2020 was a very tough year for everybody. Most of us have been affected by the pandemic or know someone who has been affected. At the same time, we feel that our perspective has shifted and we don’t see the world as it used to be just a year ago. We had a sense of security that has vanished now, and it seems we are still living in uncertain times. Puzzle Manufacture was born in the midst of uncertainty.
Interestingly, the restrictions and confinements forced people to remain inside, with a lot of free time and little things to do. Puzzle boxes that had been stored for years appeared again at the bottom of drawers, and families retook hobbies that were very common before high speed Internet and smartphones, like board games and jigsaw puzzles. As a consequence, 2020 rekindled this hobby among a lot of people, and the sales of puzzles skyrocketed during the worst times of the pandemic.
For the puzzle community, that was a silver lining among those cloudy 2020 skies. And yet, the best thing that happened to the puzzle world was previous to the outburst of the pandemic, and it took place at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020: Anna Sochacka, a puzzle enthusiast from Poland, created Puzzle Manufacture, and started to produce her own puzzles. While most of us simply complained about the absence of classic fine art themes among the current catalogs of most modern puzzle brands, she decided to take action and create her own puzzles.
The appearing of Puzzle Manufacture in the puzzle landscape has been the most refreshing and exciting news in decades. It was started by a hardcore puzzle enthusiast as a response to a need that was present in puzzle forums all around. And that is just one of the reasons why this new kid on the block sets itself apart from all the rest at this moment.
And yet, how was that even possible? How did a puzzle fan like anyone of us decide she would manufacture her own puzzles and actually make it happen? We had a lot of questions, so we reached out to Anna to place our first order and asked her if she would be willing to share her story and tell us all about Puzzle Manufacture. Here is what she told us.
What is your story with puzzles? How was the hobby born for you and how has it evolved over the years?
I have been puzzling since my childhood. It was not easy in Poland in the 80’s, since the choice of puzzles was very limited. I had mostly small boxes of not-interlocking jigsaws from the USSR and a few productions of early Trefl puzzles. As a teenager I got a few boxes of Ravensburger and Fame puzzles that my father bought in the Netherlands, where he used to work at times. The largest one was the 3000, Ravensburger, Palma de Mallorca. My greatest dream was the 5000, Ravensburger, New York City, which we couldn’t afford then, but I finally bought two years ago.
I took a break from the hobby when I went to study in Warsaw and later when I started work and a family. Then, I came back to puzzling about 10 years ago. My kids received a few boxes of Trefl puzzles as gifts on different occasions and they were not interested in putting them together. So, mama used to “help” by assembling them. Finally, I started to puzzle actively in 2016. My tough work schedule and my family responsibilities took the 24 hours of my day, and I decided I needed time for myself regularly, so I started puzzling more often. Since then I have completed around 150 boxes and more than 150k pieces.
I also started to buy puzzles. Initially, I bought anything I could put my hands on. However, I later decided to focus only on vintage (<1980) and art puzzles. My “to do” stack has 672 boxes now. I mostly do art or landscape puzzles, and from time to time fantasy, comic and maps. My favorite topic is Neuschwanstein Castle (I have about 40 different puzzles with this motive).
I think I’m a very conservative puzzler, since I don’t like modern inventions like Krypt and similar ones, and I prefer the classic cut. I never mix bags, I always use the guiding picture, and I always start with the border. With regards to participation on events, I take part in World Puzzle Days and Global Jigsaw Jubilee, although I’m not competing, but simply doing something fun with other people. I’m too slow for competition, but I don’t feel the pressure to be faster. I enjoy reading all the statistics during and after the event and watching the puzzles of other participants.
What does the puzzle landscape in Poland look like? What changes have you seen in the hobby since you started?
I think people in Poland are very keen on puzzles. We have a very active puzzle forum and a few Facebook groups. We also have two major puzzle producers: Trefl and Castorland, which feed us with puzzles at reasonable prices. There are also around a dozen online specialized stores. The thrift stores are rarely offering puzzles, so the main source of used puzzles are internet auctions. As for the topics, the most popular ones in the last years are colorful photoshopped landscapes and similarly colorful paintings by Josephine Wall, or Ciro Marchetti. In the last years I have also seen more collages, probably due to the availability of American brands. However, new releases by Trefl are also going in this direction, so I guess it’s a good decision by producers, since people buy them.
