When an artist, an architect and a rocket scientist team up to create the next great puzzle craze, they learn that conquering the toy market is far from child’s play.
Tom Sebazco is somewhere in the monstrous Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s far west side, past the Hello Kitty display and neighboring My Little Pony quad, beyond the personal care products and party masks in the “Lifestyle” section, an area that also houses artisanal beeswax, odorous candles, endless coffee mugs and an array of neon-lighted diner clocks. The NY Now trade show, “The Market for Home & Lifestyle,” has invaded the quarters, welcoming 35,000 mid-August weekend attendees, including Sebazco, who is here to to sell his ENI Puzzle to prospective buyers representing museums, toy stores, gift shops, boutiques and everything in between.
Sebazco’s in the subterranean “Gift” area, standing in front of his lot, number 5535. His ENI Puzzle stand is adjacent to Vikolya’s shoes, coat hangers and knick-knacks, Concord Lane’s handcrafted walking sticks, and across the aisle from Aviv Judaica’s traditional Jewish holiday celebratory and ceremonial items. Spiky-haired Sebazco is in a full-body, grey Dickies jumpsuit with his official company title “Fearless Leader” sewn into the name tag. Amongst the makeshift shelving behind him stands a two-foot-tall, intricately crafted clear plastic ENI Puzzle display tower just like the ones that he hopes will be placed beside cash registers across the country. The display case is custom-made by Sebazco himself, who’s currently pitching his puzzle to a buyer.
As guitar surf music emanates from behind him, he’d better be pitching.
“It cost $10,000 to rent this space for three and a half days,” Sebazco says later. “And that’s a minimal investment. When I travel to other parts of the country for these trade shows, add up the plane ticket, hotel and everything else and I’ll spend more than $15,000.”
This monthly rigmarole sees Sebazco, forty-four, putting in twelve-hour days, but he says it’s worth it because the trade shows are a great place to get feedback on the product’s design, packaging, marketability, and more. Trade shows also happen to be responsible for upwards of ninety percent of all his business when counting on-the-spot orders and what he calls the “trickle-down effect” — clients he meets at these shows stock the puzzle at a store, where other clients see it and become buyers themselves.
“The day I ended up in the Museum of Modern Art’s catalogue, I got twenty or thirty new accounts,” Sebazco says. “And the MoMA saw us at a trade show.” Sebazco estimates the ENI Puzzle can now be found in about seven hundred stores on three continents.
In front of Sebazco’s display, a couple of boys who might be fifth graders approach the puzzles. “Oh cooooool,” says one, instantly awestruck. He’s holding the puzzle comfortably between his thumb and index finger, though he isn’t entirely sure what to do with it. Sebazco instructs him.
The cylindrical toy is covered with eight columns, each with eight tiny colorful tiles — red, orange, yellow, green, navy blue, light blue, purple, and brown — that run up and down the shaft. However, there’s one empty slot that allows users to slide an adjacent tile into it. The eight rows that ring around the cylinder are twistable. Upon purchasing an ENI Puzzle, a new user will find the colored tiles all lined up in the column. Start sliding the tiles one-by-one and twist the rows around to create a unique pattern out of the colored tiles. Technically, this puzzle has no one correct solution. Users can line up the yellow tiles into a zig-zagging lighting bolt pattern, or figure out how to make them resemble a checker board. But really, puzzle buyers are encouraged to create their own patterns, and thus their own solutions.
The ENI Puzzle is “a three-and-a-half-minute sell,” according to Sebazco, which is a relatively long time. “But it’s a good-looking product and it holds people’s attention.”
Sebazco finds the single slot devoid of a tile, and pushes one into it. He then slides another into the new empty slot, and then another. He rotates a row with a twist and hands it over.
As the boy starts to mess around with it a little, his friend, clutching a plastic bag, asks Sebazco, “Are you giving out any free samples?”
“Unfortunately, no,” he replies, unwittingly prompting the boys to scurry away. “Everything costs money,” he adds.
Sebazco recognizes the ENI Puzzle has undeniable similarities to the Rubik’s Cube, which has been called the world’s best-selling toy with more than 350 million sold while making a millionaire out of its inventor, but he disapproves of the comparison. “I’m sick of hearing it,” he says. “The beauty of [my] product is that it has no solution. It teaches kids both math and how to be creative. They can conceive their own patterns, but they also have to figure out how to line the tiles up to make the pattern look right.” Sebazco recently launched a new tagline in helping to market the puzzle that reads: “Not your father’s cube.”
