The following interview was originally published by Dieline in a four-part series for their blog.
Brand Spotlight: Fun and Games with Art of Play
At a certain age, we put away the dolls, the toy cars, and the goofy games, never to use them again. We’ve reached that point where, suddenly, it’s just not okay to play anymore. It’s time to grow up and get serious.
But Dan and Dave Buck believe that anyone (at any age) can explore a state of playfulness—and in fact, they highly encourage it. In 2013, the twin brothers founded Art of Play, an online shop that sells decks of cards, puzzles, and other amusements. Their goal? “To inspire moments of epiphany and foster community.”
Art of Play wasn’t their foray into magic, card games, and owning a business, though. Ever since they were kids, they enjoyed collecting cards, which prompted them in 2008 to print their own and sell it. But even before then, they showed a clear affinity for entrepreneurship and a love of magic and games. “Even before, when we were 14 years old we had a website with an address for people to send checks for an instructional booklet teaching card tricks that we wrote. Our parents would take us to the post office after school so we could ship out orders.”
So how did these two take a deep love for playing cards and magic to create an impressive online lineup of items to reward curious, playful minds?
How Dan and Dave Buck Transformed a Passion for Card Games into their Business
Inspiration for entrepreneurs is all around, but the deep details about how a brand goes from an idea to a physical product or service are fuzzy.
How did you get the initial idea to start Art of Play?
We collected playing cards. It was something we got into when we were younger and came from an interest in card tricks. We would buy decks to practice with, and ultimately this leads to collecting them.
Our interest in playing cards inspired us to print our own deck in 2008. We sold them on our website at dananddave.com, and they did really well. We printed more cards the following year and before we knew it, we had a playing card company. In 2012 when card collecting really starting to gain popularity, and more and more card producers were making luxury playing cards, we saw a need for a dedicated site, a resource for card collectors to shop a curated selection of high-end playing cards.
How did dananddave.com feed into Art of Play?
Prior to Art of Play, dananddave.com was our only company. The site was for magicians and offered instructional DVDs on magic tricks, magic books, accessories and apparatus for magicians, and playing cards. It was our playing card inventory from dananddave.com that fed the launch of Art of Play.
Once you decided that this was something you wanted to pursue, what were your next steps? How did you take it from an idea to physical products people could buy?
Our next step involved coming up with a name and designing the identity for the brand. At the time, we read the blog, Art of Manliness, and that inspired the name Art of Play. Our spade logo was created almost a year before as a design experiment. It just seemed to fit, so we used it. From there, we built a website.
As for infrastructure, we again borrowed experience from operating dananddave.com. Our older brother had recently joined the team and it was perfect timing. We moved inventory from dananddave.com’s warehouse into his garage and set him up with fulfillment software, packing materials, and access to customer support emails. We basically gave him the keys to the operation. From there, our role with the company was mostly marketing.
How did you aim to make Art of Play stand out from other card brands?
We would offer great service and promote the best cards—a lot of which came from those other card brands. We celebrated the other card brands and featured their decks front and center. We weren’t trying to stand out, and that stood out.
When you were just starting, what did your operation look like? How many people did you have helping you then, and how have you expanded?
If we go back to early dananddave.com days, it was the two of us doing everything from designing the website to shipping out orders. In fact, even before dananddave.com, when we were 14 years old we had a website with an address for people to send checks for an instructional booklet teaching card tricks that we wrote. Our parents would take us to the post office after school so we could ship out orders.
Our first employee is still with us 10 years later. Since then, we’ve moved from a fulfillment center to our own warehouse. There are currently seven of us.
What products did you offer in the beginning? What about now?
At first, we only sold playing cards. Now, in addition to playing cards, we offer a collection of unique puzzles, games, and home amusements that have a mysterious, yet playful quality to them. We curate products that inspire what we call an “epiphany,” that moment when you discover how something works and are completely and utterly surprised and delighted by it. It’s a magical experience for everyone.
How did you spread the word about Art of Play when you were just starting out?
Posting to Instagram and running regular contests was very helpful in building awareness. On Facebook, we partnered with a few popular pages related to playing cards to cross-promote. It wasn’t like we were starting from scratch though. We already had a good reputation and large following with dananddave.com and this definitely helped us grow.
A Business Breakdown of how Art of Play Amusements & Games Got Started
Starting a business is easier said than done—from startup costs to finding suppliers and endless unexpected challenges.
Give us an idea of your timeline. When did you first get the idea for Art of Play, start hiring people, line up suppliers, etc. all the way to having physical products to sell?
We started thinking about a dedicated card site in early 2012 when momentum really started picking up in the card community. dananddave.com was selling more and more decks each year, and other brands were releasing decks left and right. This is also around the time that independent artists began launching decks on Kickstarter to great success. Late 2012 we acquired the domain artofplay.com, and on August 12th, 2013, we launched.
Our first employee with Art of Play was our brother, Justin. He joined the team in 2012 and has been invaluable in helping us grow Art of Play into what it is today.
Can you provide a breakdown of what costs went into getting Art of Play started?