In the last years, even before the pandemic, puzzling became more popular than it was a few years ago. This is partially due to the fact that we are now more connected by social media and the Internet. For that reason, the topics are more aligned with popular taste. However, there is also a group of puzzlers looking for classic landscape and art images. They are mostly looking for D-Toys, Grafika, or used puzzles. Some years ago there were few people shopping for vintage puzzles on Internet auctions. Now those puzzles disappear very soon.
We are still rarely shopping abroad, partially due to the language barrier, and partially for fear of international transfers. Prices are also important, since the cost of a puzzle can go up a lot when we add the international shipping cost. However, this is also changing recently, and people are more ready to pay extra for puzzles that they want, either vintage or new. More people now are looking for art puzzles, and some producers have noticed it. There are even new puzzle brands, like Beks.
How did you come up with the idea of manufacturing puzzles yourself? How did the project come true?
Since I started participating at the Polish puzzle forum we often talked about puzzles wish lists. A lot of them included classic Polish artworks, which are rarely made by Trefl or Castorland. The better known painting in Poland is Battle of Grunwald, depicting Polish and Lithuanian victory over Teutonic Knights in 1410. The original painting is almost 10 m wide. The biggest version produced with the painting was a 2000 piece edition by Trefl, terribly cropped and absolutely rare.
I often wondered how it could be a problem, in the 21st century, to cut a puzzle of certain size. So I started to think that perhaps I could do them myself. Additionally, I had growing problems with finding anything in the new releases that I might like. And, if I found something, I soon lost interest after seeing the same picture 100 times on Facebook.
In the same period, around 2017, I started to feel very burnt out in my job. I used to work in banking, which has never been my passion, and after 20 years I felt sick every morning getting up to work. I also wanted to focus more on my family. Suddenly I realized that my kids had become teenagers and I might only have a few more years until they left home and I couldn’t spend so much time with them. So I started to think of something that I could do mostly at home and allowed me to pay the bills.
Initially, I thought about something in the personal development industry, which is blooming in Poland, so I enrolled in Coaching & Mentoring studies. When I finished, I knew one thing: I would make a terrible coach… However, I also learned a lot about making changes and about helpful coaching techniques. At the same time I met a lot of fantastic people whose opinions and life decisions were totally different than mine.
It all helped me with coming to the idea that maybe I could make the Battle of Grunwald in the right size, and many other jigsaws as well. The idea crystalized at the beginning of 2018. However I was still too afraid to make such decision and my family discouraged me: “You can’t be so insane to give up such a good job. You have no idea about making puzzles”. That sentence was usually the end of the discussion. But, as it often happens, fate came to help me. My company was bought by another bank and at the beginning of 2019 most of the employees were laid off. I saw this as a unique opportunity and refused to look for interviews for a similar job. Instead, I started to research the Internet about manufacturing puzzles.
Due to my professional background, I was sure I could manage the organizational part of the project, since I used to lead different processes at my bank job. However, I really had no idea about making puzzles. The first step was finding the right method and the right machine. I analyzed all kind of solutions and decided that, if I wanted to be flexible, I would have to cut the puzzles instead of using a cutting die and a press. So, I chose the device and ordered it.
The second step was to prepare the manufacturing process. First, I bought reproduction rights for the images from the National Museum in Warsaw, and started to plan projects in CorelDRAW (which I had to learn from scratch!). I had to prepare 3 types of projects: for printing pictures, for making boxes and for cutting the pieces. This took most of the time, from Spring to Autumn of 2019. In the meantime, I contacted printing houses and learned all I could about printing methods and different types of cardboard. I also hired a professional company to create the logo and branding.
My machine arrived in August and I started to produce the first prototypes. After the first attempts, it was obvious to me that I had to rework completely the project of the cut. Experimenting with the cut lasted until November, while I set up the online store. When the printouts arrived in February, I was shocked with the huge amount of paper. Now I had to glue the paper prints to the cardboard. Since I was still not sure that I would be able to sell 200 copies, I decided to glue just half of the edition. I started to cut first real puzzles at the end of February 2020 and the shop opened in mid March. That’s when Puzzle Manufacture was officially launched.
What was the most difficult part of the process?
The most important challenge was the decision to quit my current job and start the firm. However, the most difficult part of the process was finding the technical solutions for designing and cutting the puzzles and learning all the skills that I needed. And yet, I still made some mistakes that I had to correct in later releases. Mistakes in the way of cutting the puzzles, mistakes when gluing the prints, mistakes in the box design…
What input did you get from other people? Did you have to listen to many naysayers that told you it was not possible?
