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The Game of Life

Wilbraham & Monson Academy Students Make Entrepreneurial Study Their Business
From left: Jacki Yang, Jon Trusz, Kellsey Wuerthele, and advisor Melissa Donohue. Members of the Blocks Rock! Management team not pictured: Ian Carlin, Justin Campbell, Art Durongkapitaya, and Wilson Lau

From left: Jacki Yang, Jon Trusz, Kellsey Wuerthele, and advisor Melissa Donohue. Members of the Blocks Rock! Management team not pictured: Ian Carlin, Justin Campbell, Art Durongkapitaya, and Wilson Lau

When a group of students at Wilbraham & Monson Academy first played a game their classmates at Blake Middle School had created, they realized how fun and addicting it could be. Soon after, the students entered into a business venture to develop and market the game, Blocks Rock!, and as teenagers, have already added titles like ‘CFO’ and ‘manufacturing manager’ to their résumés.

As Jonny Trusz sets up the pieces of Blocks Rock!, a children’s game he and a group of classmates have been developing and marketing for more than a year, the senior at Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA) in Wilbraham instinctively begins constructing a castle out of blocks — a key part of the game — and slaps a front-desk-style bell to signal he’s finished.

“Sorry about that,” he jokes. “I had to. It’s impossible not to start playing once the game is in front of me.”

That’s proof of how addicting the toy can be, and also of Trusz’s involvement in its development, a responsibility he took on as a junior, and one that has become a large part of his studies and life at the private college preparatory school.

Blocks Rock! was originally devised three yeasr ago by students in the Blake Middle School, as part of ToyChallenge, a national toy- and game-development competition sponsored by Sally Ride Science and Hasbro that the school enters regularly.

The concept of the game is relatively simple: two sets of multi-colored blocks in various shapes — rectangles, triangles, and squares — are divided between two players or teams of players. A bell is placed in the center of the play space, and a set of cards depicting different structures that can be built with the blocks moves the game forward.

Players choose a card, and the first player or team to build the structure correctly — and ring the bell — is awarded the number of points displayed on that card. Once all of the cards have been used, the player or team with the most points wins.

The game is designed to help young players learn on a number of levels, and, likewise, taking the game to the marketplace has provided lessons for WMA students in subjects ranging from marketing to responsible manufacturing; from simple accounting to global economics.

In this issue, BusinessWest looks at how this game has become a business proposition, and what its ongoing development means to all those involved.

Fun for All Ages

Melissa Donohue, who served as director of WMA’s Center for Entrepreneurial and Global Studies (CEGS) until moving on to a new venture recently, said that as players improve, there’s a speed component that allows Blocks Rock! to stay relevant for players of all ages. It’s already become a key event in WMA’s annual ‘Dorm Olympics,’ for instance.

“It’s geared toward ages 5 through 8,” said Donohue, “but the game’s simplicity also makes it great for families.”

She said Blocks Rock! also garnered praise early on through ToyChallenge, and this had its young inventors, as well as some WMA faculty and parents, wondering how much further the team could take the concept.

Glenn Hanson, a private investor and a parent of a WMA student, thought a little venture capital might help, and contributed $10,000 in seed funding to the school to help move the game’s development along. By this time, high school students enrolled in WMA’s CEGS program had caught wind of the unique invention as well, and approached their middle-school counterparts with the idea of turning Blocks Rock! into not just an innovative learning tool for children, but also a commercial endeavor and, in turn, a fundraising vehicle for the school.

“CEGS breathed life into the idea,” said Donohue. “The program has always mixed theory with practice, but in the past the students had developed model businesses.”

In this case, students enrolled in CEGS, which includes courses in economics, investing, financial markets, the Asian economy, and sustainable business practices, among others, added an independent study to their course load, focused solely on developing Blocks Rock! and introducing it to consumers.

Divisions of labor were instated, including a CEO, CFO, and COO, as well as marketing, sales, manufacturing, and product-development teams, each with a manager.

