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Tech entrepreneur Abraham Piper: ‘We wanted to try something different’

In 2019, Piper and Josh Sowin started a new company called Blue Kazoo. Separate from Brainjolt, Blue Kazoo makes premium jigsaw puzzles.

“Starry Wave,” a mash-up of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and “The Great Wave” by Hokusai, is Blue Kazoo's most popular single puzzle.
“Starry Wave,” a mash-up of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and “The Great Wave” by Hokusai, is Blue Kazoo's most popular single puzzle.
Blue Kazoo

Abraham Piper is a puzzle. Why would the founder of a highly successful media company that reaches well over 100 million people a month decide to make jigsaw puzzles? Why did it take him 11 years to finish college? How does Piper pick which puzzles to produce? What is he doing on TikTok? Do 1,000-piece puzzles really have 1,000 pieces?

So many questions.

Piper was 27 when he completed college because he would start, take time off to do something else (for example, build guitars), then return. By the time he graduated from Augsburg, he had kids and a full-time job. “I had a great experience there,” he said by phone last Friday. “They have a fantastic weekend program.”

In 2008, the year after getting his degree in English, Piper started a blog called 22 Words. Every entry, not counting the title, was 22 words long. “Twitter already existed,” he said, “but I hadn’t heard of it, or I probably would have just started a Twitter account.” His goal was 2,500 page views a day.

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He dropped the word limit, figured out how to drive traffic to his blog, and watched page views rise to 200,000 a month, then 350,000, then 1.3 million. In 2011, a startup bought 22 Words and paid Piper to keep writing it. When the startup altered course, Piper bought it back. Before long, 22 Words had 5 million page views a month; in November 2013, 12 million. A headline in the December 2013 Esquire read, “The Second-Most Shared Website in the World is Run by One Guy.”

In 2014, Piper launched a media company called Brainjolt and hired his friend, Josh Sowin, as CEO. Brainjolt owns four brands: 22 Words, MagiQuiz and the Facebook pages Happiness Heroes and Bad Parenting Moments. The numbers exploded.

“It’s something astronomical, something where the number almost stops being meaningful,” Piper said. “I actually don’t know the most recent details, but at one point – I mean, we go up and down in rankings – we were in the Top 10 mobile sites in the country for unique visitors in the last 30 days. So, yeah, the traffic is high.”

Abraham Piper
Courtesy of Abraham Piper
Abraham Piper
In 2019, Piper and Sowin started a new company called Blue Kazoo. Separate from Brainjolt, Blue Kazoo makes premium jigsaw puzzles.

His companies are based in California, but Piper is a proud Minnesotan. “I grew up in south Minneapolis, in the Phillips neighborhood. Except for a couple of years in L.A. a few years ago, I’ve been in Minnesota all my life. I live just north of the cities, and I have a space in the Solar Arts Building.” Piper is also an artist and a member of NEMAA. He loves taking long walks in deep winter.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: A premium jigsaw puzzle company is a big departure from everything Brainjolt. It’s almost like you’ve started making artisanal bread.

Abraham Piper: I think that difference is exactly what Josh and I were going for. At Brainjolt, everything is about beating yesterday. We talk like, “Let’s make the numbers today better than they were yesterday.” That’s how we grow our business.

I still enjoy that game. The game of everything we put out needs to get a million views to be worthwhile. That viral economy.

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We wanted, over the last couple years, to get into making something physical and selling it, which would, in and of itself, be a complete departure. And we wanted to do it as beautifully as possible, which is also a departure, because at Brainjolt it’s about getting things out the door. Quantity is quality.

I can’t stress enough I still think that is an exciting way to run a business. But we wanted to try something different at the same time. You’re not going to sell a million puzzles in a day. But you can sell a few that people really, really love. That was an experience we wanted to experiment with. What happens when you make a physical product that people are thrilled to have in their home?

It didn’t start out immediately as puzzles. In 2019, we were thinking of starting a game company. That eventually became Blue Kazoo. We pivoted to puzzles because that’s what people wanted. In 2019, we were dreaming up our e-commerce effort. And then, at the beginning of 2020, people were obsessed with puzzles, so that’s what we started putting out and that’s our business now.

MP: Do you like doing puzzles?

AP: I do, but not in the way people usually think of doing puzzles. I do puzzles the same way I read books, which is a bit at a time. And I’m not committed to finishing. I’ve done the edges of many puzzles, and I don’t think of that as starting and then quitting in the sense of failing. I think of it as starting, doing as much as is gratifying for me, and then moving on.

My wife will sit down and still do a full puzzle. So people do them differently, and that’s something that I enjoy about them. Having puzzles be an experience you just have, in whatever way you want, makes them more accessible to more types of people.

Abraham Piper: "We saw people enjoying various gradients and geometrical patterns, so we put together our own."
Blue Kazoo
Abraham Piper: "We saw people enjoying various gradients and geometrical patterns, so we put together our own."
MP: Jigsaw puzzles have been a huge pandemic hit. Do you think they will stay popular as we return to whatever we call normal?

AP: I’m 100% confident they will stay popular. I’m also 100% confident they will not stay as popular. There will remain a big pie for all of us puzzle-makers to share.

MP: How do you decide on puzzles to manufacture?

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AP: A couple of ways. Our most popular series is the Earth series, and that one just made sense. We saw people enjoying space puzzles, so we put that one together. It designed itself over the last few billion years. And then the Color series. We saw people enjoying various gradients and geometrical patterns, so we put together our own. Both of those are answers to trends we saw.

