A Conversation with Dan Kees (Blog or Die! Entry #19)

Accepted entry for the “Interview” category.

Author: LettuceBrick (Nice Try)

Word Count: 1,906

Judge’s Note:

* This entry was submitted before the deadline (Mon, Jan 15, 2018 10:10 pm), but I didn’t have a chance to post it until today.  The entry is valid and accepted for final consideration.

A Conversation with Dan Kees

 

With whom? I’m glad you asked. Dan Kees is the owner of PromoTec Specialty Printing, purveyors of, well, specialty printing. Oh, and he also prints custom designs on all manner of Lego for all manner of clients. And to top it all off, he builds! So without further ado, enough blather and on to the interview.

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The Standard Questions

LB: How did you get into Lego as a child and/or adult? What keeps you interested?

DK: I probably had some type of building blocks since birth.  I had DUPLO as a baby and never remember a time without LEGO. I got my first standard LEGO set when I was five, and it’s all I ever wanted after that. I probably entered my dark ages around age 16 or so. I actually brought all my LEGO to college but only pulled it out a couple times. When LEGO joined the force with Star Wars in 1999, I was drawn back in big time, and have been building ever since. I stay interested as an AFOL because of the high stress job I have owning my own business.  LEGO works as a great stress reducer. It’s just plain fun! Another major aspect of the hobby for me now is the community. I’ve made some great friends through LEGO clubs and conventions.

LB: What are your main areas of focus when it comes to building?

DK: My wife and I put on a large LEGOWEEN display every year, so that takes up a lot of my building. I always like to make at least one large “Wow” MOC each year. Those have included a working roller coaster, a large castle, and 55 Central Park West…otherwise known as Dana’s apartment building from Ghostbusters. I don’t really have a favorite theme. I’m often inspired by a single piece and just go from there.

LB: Describe your acquisitive process and how it relates to your building.

DK: I always try to avoid buying a lot of sets, though LEGO makes that very difficult. They keep releasing such cool sets that really appeal to the AFOL community. My main budget goes to Bricklink where I buy thousands of parts for our Halloween display every year.

LB: Do you use your own printed items in creations? Other third party products?

DK: Yes and Yes. When I first started printing, I made a lot of woodgrain tiles. I use these extensively in my MOCs. However, I rarely print anything new for builds. I use a lot of custom minifigs and accessories from companies like BrickArms and BrickForge.

The Printing Questions

LB: You run a printing business which also involves Lego pieces. How did you get into printing onto Lego? Is there an engraving component as well?

DK: I’ve worked in the printing business for almost 30 years. When I first joined BayLUG, I printed some LEGO business cards for fun. I went to my first convention that same year and was really introduced to the concept of custom printed bricks. I instantly thought…hey, I could that!  I got the word out and had multiple customers overnight. I do not do any engraving, just digital and pad printing.

LB: Are there any specific challenges that Lego presents that other materials do not? Or is printing on Lego easier?

DK: Printing on LEGO is actually pretty easy. They are made from ABS plastic which accepts ink very well. They are also very consistent, which makes them easy to print in bulk…especially when printing bricks. We can interlock them in stacks and print a large quantity very quickly.  The challenge comes from running a large variety of elements. Bricks and tiles are easy, but we also print all the way around minifigs. That can get a little tricky.

LB: I assume the customer provides the design and the materials. What challenges do you face in reconciling the two and what is the most challenging Lego printing job that you’ve faced?

DK: Fortunately, we deal mostly with large custom brick resellers. They typically send artwork that is accurate and well laid out. They also understand the limitations of the process. Some less experienced customers will draw extremely detailed designs that look great on screen. However, when you shrink them down to a 16mm wide minifig torso…they don’t work so well.  Minifigures are by far the trickiest jobs. As the industry develops, people want more and more detail as well as full wrap printing. Keeping things lined up over large runs is very difficult.