Another lone passerby — a bearded man in his thirties wearing glasses — is compelled to stop and give the display a once-over. “Hm. That’s great for the train,” he remarks to nobody in particular and continues walking.
Though it’s 1:45pm on a Sunday and Sebazco has secured two new clients and three reorders since arriving this morning, not everyone’s a buyer.
* * *
A native of Camden, New Jersey, Sebazco’s Astoria, Queens two-bedroom apartment is decorated with his own original artwork and sculptures. There’s a mold he made in high school of Michael Hutchence, the deceased frontman of the ’80s pop rock outfit INXS. An art teacher noticed Sebazco drawing on his books constantly and gave him the wax to play with. The sculpture — the singer on stage, dancing above a few front-row fans — was his first significant art project. He was fourteen and living in Dallas after spending some time in Iowa as well. Within two years he became a mural painter for hire in the Deep Ellum section of the city, a then-emerging hip, artsy neighborhood. Next to the Hutchence piece there’s also a one-of-a-kind ENI Puzzle that is filled with only yellow and black tiles, which Sebazco arranged in the likeness of the Batman insignia. On the living room table: fresh grapes left out just for me by his wife of eight years, EunYoung, who is at work.
At forty-four, EunYoung is a South Korean immigrant and the horticulture manager at Randall’s Island Park on the East River, a position she’s held since 2006. EunYoung is responsible for the existence of the first rice paddy in New York City, the island’s urban farm and an extensive perennial garden there as well. The doting Sebazco speaks highly and seriously of her character as well as her accomplishments, though his tone takes a sarcastic nosedive when it’s time for digs at his wife’s heavy accent. “She has a wonderful sense of humor about it,” he insists. “But on the other hand, I’m ‘fat,’” he continues, quoting his wife’s dig on the maybe ten extra pounds he carries. “She’s cute and pretty and all that, but I’m the ‘fat guy.’”
A small dining room table stands adjacent to the living room. Sebazco’s laptop and some paperwork lie on top of it because the ENI Puzzle company office — the apartment’s second bedroom — is overrun with hundreds of packed folders, binders and boxes. There’s a little desk space left with another computer monitor on top. But with the walls feeling like they’re caving in on the room’s occupants, it’s understandable that he chooses to do as much work as he can elsewhere.
The ENI Puzzle concept came out of thin air and on a few occasions the resulting company almost went up in smoke, taking all that paperwork with it. In 2008, Sebazco joined his wife at a party in Cincinnati with his in-laws. Sebazco says his father-in-law, JongMan Kim, turned to his son JeeSoo, a then-expectant father and Purdue Ph.D. student, and said, “You should create a toy to help teach your son math.” JongMan, a retired architect, and JeeSoo, described by Sebazco as “a real-life rocket scientist,” whose current job for Samsung sometimes requires two armed guards to accompany him to and from work, drew up sketches of what would become the ENI Puzzle. They contrived the key idea for the empty slot that allows the multi-colored tiles to slide around, but what happened next is up for debate in the Sebazco/Kim family circle.
“In the first drawings the puzzle was in the shape of a square,” Sebazco says. “I’m pretty confident I suggested they make it a cylinder. But they’re also confident that they suggested it.”
Either way, JongMan carved the first prototype out of wood, but without twistable rows. The whole body continuously spun on an axis, which Sebazco observed as problematic. “So that was my input that day,” he says. “I get a lot of credit, but it was really my father- and brother-in-law.”
JongMan soon traveled home to Seoul, South Korea, but he and JeeSoo decided to explore steps towards manufacturing their new toy. A Pratt Institute grad with a degree in advertising and artistic design, Sebazco continued on with his freelance career, painting murals and doing graphic design work.
By 2009 JongMan settled on a design for the puzzle and searched for a factory that could produce it. EunYoung asked Sebazco if he could come up with a name for the toy. He offered “E & I Puzzle,” short for “EQ” and “IQ” because, according to Sebazco, the puzzle tests “emotional dexterity and intelligence.” He adds with a laugh, “But they’re Korean so they heard ‘E-N-I.’” The name stuck.
