quoted Acerra, who said, "Most of the time, kids figure out things we didn’t even imagine,” even though the blocks come with no instructions.

To get his product from wonderful idea into the hands of children, Acerra had to employ standard business procedures, such as attending trade shows. But he also had no trouble turning in an opposite direction from other companies.

“People ask me why we don’t try a Kickstarter campaign or go on Shark Tank – I’m not going to do it,” said Acerra, who owns the company with his wife. “And everyone said, ‘You need a mission statement.’ No, you don’t. It’s really the profit-loss statement that matters.”

Even at the trade show, Acerra moved counter to his competitors, asking for criticism about faults in the product, as opposed to simply touting all its virtues.

“We changed it up,” he said. “We said, ‘We want you guys to tell us why you can’t sell our product.’”

The feedback wasn’t necessarily easy to hear, but it led to three major changes with Lux Blox: lighter packaging, more information on the packaging and a lower price.

Although he’s pleased the blocks are now in so many stores, Acerra is beginning to rely more heavily on Amazon, saying, “If online is mammals, stores are Jurassic Park. Stores need to evolve or die.”

Lux Blox, which have been on the market since the fall of 2015, have shown substantial early success, meeting a goal to be in Barnes & Noble stores by the end of the first year.

“We’re in almost 1,000 doors, and we did about a third of a million dollars in revenue last year,” Acerra told the class.

Moving forward, Acerra said he intends to become more involved in selling the product, although he still thinks of himself as more of a “show and tell” guy, as opposed to a closer.

“When I can, I’ll have closers go to the trade shows,” he said.

In the meantime, his product benefits from placement in “boutique” stores, where personnel can take the time to actually sell the blocks through demonstrations.

“You’ve got to be exciting and relevant to the kids,” he said. “We want to market our blocks as the cool, mod, futuristic direction of toys.”