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Last year, John Edgar Park and Erin Kelly-Park started a maker business called Magnolia Atomworks to create interesting products and kits, such as the Mystery Box (and something allegedly to do with robots and iPads). Here, in the first in a series, part of our Maker Business coverage, John explains how the Mystery Box product came about. — Gareth

Part 1: How we ended up starting a maker business

By John Edgar Park

It’s all John Baitchtal’s fault. John B’s a contributing writer here at Make: Online and Wired’s GeekDad. One day, John tweeted a link to a TED talk by J.J. Abrams about a mystery box he’s had since he was a kid (the kind you used to be able to buy in the back of comic books). J.J. said that the possibility of what he imagined the box contained was probably far greater than the reality, so he’d never opened it. He uses this metaphor in his films and TV shows.

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I loved this idea, and wanted John B to experience it firsthand. I designed and built a one-off box for him, using a loaner Epilog Zing laser cutter I was reviewing for MAKE magazine. I filled it with artifacts he’ll never see, and sent it off. John blogged about it on GeekDad, it gained traction, and ended up on Lifehacker and Boing Boing. Pretty soon, I was getting email from people around the world asking if they could buy a Mystery Box of their own.

Heck yeah! I could actually justify buying a laser cutter, going into business for ourselves, and making tons of profit! Right? Turns out, I’m quite fond of my day job working in animation (and my family is quite fond of the benefits). My uber-fantastic business-partner wife quickly talked me down to a more modest small business approach. I think this is a sweet spot for makers who want to test the business waters, without diving in too deep.

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So now we had a product and customers. While we briefly entertained the idea of “employing” our two young children to pack and ship orders, we soon realized that we needed a plan B — we didn’t want to handle the entire production and fulfillment process. Luckily, we had some mentors who’d walked this road before, like Lenore Edman of Evil Mad Science Laboratories and Tod Kurt of ThingM. Based on their input, we decided to hunt down a retailer who’d be willing to buy a bunch of Mystery Boxes, so we could focus on the fun stuff (like developing another product!). And then, we began to wonder: at what point are we actually starting a company?

Stay tuned for Part 2: Kit Design and Production…

More:

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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