Written by Patty Rasmussen Tuesday, May 22 2012
Snapshot: Lindsay Gaskins, CEO, Marbles
Lindsay Gaskins is energetic, intelligent and fun -- all essential elements to her company, Marbles: The Brain Store. Tapping into an interest and growing industry, a field called neuroplasticity—the concept that a person can continue to grow or modify brain structure and neural mechanisms—Gaskins decided to open a store offering brain games for people of all ages. And it turns out Gaskins wasn’t the only one interested in brain health. In addition to offering products to customers wanting to maintain cerebral agility, Marbles sells products for those coping with ADHD or suffering memory loss from strokes, Alzheimer’s and brain injuries.
From one retail location in downtown Chicago that opened in October 2008, Marbles has grown to include 19 stores in Chicago, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They’re opening stores on the west coast and hope to have 30 physical stores by the end of summer. Marbles also has a thriving e-commerce site at www.marblesthebrainstore.com.
Gaskins’ previous business experience was limited to a corporate setting, though she also worked at a business incubator, Sandbox Industries, which was instrumental in the Marbles start-up. Her leadership skills developed more organically; Gaskins was a successful high school and college basketball player and high school teacher and coach.
Womenetics: Did you have an innate desire to be a business owner?
Lindsay Gaskins: I was always intrigued by it. My natural tendency was to be a leader; I’d done that in my life in different capacities. I was in my early 30s and had some great experiences under my belt but still didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with my career. Having the chance to start my own company seemed like something I wouldn’t be able to do, but when I found Sandbox Industries and was able to figure that out, it opened up doors. It feels like what I was always meant to do.
Womenetics: Marbles, specifically, or being a business owner in general?
Gaskins: I think being a business owner, creating and leading a team and being an entrepreneur in general is a good fit for my personality.
Womenetics: How is leading a business organization similar to being a high school basketball coach?
Gaskins: Very similar, in fact. I also played basketball in college (Wesleyan University, Connecticut) and was captain on some of my teams. I like to lead by doing and by being a hard worker. Having to deal with different personalities, setting priorities and training are essential to success. Coaching helped me figure a lot of that out.
Womenetics: Tell me how and why Marbles came to be?
Gaskins: We really wanted to create a space dedicated to the whole idea of brain health and neuroplasticity - the idea that you can improve your brain by working it, kind of the way you improve your physical fitness by exercising. This is getting your brain active by challenging it.
We went after it in a retail format because there were software products being designed for people to use on their personal computers at home, and there were some online subscription models, but we wanted to create a space that went from crossword puzzles to software, in terms of assortment. Our thinking was let’s enter with crosswords and exit with sophisticated software that’s proven to improve your memory by 10 years.
We started in May 2008, the heart of the recession, with a kiosk that failed. But when we opened the store (in downtown Chicago), the response was so fantastic we knew we were onto something. We continued to test the business model, testing different kinds of locations, and now we’re growing rapidly. We’re opening stores on the west coast in a few weeks so we’ll have stores on both coasts. It’s been a really exciting year — two years, really.
Womenetics: Other than the timing issue, what did you learn from the kiosk failure to help you succeed in the concept’s next iteration?
Gaskins: It was all about the experience. Retail is very detail oriented. The customer may not notice everything you do to create something special, but it all factors into the experience. Very specific details that were needed made a huge difference: what people wore, how they greeted the customer, how the products were displayed, the information/educational materials we provided, what the window looked like, every little thing down to the carpet color. The retailer has to be very particular about how things are done, so I definitely learned a lot about that part of it. I thought because I’d worked in retail, I could do it on my own. Luckily I figured out that I needed some experts involved. It really changed the game to have valuable opinions to help grow the brand. I learned a lot about not trying to do everything yourself and enlisting a team to help make things work.
Womenetics: Marbles is not a franchise, right?
Gaskins: They’re not franchises; we own and operate all the stores. The thought is to really own the brand and to continue to tweak our assortment. Each store represents the brand in the same way. We have a sales process that we use, along with training and design concepts for the store that we follow.
Womenetics: How did you come up with the name?
Gaskins: It’s a play on words from the saying, “Don’t lose your marbles.” We first tried the concept of Marbles Brain Fitness, and the response wasn’t as good as when we changed it to Marbles: The Brain Store. We typically hear folks say, “I want to go to that Brain Store,” when we first opened. Once they become customers they’ll say, “I want to go to Marbles!”
Womenetics: Do you have people coming to your store thinking it’s a toy store or is it very apparent that Marbles isn’t just a toy store?
Gaskins: People often do come in thinking it’s a toy or game store for kids, but I think once they’re in the space and speak with our associates - whom we call “Brain Coaches” - and have a chance to engage with the products they realize this is a store for them. It can be great for families; kids really love the store. It really is a great experience for adults and we focus on the adult customer. We have high top tables where people can play with the products. Again, it’s a very thought-out process. We only carry products we think adults will enjoy, even if it’s a product that was developed for a child. People are so used to a toy and game store that’s only for kids, they’re happy to have a store that’s more sophisticated with good customer service. We really differentiate ourselves by the help in the store.
Womenetics: Where did you get your funding?
Gaskins: Luckily, I worked at a business incubator in Chicago called Sandbox Industries. They funded the business and have been huge supporters of ours as we’ve grown. In addition, we’ve taken in venture capital money. We did about $9 million in sales in 2011.
Womenetics: You offer e-commerce at your website, but many of your products lend themselves to a traditional bricks and mortar store. How do you expand your physical retail stores in a way that is economically practical?
Gaskins: Keep working at it. People do succeed in retail because people still like to shop. I don’t think that will go away, but you have to be conscious that shopping online is a real way of shopping now. Our website is there to complement our stores. So we have to innovate. Even though we’re young, we have to figure out ways to make our website as interactive as our stores by bringing that Brain Coach alive on the site to create the experience.
Womenetics: What makes the Marbles experience unique?
Gaskins: Friendly, fun, engaging, thought-provoking – all of those things are good adjectives to describe what we do. The first thing we want to be is fun. Our stores are an entertaining place to be, and our employees are really important. The added benefit is there is a health aspect to what we sell; people can feel good about the purchases they make from Marbles.
Womenetics: What was the best piece of advice you received as it pertains to building your business?
Gaskins: One of the things we didn’t do when we first started was thinking about how the customer experience could be similar across different stores and thinking through the customer experience with our employees being actors on a stage. The Brain Coach is there to entertain and being successful meant customers clapping and purchasing. That was a great piece of advice that resonated with me.
Womenetics: What’s your Jeopardy fact? If you were a contestant on Jeopardy, what’s a nugget of info that Alex Trebek would ask about you?
Gaskins: When I was 13 years old, I won an environmental award and got to go to Washington, D.C. and meet President George (H.W.) Bush. It was an award for a recycling program that my teacher had primarily done the work for, but I was the representative. It was a pretty thrilling thing to be that young in D.C. and have my picture taken with the president. I think the picture is still hanging in my parents' house.
If you would like to be in the company of other fabulous and flourishing women, join us at our Entrepreneurs 2012: The Millennial Moneymakers event on June 20.
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Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD and Blue Ridge Country.