LB: I know you participated as a vendor for at least one Lego convention. How did that experience compare with your more usual method of sale?

DK: Vending at a convention was tricky, because I missed so much of the convention. I quickly realized I was not cut out for retail. I really enjoy printing more than selling individual parts.

LB: What is the future of custom Lego printing for you and the market in general?

DK: The future of custom LEGO printing is really in the digital process. There are a few of us pad printing parts, which is the process that LEGO uses. Pad is great if you want your custom parts to look like LEGO made them. However digital opens up a whole new realm of possibilities with raised effects, unlimited color options, and filling in nooks and crannies that pad printing cannot accommodate. Our ratio of digital orders to pad is probably 50:1. I don’t see any end in sight for custom printing. As 3D printing and desktop UV inkjet printers come down in price, I think we’ll see a lot more people getting into custom parts and printing. I’m excited to see what the next generation comes up with.

LB: To what extent and with what rigor do you separate “hobby Lego” and “work Lego”?

DK: There is a hard and fast rule that my work and personal stock shall not mix! On the rare occasion that I supply parts for a client, I always buy them “New” from Bricklink or LEGO PAB. Some parts are inevitably ruined when used at work.

 

The Community Questions

LB: How important is the Lego community both online and more locally to you as a printer and a builder? Do you sell to AFOLs only or just conventions or also the general public?

DK: The online community is much more important to me as a builder.  I like browsing the many Facebook, fan, and other community pages. It’s fun to see what people are building around the world. I feel like I could travel to just about any country and find some AFOLs to hang out with. I don’t use the online community much for business. Many of my favorite sites do not allow commercial posts…which I totally agree with and respect insistently. I have a pretty good set of regular clients that keep me plenty busy. I mostly sell to larger resellers. I get occasional requests from other AFOLs, but our order minimums usually don’t fit their projects. I no longer sell any of my own designs.

LB: Do you have an online Lego presence, business or otherwise?

DK: Not really.  I am involved with a few Facebook pages, but that’s about it. Most of my business comes from word of mouth and repeat clients.

LB: You have of late also taken part in Bricks by the Bay convention planning. (For a while now I think.) I believe you supply the brick badges and other printed items. Could you describe some of the planning that goes into that and other aspects of the convention?

DK: Yes, BBTB is one of the biggest highlights of the year for me. I love being involved with the organization. I print the badges, and any other custom parts needed for minifigs, event kits, etc. I donate a large portion of the printing. It’s a great way to give back to the community that I’ve enjoyed for so long. Recently, my company has also taken on some of the kitting for the con. It can be surprisingly complicated, but it falls right in line with our business. It takes an exhausting amount of planning to pull off the CON each year. I tried doing too much when I first joined, so now I make sure to only take on responsibilities that I have time to do well. I’m not nearly as involved in the overall planning as I once was. I mostly focus on any custom printing needs and kit planning for the badge, event kit, and workshops.

LB: Have you participated in collaborations?

DK: Yes, mostly with BayLUG.  I love helping set up large displays. It’s something I always wanted to do as a kid but never had enough stuff.  Now we have an unlimited arsenal of builds to create huge layouts…super fun.

LB: What is the Lego community’s greatest strength? What about its greatest failings and/or weaknesses?

DK: Hmmm…interesting question. I think the community’s greatest strength is the product itself. I strongly believe that LEGO is one of the most enduring and inspiring products ever produced. I would not be in a technical/manufacturing field today without it. Our greatest weakness? I’d say we expect too much from LEGO. We oftentimes forget that this is, at its core, a toy meant for kids. The AFOL community is a large demographic, but let’s not try to fool ourselves. LEGO is a toy company and needs to be run like one. They cannot cater to our every whim…and there are a lot of them 😊

LB: Do you have any thoughts on TLG itself and its relationship with fans, both of adult and long-term variety and of the more general customer?