They constructed a much larger, pastel-colored version of what later became the featured model seen in American stores and at this year’s NY Now trade show. That original puzzle had fewer columns and rows than the popular “mini” series variation, along with black numbers printed on the slides that gave the puzzle a true solution: line up the colors in a row and have them run from top to bottom in number order.
While Sebazco helped JongMan and JeeSoo out with the name, logo and company brand, he pointed out that the toy’s initial size and color scheme wouldn’t be well received in the West. He told them, “It says ‘baby’ and it says ‘feminine.’ I can’t sell this.” He suggested they enter the puzzle into that year’s New York International Gift Fair — recently renamed the NY Now trade show — for an investment of just the entry fee. The trio would then be able to discover the toy’s shortcomings through advice from professional retailers. The Kims agreed.
Then, shortly before the show, Sebazco received a phone call from Edison, New Jersey. There was a shipment of 20,000 puzzles waiting for him there in a warehouse. JongMan had gone ahead and hired a South Korean manufacturer to produce the large, pastel-colored puzzles and forwarded the bill for an amount of money so large Sebazco is not willing to disclose it.
“That’s how our company was founded,” Sebazco says with a wry smile. “After that, I made all the decisions.”
Sebazco, who says he’s already endured a time of familial tension because EunYoung chose to marry him and not a South Korean-born man, had good instincts about the size and color scheme. He only sold a handful of the first ENI Puzzle models, acquired a tremendous debt, and, at least momentarily, bruised his father-in-law’s ego — a big no-no in the hierarchical Korean family structure. But as expected, Sebazco got the crucial advice he’d need at the trade show, most notably from the M.I.T. gift shop’s buyer, someone he knew the Kims would respect. The input would help him build the puzzle into an appealing commodity, and the company into a profitable one.
“We’ve been recovering from that and other initial mistakes all along. But without JongMan’s ambition, we don’t have any of this,” Sebazco says, emphasizing that he and his father-in-law have similarly high levels of determination. “I told him he hadn’t failed, but that we just needed to make some changes to the puzzle and we’d have a home run.” Since resizing the model, changing the tiles to a solid color scheme, and removing the numbers on the tiles — another of Sebazco’s ideas — the puzzle has seen a consistent rise in popularity in the West.
When JeeSoo completed his studies at Purdue, he moved his wife and newborn son, Eddie, to South Korea so he could begin his career with Samsung. JeeSoo has left most of the ENI Puzzle advancement to Sebazco and his father, who sporadically compensate him with a share of royalties as often as they can. In the meantime, Sebazco says that he and JongMan have been able to overcome differences in their respective languages and cultures. They work well together, with Sebazco taking charge of the puzzle’s sales in Europe and the U.S., while JongMan oversees the manufacturing of the toy in both a Chinese and a small South Korean factory, all while taking care of some Asian accounts of his own. Sebazco and JongMan are also co-creative directors because each market in the East and West create differing demands of the products — the pastel-colored tiles are better appreciated in Asia, for example. In an email, JongMan wrote to me that “For sure there is an issue of language between [Tom and I]. However, I believe we have learned good patience and along with that have bonded tightly.”
* * *
At least part of the toy’s success can actually be credited to an unlikely source: rap artist and Queens native 50 Cent. Though Sebazco has never met him and is unsure if 50 Cent is even aware that the puzzle’s headquarters is based in his home borough, it was the rapper-turned-actor’s apparent enjoyment of the ENI Puzzle that directly led to the black-and-white version of it appearing in the Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger 2013 blockbuster movie “Escape Plan.”
Sebazco says 50 Cent, who has a small role in the film, purchased an ENI Puzzle at a Los Angeles retailer, Kitson — an account Sebazco secured at a New York Now trade show a few years ago — and continuously used it to keep himself busy during downtime between takes. 50 Cent suggested the puzzle be used in the movie as a prop to show “the genius” of Stallone’s character, Ray Breslin, a world-class escape artist. Karen Neasi, the film’s product placement and clearances coordinator, emailed Sebazco asking for a hundred puzzles. After researching Neasi online and confirming she was in fact who she claimed to be, Sebazco sent the toys off. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to be in the movie or if they were just going to help keep the crew entertained,” Sebazco says. Both wound up being the case, and after more than a year of waiting through release date delays, Sebazco and his wife sat in a quiet movie theater one evening, screaming in celebration at the puzzle’s first appearance atop Breslin’s office desk, seventeen minutes into the film.