“Starry Wave” is our most popular single puzzle. It’s a mash-up of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and “The Great Wave” by Hokusai. I separated out the wave and put that over the sky and set it in such a way that the swirl of the wave matched up with the swirl of the sky. That was me having fun, and then saying, “OK, wait, this is a puzzle.” And then we did it.

That’s one of the things I love about my job. I can just have fun with some images and then make a bundle, if it’s something people want.

We put out our Vintage Travel series just last week. That we made from complete scratch. I had the idea, “What if we brought back the same puzzles that existed when puzzles first exploded in popularity, a little bit after or during the Great Depression?” I ordered a bunch of old puzzles off of eBay, and it stayed an exciting idea for Josh and me. We have 100 ideas a day, which we discard as fast as we come up with them. The fact that this one lasted as long as it took for those puzzles to arrive was a good sign.

We worked with an artist named Steve Thomas. He’s local also, although that’s by chance, because we looked at 100 artists from anywhere in the world. He crafted some first drafts, and I don’t think any commissioned artist has ever received more detailed and annoying and tedious notes than he did over the next couple of weeks. And that ended up being our new series.

So the Earth series and the Vintage Travel series came about in completely different ways, and both are fun ways to do it, in my opinion.

Blue Kazoo debuted their Vintage Travel series last week.
Blue Kazoo
Blue Kazoo debuted their Vintage Travel series last week.
MP: Talk a bit about the Black and White and Red All Over series. All three puzzles are just solid colors.

AP: Oh my God, that one. OK, that is a third way of coming up with series. I make a joke and a phone call, and then Josh goes and orders a bunch of the puzzles. I’m joking and he’s making it happen. And I was like, “We actually are making those?” So, yeah, we have them, and people can do them if they want.

They’re like a car crash. You want to look at it, but you don’t want to experience it. But some people love the hardest possible puzzle. It’s fun that those people exist in the world.

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MP: How have your sales been?

AP: They’ve been good. We did over a million in puzzle revenue last year. Quarter one is always going to be a dip after the holidays. Another thing that’s different about Blue Kazoo: Selling puzzles, we can map out the next five years if we want to, which is an experience Josh and I have never had. Brainjolt is a day-to-day type business. To be able to say “OK, this is how 2021 is gonna go” is really interesting. We’re already preparing full-on for quarter four to be what makes the year exciting, which makes now exciting. I’m saying what everybody who sells anything knows, but it’s new for us.

MP: So this isn’t just a hobby for you. It’s something you plan to stick with for a while.

AP: This is not a hobby. This is what Josh and I are all in on right now.

MP: Blue Kazoo doesn’t have a lot of puzzles. It’s almost a boutique approach.

AP: We really, really value simplicity. We want to do just a few things and we want to do them well. We operate that way in how we think about business, so it played out naturally with how we think about puzzles.

For instance, at Brainjolt, we have two websites. I don’t know of any other media company that doesn’t try to grow by building out more and more websites. For us, it pays off to keep things simple and focus on what works.

MP: You have your own TikTok account, and in 2020 you started one for Blue Kazoo. Which is better for marketing, Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok?

AP: Facebook for marketing, Instagram for organic marketing. TikTok is good for brand exposure and having fun with our audience, less so for making sales. With Facebook and Instagram, there’s something about that audience where they’re like, “Yeah, OK, I’m ready to buy something.”

We are not relying on TikTok for generating sales every day, whereas we are relying on it for connecting with our audience and having a good time with people. A fun epiphany for us was if you make a product that people don’t need to complain about, you are freed up in your customer service. In the time you set aside for customer service, you can do fun, creative, engaging things with people.

We sent out an email a couple weeks ago, teasing the Vintage Travel series, and we got 1,000 responses from people wanting to know more. That’s 1,000 customer service touchpoints we have to deal with, but that’s exciting and fun because we’re not overwhelmed by people complaining about stuff.

On my personal account, I talk about puzzles in maybe 10% of my posts. So it’s not a puzzle account. [Note: As of yesterday, Piper’s personal TikTok account had 815,000 followers.]

One of the Vintage Travel puzzles in progress.
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
One of the Vintage Travel puzzles in progress.
MP: Looking ahead, what do you see?

AP: I mentioned that TikTok is a good way to connect with our audience. Two things are coming from that very concretely.

A visually impaired lady posted a video of a puzzle that she crafted herself, and at the end she was like, “I don’t make puzzles. Does anyone out there who makes puzzles want to do this for real?” Twenty people tagged me in it, and I responded to her on TikTok saying “Let’s talk.” Two hundred thousand people saw that, and now we’re actually connected with this lady. We’re in the very early stages of prototyping a puzzle for the visually impaired, which is not something I was planning on doing, but then TikTok happened. So that was very cool.

I put out a call for artists a few weeks ago and we got hundreds of responses. So we’re working on an artist series now, which will be more one-off puzzles than bundles, working with individual artists. We’re already in talks with three, and that also is in the beginning stages. So, yeah, lots of exciting things in the works.

It’s fun to take a visually appealing image and break it up into 1,008 pieces and let people make it themselves. Nothing represents the futility of life more than a puzzle. But at the same time, it’s so gratifying.

* * *

Most so-called 1,000-piece puzzles aren’t exactly 1,000 pieces. Blue Kazoo puzzles are 1,008 pieces. Watch Piper explain it here.

Blue Kazoo is about to release a new clutch of puzzles called the Galaxy series. Want to weigh in on whether the finish should be glossy or matte? You can do that here.