Most family and friends were quite skeptical. When you are a successful corporation manager making a good income, people would assume that you have to be content until retirement, and any change would be unreasonable. So, they made delicate efforts to discourage me and revert my decision. They didn’t believe that making puzzles could be a viable business. They would say “Puzzles? Interesting… I’m curious to see…”. My husband was helping me from the beginning with all the technical issues, although he was also skeptical about the outcome. And my kids found it cool and understood that I wanted to work on something I was passionate about, so they were very supportive. However, everyone started to believe around May 2020, when Puzzle Manufacture started to take off.
In the Fall of 2019 I ran a customer test with fellow puzzlers from the Puzzle Forum and the Facebook group. I made small versions (300 pieces) of a puzzle and sent it to 11 puzzlers, asking for their input. The samples were of different thickness and finish (although I prefer matte, most testers preferred glossy because they had better colors). They reviewed the puzzle and sent me their comments. There was one particular fellow puzzler from the forum that was very helpful from the beginning and provided plenty of advice and support. He would later become the first buyer. For the first time someone said something positive about my project. They liked the puzzles, they liked the idea, and they said they would buy them.
What do you think is the main contribution of your puzzles? Why are they different?
I had two goals. The first one was to make puzzles from Polish artworks. In my opinion classic Polish paintings deserved puzzle versions, but nobody else had showed interest in them before. The second goal was to produce art puzzles that are not cropped and respect the original, and that are not artificially colored with digital programs. I think I’ve created such puzzles, since I am respectful to the size and color of the original artwork.
Furthermore, I also care for the variety of the paintings. I don’t simply accept the criteria of other producers, who repeat the same images all the time. I can understand it might make sense from a business perspective: they produce what the client buys. However, how can people choose different themes when they are proposed the same ones over and over again? All brands repeat Mona Lisa, Sistine Chapel, and Tower of Babel. Most brands stopped producing art puzzles in the 80’s (with some exceptions like D-Toys, Pomegranate, or Grafika). And the brands producing great art motives are limited by the technique used, because they have the same die cut for everything. Having a different die cut for every puzzle is too expensive, and that’s why I explored a more flexible method.
How would you describe the reception of this new brand? Should Castorland and Trefl be worried?
So far, the reception of Puzzle Manufacture has been very positive. People are happy with the tight fit, the beautiful colors, and the variety of shapes. They are accepting the different “touch & feel” of the pieces. When I first built my puzzles, it felt strange. The pieces are very different to the pieces of other brands, since the edges are sharp. They don’t have the oblique edges that we see in most pressed puzzles. So, they feel different in the hands. The first time I completed one of my sample test puzzles, I felt strange for a while, until I got used to it. So, I was afraid that the testers would feel the same. In fact, people noticed it, but no one reported it as a defect.
Castorland and Trefl have nothing to worry about. I’m targeting customers that have been out of their focus for a long time. I could compete with them with the big puzzles, but nobody is publishing large art puzzles anyway. I don’t think 200 people buying Sun in May will make an impact on their books. Much more so since all my puzzles are always limited editions. I am basically targeting customers like myself, who have trouble choosing anything from the current offers of most brands. Besides, Puzzle Manufacture cannot compete with their prices either.
7. What are the main challenges of your project for the future, considering that many brands published wonderful puzzles for a few years and later went out of business?
The main challenge and first priority is to stay in business. For me it means much more than just having a job. Puzzle Manufacture really cost a lot emotionally and I wouldn’t like to go back to where I was before. Initially, I want to become an expert in what I’m doing, build a basic customer base, and get as much feedback as possible. I want to release a few more puzzles from the Museum Collection before making any changes. After that, I would like to include modern art. I have a list of artists to contact, and I hope that at least a few of them will like the idea of publishing their artwork as puzzles. I wouldn’t mind trying with fantasy images and anime as well.
As for the business itself, sooner or later I will have to outsource some components, like the production of the boxes. The rest of the process should stay as a family business, at least in the next 5 years. In fact, I hope that my husband will join Puzzle Manufacture in two years when he retires. I’m pretty happy with the distribution process as of now, but I might have to sell through other distributors if the business grows, including Amazon. I will also try to get in touch with distributors from Asia and South America, since these regions are harder to reach. Of course, it will all depend on the input that I get while the business develops. We will see.
We want to thank Anna for sharing her story. But, above all, for this wonderful contribution to the puzzle community. We don’t think she will need too much luck because her passion might be enough. Besides, her puzzles are excellent and you should give them a try. Since they are limited editions, most of them will become collector’s items very soon. That’s why I told Anna I wanted a copy of every puzzle she produces.
Thank you, Anna.