The puzzle finally fits together this holiday season for Tim and Stefanie Ekeren as the couple discovers the missing pieces that kept Kansas City Puzzle Company boxed on the shelf for more than a year.
The small business, based in Mission, Kansas, offers a line of 10 puzzles, most featuring Kansas City-area landmarks or illustrations by local artists. The puzzles are 500 or 1,000 pieces, made at a U.S. manufacturer with 100-percent recycled materials, soy-based ink and biodegradable plastic packaging.
Click here to shop Kansas City Puzzle Company.
The excitement for their product has been building steadily during this gifting season — retailers are now using “ASAP” in their restocking request emails, Stefanie said — but the company got off to a slow start after incorporating in January 2020.
“It’s funny that we were maybe the only puzzle company in the world during a pandemic that didn’t sell a single puzzle,” Tim said.
A puzzling delay
The idea for the business was sparked by the couple’s then-3-year-old daughter, Loretta. She and the family were “obsessively puzzling” over a winter activity. During the previous summer, the Ekerens had spent much of their time exploring the metro. Missing those sites, Loretta commented that she wished they were doing a Kansas City puzzle.
“It was like a bolt of lightning,” Tim said. “Like, my god, we should do a Kansas City puzzle!”
The couple couldn’t stop thinking about it. They scoured the internet, looking for the best images of Kansas City landmarks they thought would make good puzzles, and reached out to the photographers and artists to work out licensing details.
“The first thing we found was the Kansas City map by Mario Zucca, and that kind of cemented that we were going to do this,” Tim said. “We’re like, this is too good to not be a puzzle. I don’t know how it’s not already a puzzle!”
The Ekerens were met with many positive responses to their cold emails.
“So far, everyone we’ve talked to liked the idea of their work being a puzzle,” Stefanie said.
First, they thought they could make the puzzles out of their basement, but then discovered the equipment to do that would be prohibitively expensive. Next, they contacted manufacturers and tried to work out a deal for a small initial run.
“And every manufacturer we called laughed us off the phone, basically, like ‘No, that’s not how it works,’” Tim said.
They realized they would have to jump in with both feet, so the duo placed a full manufacturing order with the first shipment due to be delivered in March 2020.
In the meantime, the couple saw the beginnings of the pandemic unfolding. They even had a prescient prediction: “Maybe everybody’s going to be housebound and they’re going to be super into puzzles. Maybe it’s the right idea at the right time,” Tim said, recalling their discussions as they waited on their order.
He was right — but unfortunately, the timing was wrong for Kansas City Puzzle Company.
The manufacturer shut down in March and canceled the order. They couldn’t get any other manufacturers to pick it up, either. Their first puzzles ultimately weren’t delivered until March 2021.
Looking back, Stefanie said the timing was probably for the best, despite missing the boat on the puzzle mania of the coronavirus lockdowns.
“[Early last year,] I had a newborn and a 3-year-old,” she said. “We’re so busy now, and I feel like I’m barely treading water with a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old. So in hindsight, I probably would have just crumbled.”
Enthusiasm is still high for puzzles, the couple has found. Stefanie has attended many markets and pop-ups, where she gets to interact with customers. Some choose a puzzle with the goal of framing it. She’s had groups buy a variety of puzzles with the intent to trade after each person finishes. The puzzles are also available at a variety of stores throughout the metro area.
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Building the business has come with a learning curve.
In addition to running the company, Tim is a mail carrier, and Stefanie is a stay-at-home mom. Before having kids, the couple both worked in the service industry. As business owners, they’re tackling new challenges every day, including building a website, deciding how to handle Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales and understanding how to use QuickBooks: “I think it’s harder than taxes,” Tim said.
Even the language used in business is new to them, Tim said. “So many times we get a response from someone and have to Google ‘What does this mean?’”
Fortunately, they’ve escaped the supply chain difficulties plaguing many retailers, receiving their entire shipment for the holidays in early October.
Under the lid
The couple is already working on expansion outside of Kansas City. The company has partnered with Mario Zucca on illustrated map puzzles of Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Next year, they aim to release eight new puzzles. One in the works is a custom illustration from Cooper Malin of native plants and insects that will be 1,000 pieces. Beyond that, they haven’t nailed down definite plans, but some ideas they’re working on are an illustration with national appeal, a Milwaukee illustrated map, and an illustrated holiday puzzle.
They’d also like to add children’s puzzles to the lineup, Stefanie said.
“It’d be cool if we had a puzzle that (Loretta) could do,” she said. “Like all people, though, flipping over the pieces is her least-favorite part of puzzling.”
Beyond 2022, the couple has big dreams for Kansas City Puzzle Company. They agreed that longevity and creating a classic, high-quality puzzle that people can keep and return to for decades is one of their top goals. They’d ultimately like it to be their full-time pursuit.
“If I can do this full-time, that would be like my dream come true. I will have made it,” Tim said. “We don’t have to be millionaires or thousandaires, but doing this full-time would be absolutely wonderful.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.