Building a better playset

With the pandemic as the stepmother of invention, the Figgy, from new, local startup Shenanigan Kids, aims to provide parents and kids with a fun, fashionable outlet for play.

Many a parent of young children has walked into a previously neat and tidy room, seen the chaos that results from even the briefest of play sessions among kids, and remarked, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

Two Madison-area parents and entrepreneurs have taken that sentiment and turned it on its head in just a few short months, realizing that they could make something that looked nice in a home but was capable of withstanding the rigors of children’s imaginations at work.

That’s how Shenanigan Kids, and its flagship product the Figgy, a modular set of durable foam pads that form a playset, was born earlier this fall. The brainchild of Rachel Neill, CEO of Carex Consulting Group, a serial entrepreneur, and member of the 2016 class of In Business 40 Under 40, and Chris Roepe, founder of Value Chain Group LLC and most recently vice president of sales operations for Lands’ End, Shenanigan Kids was incorporated on Sept. 12 and yet thanks in large part to an overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter campaign, the Figgy is expected to begin arriving in customers’ homes as soon as January or February.

That Kickstarter campaign, which sought $40,000 in seed money, was launched on Nov. 19. It was fully funded in just 8 minutes, and now stands at $165,214 pledged from 461 backers with 19 days still to go. All this for a product that didn’t even have a prototype until earlier in November.

The name “Figgy” comes from a combination of the words “figment,” as in a child’s imagination, and “configure,” which alludes to the limitless ways the cushions can be arranged. It’s also just fun to say.

“Just like so many other parents out there, we’ve ‘invented’ products in our heads that would help enrich our kids’ lives or make things easier on us,” says Neill. The idea for the Figgy was originally hers. She says she saw an opportunity to improve on other playsets on the market, and when she thought about who in her network could help this thing become a reality, Roepe immediately came to mind.

The two had previously worked together through Carex, and with Roepe out of work earlier this year due to the pandemic — and having seven children between them who were also suddenly spending a lot more time at home and in need of creative outlets while at play — the timing for the partnership was right.

“What is unique about us is our experience,” remarks Roepe. “I’m an engineer with tech, financial, and retail experience. I’ve worked at big companies and run big supply chains. I know product management and product development. It was really fun to build something, design it, source it, market it, and see the excitement from our customer base in under three months. Having Rachel on the team with her entrepreneurship experience, having started multiple companies, was invaluable. She was always ready to dive head first into things and propel us forward.

“I think that the Figgy is a great toy for kids,” adds Roepe, a self-described master fort builder in his own right. “We’re going into winter and kids aren’t in school. It is a real challenge to keep our kids active physically and mentally while not going nuts as a parent. Many parents are at home trying to work on top of everything else.”

According to Neill, the Figgy is perfect for imaginative play and the pair spent a lot of time talking to other parents about what they wished other playsets had:

  1. Waterproof liners. “As parents, we know kids make messes and parents need something to protect the toys they have invested in,” notes Neill.
  2. Modern colors and design. “Most playsets out there are in primary colors that just don’t jive with the modern parent. Our playsets blend right into your home décor.”
  3. It’s available. “Other playsets just weren’t available, so we saw a market need.”

The Figgy itself is a padded play set that comes with two double-stacked squares and two rectangular bolsters made from cloth-covered CertiPUR-US foam inserts. Wedge shapes are available as add-ons.

A big part of the appeal of the Figgy is its simplicity, says Roepe. “We worked hard to make it simple, which sounds crazy. We know it works because parents and everyone else gets it immediately; we don’t have to explain it.”

Among the Figgy’s features that are a direct result of conversations with other parents are a stiffer cushion that is strong enough to protect kids when they land on the cushions but soft enough to lay on comfortably. The various pieces of the Figgy can also be connected by Velcro “hinges,” which allow the cushions to join together in an infinite number of designs. Waterproof liners help with getting the covers on and off and protect the foam from accidents. And the cloth covers feature hidden zippers to protect children and other household surfaces from scratches.

“We knew that we needed something durable and versatile,” notes Neill. “My favorite story is when we got our prototype and Chris thought the design could use some tweaking. He showed up at my house with a sewing machine and fabric and made modifications right then and there!”

“We have shapes that kids want,” adds Roepe. “Rectangles are made for walking on, stacking, and building. Just like your favorite blocks as a kids, you need good foundational pieces to make cool stuff. At the end of the day, we are parents and parents are the best customers. Many of the other products on the market are made to be a couch; we know this is a kids toy and a fort-making toy.”

Orders for the Figgy, which retails at $299, are being taken now and it will take up to two months for those orders to be fulfilled because the Figgy is manufactured as orders are received.

Right now, the Shenanigan Kids factory is a state-of-the-art facility in Asia, but Neill says she and Roepe hope to relocate stateside if they get enough demand. Without scale, she notes, it’s difficult to keep the pricing down. “We are selling exclusively online right now but looking at ways to partner with retailers. To set the price, we had to look at our cost and market demand. It isn’t easy! But we plan to offer subscription play boxes, additional covers, and add-on pillow packs.”

According to Neill, the success of the company’s Kickstarter campaign should allow them to reinvest that money into continuing a build-out of their brand. “We’d love to grow the company and create jobs in Wisconsin.”

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