Nova Scotia’s Jason Pyett is building an empire, one LEGO brick at a time
Posted on February 16, 2022 | By Stephen Kimber | 3 Comments
If you want to know who you should thank for the existence of Playwell Bricks—a globally-focused rural Nova Scotia company that designs and builds commissioned projects out of those ubiquitous interlocking LEGO bricks from your childhood—you could do far worse than to start with thanking founder Jason Pyett’s wife and “enabler,” Davida.
Flash back to 2015. The Pyett family was in New York on its way home after a trip to Florida’s Walt Disney World to celebrate the two-day-apart birthdays of their two young daughters. During the requisite in-transit stopover in the Big Apple, they visited—where else?—the LEGO store in Rockefeller Center.
The girls, then five and eight, were not yet into LEGO. But Jason, who grew up building and then reconfiguring LEGO sets into creations of his own imagination, most definitely was. He was also, he is quick to note, born in 1977, “the year the first Star Wars movie was released.”
Walking around the store that day, Jason spotted “my favorite ship from Star Wars,” which had just been released as a LEGO set. “I’m drooling over this thing,” he recalls, “but it’s $300, and we had just done a trip to Florida and blew all that money, so there was no way that that was happening.”
The family returned home to Nova Scotia, LEGO-less. But then… “my enabler and lovely wife went and bought it as a Christmas gift without me knowing about it.” It might have been Davida’s most important enable, but it was far from her first. Or her last. He stops, considers. “That kind of triggered everything.”
“Everything” today means Playwell Bricks, the company Jason runs out of what he calls his “Den of Chaos” in his home in Nova Scotia’s Musquodobit Valley. His far-flung team of more than a dozen designers, visual artists, Three-D designers, robotics engineers and even a LEGO mini-figure creator is based around the world: California, Germany, Brazil, Australia, Canada and more. After less than two years in business, the company needs its own global supply chain of brick makers, test builders and shippers to transform commissioned projects into customer reality.
His customers—“companies are now realizing there’s marketing potential in LEGO, it’s not just a toy”—are global too, and as diverse as Google, for whom he recently created 100 specialized LEGO sets for employee gifts, and RBC, for whom Playwell created logo-ed mini-ATMS.
And then there are all the one-off projects—a scale replica of a Romanesque campus mansion for the University of St. Francis in Indiana, a model of a church for public display in Ireland, a five-foot version of the Overlook Hotel from the movie The Shining for a private client. His customers also include serious art collectors and obsessives like “the guy who just loves his car” and wants a LEGO replica that’s “the whole nine yards.” That’s one of a dozen projects currently in development.
The company is also creating its own LEGO project kits to sell on its website, and a “creativity box” for kids, and … and…
Jason is ambitious. “The ultimate vision,” he explains, “is to be second to LEGO.”
Whoa! Second to LEGO? The LEGO Group, a 90-year-old Danish institution, is the world’s largest toy company boasting more than $2 billion in annual sales, not to mention its own retail network and its own amusement parks.
Challenging LEGO head-on is not exactly what he means, Jason explains. “If someone goes to LEGO and they say, ‘We won’t make this,’ or, ‘We can’t do this,’ I want the next place they go to be Playwell Bricks… LEGO will never be toppled, and I don’t even plan on ever trying to do that.”
Fair enough. But with billions of bricks and uncountable construction possibilities, that still leaves a lot of room for Playwell growth.
Jason Pyett, Playwell’s 43-year-old CEO, has come a long way from Grub Road on the outskirts of tiny—population 2,000—Salisbury, New Brunswick, where he grew up as the child of a “very poor single mom on social assistance.” His family didn’t have fancy toys like the Nintendos other neighbour kids had, he says, but there were plenty of LEGO pieces his brother had accumulated before their parents split. Those became Jason’s childhood escape. He would build the official kit version, “then I’d tear it apart, and use the parts to build something else.”
But by the time he enrolled at Dalhousie University in Halifax in 2001, he had reached what LEGO aficionados often refer to as the “Dark Ages,” that period between the end of childhood and the adult rediscovery of the pure joy of building with blocks.
There were, of course, other things on his mind. He earned his science degree—“which I haven’t used since the day I graduated”—and, more importantly, he met Davida. They connected in first year, married the following summer.
But when they graduated—he as a botanist, she as a pharmacist—they had to make a choice. Davida had landed a contract with Shoppers Drug Mart in Bathurst, N.B. Jason was considered such a promising botanist he’d been wooed to go to England to get his PhD with the dangle that he could return after his education to a teaching position at Dal. “But that would mean I would have had to go to England, and she would have had to stay working for Shoppers here in Canada,” he explains, “so we settled for following her career.”
In Bathurst, Jason, who didn’t speak French, “dabbled in this and that,” including painting miniature characters for table-top war gamers on commission. After the children were born, Jason became the stay-at-home dad.
It was only after that Star Wars-themed LEGO kit landed under the Christmas tree that his daughters finally became “enamoured” too and wanted LEGO of their own. “I started going on Kijiji to add to my own collection and add to theirs. Everything started snowballing from there.”
As he accumulated more and more LEGO, he realized much of what was being sold came from kids “getting rid of their LEGO because they were growing out of it. They would just build a set and put it on the shelf. They wouldn’t even play with it.” He shakes his head. “I thought that was a pity.”
So, he began teaching his daughters to design and build their own creations from blocks, then invited the children of friends and neighbours to join them for design sessions in his workshop. Those became so popular he approached the local family resource centre to see if they’d be interested in partnering with him. They were. Twenty-two children showed up for the first workshop in a small space, “and it was just mind-bogglingly overwhelming.” A few months later, he switched venues to the larger local elementary school. Before he knew it, he was coaching the school’s first LEGO league team.
LEGO league? There’s “a whole division of LEGO dedicated to robotics and computing to make it accessible to kids,” Jason explains. “They formed this competition where kids go in, build the robots, code the robots to do certain tasks and…” He calls the LEGO leagues a “refuge” for “the chess club kids, the bake club kids. They learn concrete skills that will help them succeed, they blossom. They really do.” He laughs. “It’s like, ‘This is what we’ve been waiting for.’”
Jason began to create experiments to showcase possibilities—building a walkable LEGO trestle bridge for his daughter’s Grade 6 class, making a perfect circle from LEGO bricks—and posted the results on the internet. They went viral.
That generated unsolicited requests for him to build specific projects, like the Gates of Argonath from Lord of the Rings, his first official commission in 2019. Six-thousand-two-hundred-and-fifty pieces later, it was complete! Each new commission led to another, and another and…
By October 2020, his “side schtick” passion project, which he did for love and a little cash, had become so popular he had little choice but to turn it into his business. “As soon as that light started going on, I was, ‘Okay, if this is a business, I’m gonna treat this like it’s a corporation, a 100 per cent business.’ So, I’ve been doing my homework on marketing, on logistic strategies, funds, media awareness, the whole nine yards.”
He adds: “I tell everybody, there’s always a learning curve to things, but when things happen organically, and they happen so fast, and your learning curve is going up a cliff…” He stops. “That’s kind of what I’ve been facing. But I love it. I love all the challenges, and everything that comes with it, but it has been extremely fast in a business sense.”
It has been. Five whirlwind years and counting.
His daughters are now 11 and 14. Are they still interested in LEGO, I ask? “No,” he replies with a laugh. “Absolutely not. LEGO has become daddy’s job. It’s a pity, but I totally understand the reasoning.”
Luckily, his enabler is still enabling. “I’m working seven days a week now, and she tells me, ‘You’re doing what you love, so keep at it.’”
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