DK: I think TLG goes above and beyond its core responsibilities when dealing with the fan community. They have been extremely generous with their support for BBTB and BayLUG. I’m sure it’s a constant struggle within the company to balance the fan relationship with core business values. LEGO Ideas was a huge bridge over that gap. I think they’re on the right path with the level of support they offer us big kids.

LB: And at long last, what do you think the future holds?

DK: More awesome sets and new parts! I often hear people say that LEGO has lost its way with all the new parts. They would prefer we only had 2×4 bricks. Those well-meaning folks just don’t get it. With every new part, LEGO opens our building palette to new possibilities. My favorite part of viewing other people’s builds are seeing the endless creative uses of new parts.

I do hold a bit of fear towards how LEGO will compete with the digital distractions kids now face.  LEGO struggles in the digital realm, with good reason. I feel the core of LEGO is the physical, tactile relationship between the user and the medium. I’ve used LDD a bit, but nothing compares with that satisfying “click” and having a great model to show for your efforts.  Emerging markets will help keep the company strong for years to come. Hopefully, future generations don’t get too lost in screens, and will still appreciate good old fashion playing with their friends.

Thanks!

LB: Thank you very much for your perspectives on general tomFOLery and your insights into the printing side of what you do. All the best for this still relatively new year!

Tales of a BrickLink Vendor: Life on the Coattails

Since the earliest days of the Manifesto I’ve been trying to find willing BrickLink vendor to write a column for the blog, without much success.  Either they said yes and never followed up, or provided me with content that was so short and/or bland that I didn’t see the point in publishing them.  Happily, all that changed recently when I happened to make a purchase from the store Bricks on the Dollar, only to receive an email a few days later from long time crony Carter Baldwin saying “Dude, what do you need with 200 of those dark tan helmets?  What are you up to?”.  It turns out Carter was good buddies with the vendor and through that small-world contact I found my man for the article.  As I would soon find out, the vendor in question put out a personalized regular newsletter and seemed to be more involved and excited to help his customers than anyone on BrickLink that I’d encountered over the years.  The guy really knows how to take care of his customers and more importantly for my agenda, he has something to say.

This purpose of this lengthy preamble is to remove any bias you may have towards the author, Chris Byrne.  Chris didn’t seek me out to pimp his store, I asked him to write the following article and I hope it won’t be his last.  Chris was even kind enough to include a discount for you guys, even though I told him it was a terrible idea and begged him not to.  So if you have any burning questions you’ve always wanted to ask a BrickLink vendor, have at it in the comments.

Use the phrase MANIFESTO at checkout to get 10% off your BrickLink order at www.bricksonthedollar.com

Without any further ado, take it away Chris!

 

Hey constant readers, my name is Chris Byrne and I have created for myself my own LEGO Life. No, not the app. No, not TLG’s internal newsletter. But a flesh and blood life. In 2009, coming out of my dark ages, I started Bricks on the Dollar, a store on the BrickLink marketplace. Oh do you remember the auctions, the grassroots feel, and Rolf in the chat room? I do. Since then I worked for Brick Fest Live for a two years (“boo! hiss!” eh, shut up, you have no idea what you are talking about), started a LEGO Artwork subscription called the AFOL Poster Subscription Service, curated the Brick Builders Club monthly LEGO mystery box subscription for a year, launched my own LEGO-themed mystery box called Clutch’s Secret Stash, put over a thousand videos on my YouTube channel, and opened an independent LEGO consignment retail store called Warminster Brick Shop. I’m probably forgetting something in there, perhaps I should write a resume so that someone like me could hire me in the future.

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But that’s just it. I have come to learn that I just cannot work for anyone but myself. Riding the coattails of The LEGO Group like so many do, and leaning heavily on the platform of BrickLink, I have made a name, a career, and a life for myself. It has been no easy path and I am not out of the woods yet, but every day is a new adventure with many surprises. I feel that working with LEGO as a business is the only monotonous, day after day activity I could do which would somehow always feel new and exciting. Even when I am doing the same thing every single day (no weekends here), it is still a thrill to take a step back and see what I have created. That thrill keeps be going.

