Matthew Goins is constantly surrounded by cardboard boxes — they fill nearly every corner of his family’s home in Washington, D.C. In his dining room, a chandelier casts an elegant light on a mountain of cardboard. His three children use a pile of boxes in the living room to dive onto the sofa.
“We’re in an interesting reality as a family,” Goins said during a recent Zoom interview.
His wife, Marnel, put it more bluntly: “I need some semblance of order and some peace and quiet, and that is not what’s being offered right now. I’m just trying to do laundry and — ” She broke off with a laugh. Marnel has a full-time job, an entrepreneurial husband and three young children.
The Goins’ family home currently doubles as the headquarters for Puzzle Huddle, the children’s puzzle company the couple founded in 2018. Though 2020 has been a difficult year for many small businesses, for some companies like Puzzle Huddle, the unique events of the year have boosted sales beyond the owners’ expectations.
Matthew left his job in the technology sector last year and now runs the business full time. He spends his days packaging puzzles for shipment, personally responding to customer emails, managing Puzzle Huddle’s Instagram account and co-parenting his kids. The company receives around 800 orders a day, compared to 100 to 200 daily orders at this time last year.
Puzzles with diverse characters
The company’s puzzles feature diverse characters in scenes depicting prestigious career options — astronaut, veterinarian, chef, politician. Puzzle prices run between $12 to about $25. In one popular puzzle, a young girl, working as a scientist, pours liquid into a beaker with a determined look in her goggled eyes.
The idea for the company grew out of Matthew’s personal experiences as a Black parent shopping for his young children. He remembers searching unsuccessfully for age-appropriate products with characters that looked like his own kids. He and his wife, who met in graduate school at Howard University, started conducting some informal market research in their social network. They quickly realized many other Black parents were facing a similar problem.
“A lot of Black parents have the same worldview when you’re looking for things that are very affirming for your kids,” Matthew Goins said. Instead of Black scientists, he said, he saw a lot of white princesses.
He decided to fix the problem himself. He began constructing rudimentary puzzles by printing out images from Google, gluing them onto cardboard and cutting out the pieces. When he decided to turn the project into a full-fledged business, he transitioned to contracting with professional artists to design the puzzles and worked with a Chinese manufacturer on fabrication.
Small, Black-owned businesses
Sales grew slowly, then all at once. COVID-19 created a booming market for educational children’s toys, particularly among parents working from home with young kids to entertain all day. The summer’s protests following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others sparked a wave of support for Black-owned small businesses across the country.
Matthew was thrilled with the opportunity to share his product with more people, but he faced an inventory challenge. The pandemic created staffing shortages and safety concerns at factories, leading to decreased output. Puzzle Huddle couldn’t fill all its orders in a timely fashion.
“You apologize a lot for things being out of stock, and you continue to apologize,” he said.
Meanwhile, the company’s status continued to grow. Puzzle Huddle earned a coveted spot on Oprah’s Favorite Things list in November. Sales shot up again. “Essence” and The New York Times included the company in their holiday gift guides. Mail carriers began doing daily pickups at the Goins’ home.
As things took off, they needed more help. So they hired a half-dozen people to pack boxes in their basement. The Goins’ children — ages 7, 5 and 3 — insisted on helping, too.
“They mostly put the [address] stickers on crooked, and that’s their contribution,” Matthew said. “Them helping actually makes the work significantly less efficient.”
A risky financial endeavor
Business is going very well, but Marnel said it’s still a risky financial endeavor. The family relies on her steady income as an interim dean and communication professor at Marymount University. Still, she feels they’re ready to start making more strategic investments in Puzzle Huddle in early 2021; renting warehouse space is her priority.
Even within the chaos, the family still makes time to do a puzzle together every now and then. The older Goins kids favor puzzles featuring artists, while their youngest is a bit more egalitarian in his selection.
“I’m not sure my son has a favorite,” Matthew said. “He’s 3. He’s interested in throwing the pieces across the room.”