The puzzle shows up several times throughout “Escape Plan” and though it’s seen only in the background — parts where Stallone actually plays with it were supposedly cut out — Sebazco got some press out of the arrangement. He’s also hoping for a new bump in sales since the film has recently been released online and on DVD.
Shipping off a hundred puzzles “actually wound up being a lot cheaper than paying for product placement,” Sebazco says.
* * *
Sebazco lives at the mercy of his inbox. If he’s not on location at a trade show, he wakes up to a handful of emails with orders from stores, packing the cardboard shipping boxes himself. The average request is about forty-eight puzzles each. He also must write up, print out and attach an invoice for every order and march the boxes six blocks to the nearest FedEx store location. Sebazco prides himself on getting shipments turned around within twenty-four hours — his accounts appreciate the quick service, and the lack of a warehouse storage fee. Should the company get more than ten orders in a single day, Sebazco won’t have time for much else.
He also acts as the company’s de facto customer service representative, advising store managers on how to boost sales and even asking managers dimension sizes of potential sales space so he can customize a fresh display case just for their store. He works on the company’s business and growth plans, maintains the accounting books, comes up with new ways to promote the puzzle, checks on inventory, updates photos of the product and its packaging on the website and Facebook, and monitors web traffic. In his spare time, he attends networking events, dreams up new patterns for the tiles, and keeps up with his mural painting and personal projects when he can. Which is all to say, Sebazco doesn’t sleep very much.
Over one recent stretch of seventeen days, Sebazco says he slept about three or four hours, in total. At the end of it, he realized his company would be completely out of product just as the 2014 holiday season commences because months earlier he underestimated how many puzzles to order from the manufacturer.
“Sometimes you get punched in the face,” he says over lunch after his first decent night of sleep in quite a while. His eyes are still glassy. “I’m not happy. We’re losing six weeks of revenue and those are the best six weeks that can outnumber…” His thoughts trail off for a moment and he waves his hand, but recovers eventually. “We did such a good job over the course of the year without realizing it.”
Sebazco feels he made accurate predictions about orders from his longtime accounts, but ultimately had new stores put in large requests he did not anticipate. One of those was Marbles: The Brain Store, which is set to open a location within the famous FAO Schwartz toy store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. “It’s been a dream of mine to have the puzzle in FAO Schwartz,” Sebazco says. Fortunately for him, he was able to fulfill that order, but is sold out of product through the middle of January 2015, when the manufacturer will finally have new units made.
He worries his company will be perceived as unreliable. He says his fourth quarter numbers suffered last year because of a similar set of circumstances that occurred two years ago. “But there’s nothing I can do,” he says, shaking his head and smiling, finding the irony in the fact that his family’s little puzzle is becoming almost too sought after.
* * *
Sebazco becomes guarded when I ask what’s next for the ENI Puzzle. They already have keychain puzzles available, along with a version for the visually impaired that is slightly smaller than the primary mini model and has numbers on the sides written in braille. He did coyly reveal that next year will see the release of a “translucent ENI Puzzle,” with a clear plastic cylinder and opaque tiles.
“Running a puzzle company is like constantly putting a puzzle together,” Sebazco says. “There’s so many variables and moving parts that you have to make fit.”
He adds that, even though the company has had some major missteps along the way — the hasty ordering of those first puzzles, the recent inventory faux pas along with bookkeeping mistakes, failure to purchase correct insurance, stolen product that ended up on Amazon at below-wholesale price, and a handful of others — they’re beginning to become profitable after just four years of concerted efforts towards sales. 160,000 ENI Puzzles have been purchased over that period of time in the U.S. alone.
“Every company makes mistakes,” Sebazco points out. “Our saving grace is that we have a great product. And maybe my father-in-law and I don’t have a lot of experience in this field, but there’s mutual respect and we’re just capable people.”
If it all breaks apart tomorrow, they will have accomplished their initial goal anyway. Eight-year-old Eddie Kim, Sebazco’s nephew, has been playing with one version or another of the ENI Puzzle in South Korea since he was toddler.
* * *
Michael Stahl is a writer and editor from Astoria, New York. His work has been published in several online and print publications, including Narratively, where he serves as a features editor. He mostly retweets others here.
Alexis Lambrou is a Pittsburgh born, Brooklyn based photographer.