During last year’s spring semester, 27 students were part of the ‘company,’ and 10 were managers. Those 10 graduated last year, and now, seven seniors have taken on management roles, and each one is hoping to reach some specific goals in the development process, including increased visibility and sales, before commencement in the spring.

Kellsey Wuerthele of Palmer, who manages sales for the company, said even with the pressures that face all high school seniors, including preparing college applications and studying for final exams, Blocks Rock! has yet to take a back seat in the team’s day-to-day activities.

“We’re so excited about it,” she said. “I can’t see myself suddenly not being as involved; we’ve been working on this for two years.”

Wuerthele added that she feels a particular responsibility for seeing Blocks Rock! succeed until her last day of coursework, if not beyond, because it was a challenge that CEGS students took on of their own volition, not as part of an existing school program.

“It’s important to me to see this continue with a new group of students after we’re gone,” she said, noting that recruiting a new team to take over next year is another large part of the exercise. “We basically recruited ourselves, and getting other kids involved before we graduate means it can keep moving.”

All Business

And while the course was driven by students, it’s rooted in contemporary business theory and educational study. Donohue said the course teaches several practices with the added benefit of real-world experiences, allowing students to see firsthand how and why various decisions succeed or fail.

“The independent study allowed the students to pair theory and practice in a whole new way,” said Donohue. “They read an article in a high-level business magazine such as the Harvard Business Review and incorporated the theory they learned into the sale of the game.

“But they also learn about tenacity, responsibility, the importance of testing at all levels, and, in general, a lot more about what’s going on in the world and how it’s changing business globally and locally.”

Donohue explained that positioning the game was the team’s first hurdle. Many toys on the market today feature sophisticated electronics and other technologies, and as such, a game consisting of colored blocks, playing cards, and a bell has a harder time getting noticed among all those bells and whistles. However, educational games have a specific audience that the CEGS group chose to target.

“We positioned it as a higher-level learning game, geared toward the ‘Baby Mozart’ parents,” said Donohue. “The educational components of the game start with learning colors and geometric shapes, but each card also has a different amount of points, so there’s a strong math piece, too, as players add up their scores.”

There were other challenges waiting for the student developers as well, said Donohue, but each stumbling block is a learning experience tied closely to modern business practices. Manufacturing the game, for example, prompted a number of questions that are familiar to any company doing business overseas.

“It was made clear very early on that we wanted to practice ethical manufacturing and maintain a low profit margin,” said Donohue. “This was a big hurdle because we had to spend a lot of time researching to ensure we were working with a company that would meet those needs.”

Donohue said there were other concerns. Would the blocks be made of wood or foam? And, later, does the product need to be tested for lead in the paint? (It was tested, and deemed safe).

WMA eventually decided on a manufacturing firm in Hong Kong, and produced the smallest number of games they could through that relationship (500), neatly packed into muslin drawstring bags and including multi-colored wooden blocks, a silver bell, and a stack of playing cards.

The next step for the team of students was to identify potential points of sale for Blocks Rock!, with its ‘edutainment’ model in mind.

All For One

Proceeds from sales of the game, which retails for $19.95, are returned to WMA, and as of last year, more than 50 games have been sold by hosting game nights, networking within the school’s community, and via the game’s Web site, blocksrock.com, also developed by WMA students. Through these channels, an additional $4,500 in investor funding has also been secured, but Wuerthele said there’s still work to be done.

“We’re working on getting the game into local toy stores and schools by holding game nights at grammar schools and places in the community,” she said.

Trusz added he hopes to make inroads in Springfield’s Eastfield Mall, perhaps by leasing a kiosk to sell Blocks Rock!, in order to increase the game’s name recognition in the region and boost sales.

“It’s a fun game,” he said. “I think letting people see it and play with it themselves will help.”

With that, members of the Blocks Rock! management team break into yet another spirited game, grouping shapes together and clamoring to ring the bell, signaling a win.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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