My experience selling Jenga pistols

On March 8th 2009, I put the video of my Jenga pistol and corresponding article online. I figured it would be one of those things that would spread virally. I never promote any of my articles or videos, and just rely on other people to find it and post it on blogs and such.

For the first two days, the video received 1000 views each day. This was modest success, but actually a little disappointing. Later that week, the views got up to 25,000 views per day, and then declined again. But the next week, the video received some very significant traffic, peaking out at over 300,000 views per day.

There were hundreds of comments on the YouTube video of people asking "where can I buy one?", and people also found my email address and emailed me asking if they could buy one. I was wondering if there would be some opportunity in getting this thing mass-produced for sale. It certainly looked like there was a market for it.

But how does one establish the potential size of the market? One could do all kinds of projections based on a zillion mostly guessed parameters. But so often projection is just a bunch of mathematical hocus pocus to obfuscate the fact that its all just wild guesses.

The most straightforward approach, I figured, would be to just build a batch of them in my workshop and see how fast they would sell. I figured if I didn't announce they were for sale, but just casually mentioned it, that would gauge not so much pent up demand, but instantaneous demand.

So I set out to build a batch of 25 Jenga pistols. I modified the design slightly, changing the pulley to a wooden one because I didn't have 25 of the plastic rollers I had used in the previous one. I also changed how I made the pistol, avoiding hand cuts and using jigs as much as possible, seeing that I had to do each step 25 times.

It wasn't totally straightforward. Seeing that I was building these slightly differently from the first one, there were a few mistakes that I had to correct in my modified design. If it's tedious doing the same thing 25 times, it's downright frustrating to fix the same mistake 25 times!

Making the tiny little wooden pulleys was also a lot of trouble. I used my drill press as a lathe, and then drilled out the center hole by clamping a drill in a drill press vise, and lowering the spinning pulley on it.

My procedure was far from perfect, and I had to make at least 50 pulleys to get 25 usable ones.

Nevertheless, by March 25th, I had my batch of 25 ready and put them up for sale. I called them the "Kajingu pistol", figuring I should move away from the word "Jenga", which is trademark owned by Hasboro. By that time, traffic on the YouTube video was down to 20,000 views per day. I was actually happy with offering them after the main rush of traffic had passed. Being able to sell the pistols during a spike in YouTube traffic would not tell me how they would sell long term. I also deliberately priced it slightly too high for a toy like this. The consensus for the "right price " would have been around $10-$15, but I charged $28. I figured I would not be able to satisfy demand by making them in my shop, so I was happy to lose some sales on account of price.

Well, I put up the for sale page, and waited. Two days went by but not one sale. I then emailed back the people who had asked if they could buy one. Two more days went by without a single sale!

The obvious thing to conclude is that people are just very fickle. But there are probably other factors at play. Most of the people that were excited about the Jenga pistol were kids, with no credit cards or money. Certainly, I noticed that while the quantity of YouTube comments was way up, the maturity and sophistication of the comments had gone way way down. So much so that during the peak of traffic, I disabled the ability to post comments. A YouTube audience is, well, not quite of the same caliber as a regular web audience, I imagine. Ironically, the YouTube video comments still were saying things like "where can I buy one", and "I would so buy one..." YouTube people don't have the attention span to actually see the annotation at the end of the video, or the description indicating you could buy one.

But I think the Jenga pistol is one of those things that one wants on impulse. Nobody needs a Jenga pistol, and if you have to go thru the motion of ordering it online, and then waiting for it to arrive, that kind of kills it.

I was feeling rather silly. I had spent $50 ordering cardboard boxes to ship the Jenga pistols in, and even registered a domain "", just to be safe, in case things really took off. So I had spent time and money, and had nothing to show for it.

Well, orders eventually did come in, several per week, and at the time of this writing (June 25 2009), I have sold all but a few that I want to keep as gifts. Overall, I more than covered my costs, but I didn't make enough to justify the time involved. But I have gauged the size of the market, and it's not the opportunity I thought it was.

For the right price, and sold face to face, I still think a toy like this could do well, but to hit the right price point would mean mass production. Also, selling things costs money. A store would typically double the price in markup. Which means they would need to be made even less expensively, in a factory in some developing country, just like most other toys. This would cost quite a lot to set up, and would be very risky in that this toy is just riding the coattails of a more famous toy that I have no rights to. So it's not something that I would want to invest a lot of time and money in.

As it is, it's not worth selling them at $28 a piece online. The problem is, selling them one at a time, I have to make a trip to the post office each time, and that kind of kills it. So if I want to sell more stuff online, I may build another batch of marble adding machines. These are a lot more work to build. The ones I did sell went to academics and educators - a more rewarding audience, I think. Plus, I only have to make one trip to the post office for $250 in sales, not one trip for $28 in sales. But even for that I have not had the time.

To sell toys online, the cost of production has to be much lower than it was for my jenga pistols. I recently met a guy who sells rubber band airplane kits. These take twenty times less effort to put together than my jenga pistols, so he can afford to sell them at a price more inline with expectations for a toy. It's an interesting business.

I have since made a simplified jenga pistol and am offering plans for sale for this verison

More on the Jenga pistol

Back to my Woodworking website.