Puzzle Huddle founder Matthew Goins in his family's living room, which currently doubletimes as a warehouse.
Matthew Goins is constantly surrounded by cardboard boxes. They fill nearly every corner of his family's home in Northwest D.C.: The front door can be accessed by traveling through a precariously constructed tunnel of boxes. 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 as a diving board; the sofa cushions their fall.
"We're in an interesting reality as a family," Goins says during a recent Zoom interview.
His wife, Marnel Goins, puts it more bluntly: "I need some semblance of order and some peace and quiet, and that is not what's being offered right now," she tells me by phone. "I'm just trying to do laundry and..." She breaks off in the frenzied laughter of a woman with a full-time job, an entrepreneurial husband and three young children. "Send me ice cream," she concludes.
The Goins family home currently double-times as the headquarters for Puzzle Huddle, the children's puzzle company the couple founded in 2018. Matthew Goins 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 popular Instagram account and co-parenting his three kids.
"He is just very excited about chaos," Marnel Goins says of her husband. "I love watching him thrive."
Puzzle Huddle isn't your typical toy company. All of its puzzles feature diverse characters in scenes depicting prestigious career options — astronaut, veterinarian, chef, politician. The company also offers shirts and pillows with its characters. In one popular puzzle, a young girl with her dark hair in two puff balls pours liquid into a beaker, a determined look in her goggled eyes.
"Smart and Amazing," a customer wrote on Instagram. "Representation Matters!"
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The idea for the company grew out of Matthew Goins' personal experiences 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 says. Instead of Black scientists, he says, "you see a lot of Caucasian 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 working with a Chinese manufacturer on fabrication.
Sales grew slowly, then all at once. The coronavirus pandemic 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 and Breonna Taylor sparked a wave of support for Black-owned small businesses across the country.
Matthew Goins was thrilled with the opportunity to share his product with more people, but he faced an inventory challenge. The pandemic had created staffing shortages and safety concerns at factories, leading to decreased output. Puzzle Huddle couldn't fill the orders that were pouring in. Still, he managed as best he could. "You apologize a lot for things being out of stock, and you continue to apologize," he says.
One of Puzzle Huddle's 54-piece offerings.
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 included the company on its holiday gift guide. Mail carriers began doing daily pickups at the Goins home.
What had once been an entirely family-operated business started to burst at the seams. A few weeks ago they hired a half-dozen people to help pack boxes in their basement. The Goins children — ages seven, five and three — insisted on helping, too. "They mostly put the [address] stickers on crooked, and that's their contribution," Matthew Goins says. "Them helping actually makes the work significantly less efficient."
Business is going very well, but Marnel Goins says 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, such as renting warehouse space.Her husband hopes to partner with more local businesses like Busboys & Poets. Shoppers can already find their puzzles and shirts at Nubian Hueman at the Anacostia Arts Center.
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 Goins says. "He's three. He's interested in throwing the pieces across the room."