Lindsay Gaskins' first foray into the brain-game market was a bust. After raising $75,000 in seed money from Chicago venture capital firm and incubator Sandbox Industries, Gaskins opened a "brain fitness" mall kiosk in May 2008. Customers who stopped to check out the games, puzzles, books and software expressed interest in the products, but most didn't reach for their wallets. Because the kiosk was adorned in bright, kid-friendly colors but sold a number of products made for adults, many shoppers were confused about the intended audience.
Rather than scrap the business altogether, Gaskins tweaked the model, improving on what did work. "The few products that did sell were the ones that were open," says Gaskins, who worked as a buyer for Sears for five years. Likewise, the salespeople who sold the most were those who'd actually tried the games, knew how they worked and could explain them to customers.
After raising another $450,000 from Sandbox, Gaskins ditched the kiosk, rebranded as Marbles: The Brain Store and opened a shop in downtown Chicago that October. The new logo, décor and signage spoke to kids and adults alike, and the bigger space allowed for a more interactive experience, so that customers could test-drive any product. Gaskins also required sales staff--dubbed BrainCoaches--to play with the inventory so they could deftly navigate customer questions.
The store was an immediate hit with shoppers of all ages looking to stay mentally sharp. In 2009, Gaskins opened three additional Chicago stores. More followed, including outlets on the East and West coasts. Today Marbles: The Brain Store boasts 27 U.S. locations and employs 185 people. Annual revenue is close to $20 million.
Each store stocks about 250 carefully curated products, 50 of which the company developed itself, says Gaskins, who has enlisted neuroscientists, psychologists and occupational therapists to evaluate Marbles' products and offer testimonials on which parts of the brain each one strengthens. It might sound tedious, but the playful stores and displays of products with names like Idiom Addict, Rock Me Archimedes, Stick Bombs and Catchoo prove otherwise.
Online shopping is no match for this brainy brick-and-mortar empire. "Interactive retail is kind of the future," Gaskins says. "And very hands-on, fun, engaging retail is where it's all going." In-store events such as Teacher Tuesdays and Monthly Game Nights continuously feed the chain's growing customer base.
Investors have taken notice. Cuneo & Company, a New York-based private venture firm, has led two investment rounds since 2012, putting up more than $3 million total. Gavin Cuneo, a partner at the firm, points to the skyrocketing market for brain-health software and biometrics, which research firm SharpBrains predicts will increase to $6 billion by 2020. The burgeoning Boomer population, longer life expectancies and consumers' heightened interest in healthful living feed this industry.
"This could be a 500-store chain at some point," says Cuneo, who now sits on Marbles' board and imagines the business expanding from shopping malls to airports and other novelty locations.
In addition to opening more stores, Marbles is allotting investment funds to its in-house product development team, which aims to beef up the number of proprietary products the company sells. "Our goal is to get up to 40 or 50 percent proprietary," Cuneo says. This not only differentiates Marbles from competitors; it also boosts profit margins. Pretty smart, indeed.