The domain name was our biggest startup cost. Because someone already owned it, we had to purchase it for a lot more than if it had been unclaimed. We ended up paying a few thousand dollars for it. Second to this were the trademark fees, though only a few hundred bucks.
Did you have investors? If so, how did you work to line them up?
Just the two of us.
What was your biggest expense in founding Art of Play? What ended up being way more affordable than you’d imagined?
The cost of inventory would have been our biggest expense—easily several thousand dollars worth. However, it was already paid for by dananddave.com so we kinda just took it off the shelves from one company and put it on the shelves of the other.
What was way more affordable for us than we imagined was going with Shopify. For years dananddave.com was run on Magento, which was very costly to develop for. There were always bugs to fix and security updates to install. Choosing to go with Shopify almost eliminated all those costs. It worked out so well that we now operate all our retail sites on their platform.
How do you deal with inventory and storage?
We have the greatest warehouse manager on the planet. He was our first employee almost 10 years ago now and knows our whole operation better than we do. At first, he fulfilled orders in his apartment, then his garage, then a storage unit and now a warehouse.
What resources were the most helpful in getting the business started—websites, magazines, software, etc.?
Shopify has made launching an e-commerce site incredibly easy. And ShipStation’s seamless integration with Shopify allows us to process and ship orders sometimes minutes after they’re placed.
Having a partner is also a great resource. We’ve always been good collaborators and know how to bounce ideas off one another until we both feel it’s right.
How did you go about finding suppliers? Who did/do you work with?
Our playing cards are printed by The United States Playing Card Company, the makers of Bicycle. They use paper from sustainable forests and print with environmentally friendly water-based ink, and that’s attractive to us.
Who did you turn to for packaging your products?
We are very fortunate to have met Daniel Heffernan from Clove St. Press. His letterpress studio in San Diego, California has taken our packaging to a whole new level. It’s like now we are only limited by our imagination, and that has been a lot of fun.
How do you feel that the packaging/branding for Art of Play is successful in communicating the values and mission of your brand?
The mission of Art of Play is to inspire moments of epiphany and connect people through a state of playfulness. We have fun with our packaging and experiment almost every time. We try and surprise our customers with unique designs, and the packaging is our first opportunity to bring excitement. Usually, this invites an entirely new concept.
Where do you find inspiration for your new products?
We love browsing through stores to find inspiration, especially when traveling. We recently took a trip to Japan just to do this. We also tend to produce products related to what we’re currently in the mood for. For example, we love the outdoors and that has inspired some of our recent releases like the Camp Cards and Drifters. And our recent fascination with puzzles and games contributes to those items we now offer.
“Begin with Intent” & Other Advice for Entrepreneurs from the Creators of Art of Play
As an entrepreneur, you’re in for a lot of learning by doing. Turning to other business owners and learning about their experiences, though, can help you on your own journey.
What was your biggest challenge in founding Art of Play?
The first year was very slow. We didn’t understand how we could sell so many playing cards on dananddave.com and then only see a few orders here and there trickle into Art of Play. If it wasn’t a side project, we’re sure it would have tested our patience.
After the first year, sales began to pick up. Customer experiences were being shared on Instagram and Facebook, and word of mouth influenced new customers. We continued to add new cards to the site all the time, and eventually, it just caught on. We remember sales going from a few orders a day to hundreds a month in a very short period. And it's been growing ever since. Looking back, it was our persistence and dedication to customer service that really made the difference. We gave our customers something to share.
If you could go back and do anything differently in this process, what would you want to change?
Starting a business today, we would begin with intent. Knowing the purpose of your business is fundamental to grow. Five years ago, we pursued an idea. We had this vision for an online shop to buy playing cards, and that's pretty much it. It was like we built a rocket, and had no idea where it could take people, or that it could even take people places.
It was customer feedback that inspired us to think about our purpose and unleash Art of Play's potential. Now, it's not at all about selling playing cards. Our mission is to inspire moments of epiphany and connect people through a state of playfulness. This is what excites us, and it's something we can always work towards.
Did you make any big mistakes during the first few years you were in business?
Of course, we did. The first mistake was having an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. Vision is important and more important is a purpose. Another mistake was unmindful advertising on Facebook. We would set up campaigns and forget about them. The lesson hit us hard when our jaws dropped at the year-end ad spend. We’re always making mistakes. If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not learning.
Looking back, what was one of the best or most beneficial things that you did while getting Art of Play started?
We kept it very simple, which allowed it to evolve on its own.
What is your main advice to other entrepreneurs who would like to start their own company?
Every company begins by starting, so just start your company. It’s the only way. Begin with intent and focus on what is essential. Have an open mind and allow your company to evolve. Be fearless and never give up.
What’s in store for the future of Art of Play?
We are creating our own puzzles and games and will debut a few of them later this year. One we are particularly excited about is ¿Cuantos Puros?, a mind-bending puzzle concept designed by Adam Rubin. We have several new decks of playing cards in production. Each very different from the other. Next year we are planning to open our first retail location in Los Angeles, with others to follow in New York and Tokyo.
One dream is to have our own products accepted into the MoMA permanent collection.
What do you think has contributed to the success of your business?
Love. We love what we do and the people we work with.