In September, I spontaneously decided to open a brick and mortar Lego store called Warminster Brick Shop. And that’s no exaggeration. It was early September when I left the job I had behind, cleaned up the lobby at the warehouse I rent for my BrickLink store, painted the windows, and opened up shop on September 16th. I filled the store with local LEGO vendors who consign in the store, giving it a very wide variety of items. Warminster Brick Shop features LEGO in every form. New sets, retired sets, vintage used sets, bulk bricks, loose Minifigures, build your own Minifigures, polybags, posters, and more. I have been growing the store over the last 3 months with the intention of someday hiring an employee to watch the counter so I can return my full attention to BrickLink and my other ventures. At this very moment, I am busy with my work and helping customers when they come in. The store has some regular customers which is fantastic. I want WBS to be like Cheers but with LEGO. Maybe, in time, the store can host events and even stock some crazy sodas for purchase.

Keith, who is this guy and why isn’t he talking about cool MOCs?” Ever since I started selling individual pieces on BrickLink, I have been transfixed by the idea of helping AFOLs build their MOCs. I’ve attended a decent amount of LEGO conventions between 2010 and the present day and I have seen some wonderful, wonderful MOCs. While AFOLs are very resourceful and many of them have no need to turn to the ABS dealers on BrickLink, I would like to think that some of these creations would not have been realized without the work that myself and other sellers do. Sure, there’s LUGBulk (black bag drops over my head), Bricks & Pieces (ban hammer falls (read: fell)), or just buying enough LEGO on your own to get what you need, but sometimes it is just easier and quicker to order parts from someone just like you, but who actually enjoys sorting, inspecting, and counting. I have found this to be true even for myself. While I have a decently-sized BrickLink store, I would wager that no single BrickLink store has every part you need at a specific time to fully assemble a specific project. And while I am actively trying to change that fact, I myself have been placing orders on BrickLink of late for my collaboration with Carter Baldwin to product his own line of “Brickmania-esque” LEGO kits called [CARTERINDUSTRIES]. No matter how sorted your LEGO collection is, sometimes it is easier to just order parts from BrickLink in order to get what you need in a realistic time frame. I don’t think any of us would complain about having more LEGO, especially if it is something that you have shown a need for. In selling on BrickLink, I have shipped to all 50 US states plus some of its territories, 55 countries worldwide last time I checked, and to over 9,000 customers. I don’t often hear from my customers about what they are building or if their order in my store helped them in a time crunch, but I definitely live vicariously through the names on the orders received. Some standouts would be Angus Maclane from Pixar, some orders from Billund itself, as well as orders from Adam Reed Tucker, countless orders from Brickmania, and an order from someone who works at LEGOLand California.

Though my building skills are stuck in the late 90s, I pay very close attention to all of the new elements, new colors, and new techniques that I see from sets I part out, even if I don’t ever build them. Though it it purely theoretical, I can often visualize a LEGO build solution from my knowledge of elements in existence. My monthly mystery box features a brand new element which has been released within the last few months as well as an element that is long since retired. The goal is to, hopefully, surprise the recipient with real LEGO elements that they have never encountered. I do collect Blacktron I sets as well as old Samsonite bricks, Citizen Brick customs, sprues, original variants of elements that have seen updates, and non-production parts (when I can afford them). It is certainly a strange collection, but they all have significance to me. Aside from LEGO, I collect art, Beast Wars Transformers, and 1/100 scale Gundam kits. I also fancy myself a Soda Connoisseur, trying every new soda flavor I can find, live on my YouTube channel.

So now you know a little about me. I’m a LEGO-centric entrepreneur, I collect some LEGO fringes, and I have dedicated myself to helping AFOLs get the parts they need. Feel free to ask me any questions! Next time, I’ll talk about my LEGO Artwork project.

 

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