Small Business

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Toying with trash: green start-up guru redefines garbage

Melbourne inventor Paul Justin, 37, sells what could be the "best toy ever", according to Wired blogger Charlie Sorrel. Justin's toy, Makedo, is a reusable, clip-based connector kit including a 'safe-saw'.

Made in China, where Justin has contacts, Makedo is sold in 40-plus countries and graces Selfridges, the Tate, and the Guggenheim, according to Justin's publicist. The product easily enables you or your child to play Santa elf, and build anything from a cardboard dog to a spaceship, with boxes, plastic containers, loo rolls: whatever you rescue from your recycle bin.

At a time when The Guardian says trash is swamping the planet, Justin's "Lego with a conscience" seems smart - hence the various impressive design awards he has won, including Red Dot, Good Design and Core 77.

Justin predicts that his three-year-old, five-staff studio start-up that designs and markets Makedo will hit profit soon.

"We're heading into that zone," he says, adding that he has yet to trump market resistance.

"It's a hard slog, "I think the market's very used to a very finished kind of package, where they say: 'This is a toaster - I'm getting a toaster. It's really straightforward.'


"Whereas, we're saying: 'Here's some stuff - and what you need to do is go out and find some stuff to make.' You need to tap into your imagination - and it feeds off your passions and your creativity."

He adds that, to get the product right, he has had to go through numerous design “incarnations”. He has also laboured to get the pricing correct and become a global toy market player on a tight budget, with just five staff, who cover sales and product design among other areas.

But within his first year of trading Justin managed to establish a core group of quality distributors in the US and Europe. According to Justin, the distributors came on board because they grasped that Makedo was unusual and engrossing enough to connect with choosy consumers capable of deep, enduring loyalty. With that market in mind, he sells Makedo through speciality retail channels such as design stores and high-end, educational toy shops instead of mass-market chains.

Before founding Makedo, the father-of-four was the design director of a boutique product design and development agency called Buzz Products.

The spur for Makedo came from seeing his children follow their playful instincts for exploration.

"As adults, we fall into this trap of trying to finish stuff and do it properly - and there's all this right and wrong. And I could see that just wasn't how they functioned at all, " he says.

"They were just going for it, following where their interests were. And that was the framework of thinking from which Makedo was born."

Justin founded Makedo in July 2009, privately funding the venture on the back of a "think tank" meeting attended by four canny, creative associates including family. Everyone enthused.

"I was told in no uncertain terms that, if I were to pursue that idea, each one of the people at that table would be willing to back it," he says. The session raised $200,000, which he promptly pumped into the business.

Practical business advice came from the Springboard Project run by The Australian Design Unit. Springboard lived up to its name, he says.

The project put him through his paces, making him address the business case for Makedo. Areas he studied ranged from intellectual property to financial planning: "all that stuff that you don't learn in design school", says Justin - an RMIT industrial design degree holder.

His dream is that his green product will shift how people think. He hopes to infuse what he calls "the youth of today" with a creative outlook: a vital asset in an evolving economy.

Meanwhile, Makedo is growing. So far, Justin has sold 250,000 kits and expects to shift many more.

“We are only at the very beginning,” he says, adding that, until now, he has just been introducing Makedo's concept. He says he sees ample market potential in key countries such as the United Kingdom, America and Australia as Makedo moves from its niche beginnings to a broader audience.

His advice to anyone thinking of starting a business is simple.

“You've got to love what you do. You've got to be really into it because it's going to become your whole world.”