It was perhaps inevitable that Gavin Ucko would end up owning a company designing and selling puzzles, for he had been creating them since he was just seven years old. Ucko started the award-winning The Happy Puzzle Company 22 years ago, when he was 23 and it sells more than 400 puzzles, games, challenges and puzzle books to around 150,000 customers, of which 14,000 are schools.
The former Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School pupil became the person his teachers could turn to if they had an empty assembly slot or if outdoor PE was rained off. But Ucko, who had his heart set on becoming a teacher after studying psychology and modern languages at Thames Valley University and received a Masters in the psychology of education from University of London Institute of Education, did not initially consider puzzles as something from which he would make a living.
“I didn’t see any way I could turn it into a career,” he admits. “But it all kind of just happened and there were some bizarre coincidences. When I was doing my Masters, the head of my course came to me with a set of puzzles he didn’t want and thought I could make better use of them.
“Around that time, a carpenter I knew who made wooden puzzles as a hobby and would take them to public places to watch people try to solve them asked me to shadow him for a few weeks, which I did. He then gave me a set of 15 puzzles and said to me: ‘You’ve got two degrees that are relevant to this, take these puzzles and go and create something with them.’”
At the time, Ucko, an experienced madrich, was living in the Bnei Akiva house in Woodside Park and had a “ready-made audience” of parents who were happy for him to conduct children’s parties, something the company still does.
Ucko, now 45 and living with his wife and four children aged between three and 14 in Edgware, was helped by the fact that in the early 1990s everybody read newspapers – there was no internet – and he was given a lot of publicity. He says the “most important thing” the company does are the “puzzle challenge days in school – we run programmes for up to 300 children, improving their thinking and team skills and developing their perception of what they can achieve”.
Of the 21 full-time staff, 11 of them work in schools. Puzzles and games are obviously Ucko’s passion, but while they are now his livelihood, the Edgware Adath Synagogue member loves sharing this passion for the benefit of others. “From a professional view, there is an understanding that we’re doing something that is actually improving children’s skills and it’s improving them in a way that is very unusual,” he says. “The work we do in schools involves taking them out of classroom and doing stuff they don’t perceive as learning – but they’re learning without realising it and so are more susceptible to it.”
“We pride ourselves on the fact that everything we create in some way will develop thinking skills in children and adults. If it can’t do that in some way, then we won’t create or sell it. A total of 60 percent of the games The Happy Puzzle Company sells in the UK are only available through it, many of which are designed in-house. And games that Ucko designed as a child and teenager are still available commercially in some form.
He is most proud of the game Pandemonium “because it’s very difficult to create a game that adults and children can play on the same level and we succeeded in doing that”, the critically- acclaimed Ice Cubed, a mathematical game “with a very simple concept but it’s something that had never been done before”, Welcome To Puzzlington, “which is the world’s first mathematical train set”, which was created on a train, and the Jigraphy Football Map – this had a limited run of 12,000 copies, which were supposed to last for a year, but sold out in seven weeks.
The company’s bestselling product ever is The Amazing Clock Kit – it has sold 110,000 kits. But, as Ucko admits: “There were some games that were not such bestsellers.”
Indeed, eight years ago, the company launched a code-breaking game in the UK called Talk In Telephone Numbers. “It was an absolute disaster in the UK, but it got picked up in the United States by a company that rebranded it and it was very successful there.”
The company, which has a turnover of about £4.5million, is also not exempt from the problems of the recession. “When people have to cut back, puzzles don’t rate high on the list of priorities. It was absolutely tough during the recession for us.”
The company has started creating its own plastic moulds, allowing it to greatly expand its range of products, and has launched its international trade catalogue to secure overseas distributors. Ucko, a volunteer business mentor, advises: “Listen to the people around you who are experienced, and be realistic in your expectations. Most people who are successful don’t become successful overnight; it happens because of careful, thoughtful planning, cash flow and things like that.” As for his company’s future, he says: “I’d like to do more of the same and to increase the reach that we have, so many more children and adults can benefit from what we do.”
• Details: http://www.happypuzzle.co.uk/