Innovative uncle builds business brick by brick

Innovative uncle builds business brick by brick

Innovative uncle builds business brick by brick

Phil Keller is a good uncle.

With 10 nieces and nephews living out of state, that’s no small feat.

The Midwestern native realized that connecting with all those kids could be difficult, so he began using Lego - the ubiquitous Danish building toy captivating the world for decades - to have quality play time.

That evolved into Bricks & Co., a technology company exploring the limits of creativity with Lego. Late in November, Keller opened a store front for the company at 2914 East Madison Street. So far, it’s been surprisingly successful.

Collectors can come special order rare sets and families can grab a cup of mixed bricks for $10. Pre-selected mystery packs with curated pieces, mini-figures and a sticker sheet for $30.

“It’s a great way to practice free-building,” Keller said. “We’ve already sold half the packs we made and we’ve been open for two weeks, so that was a surprise.”

His own passion for Lego began, unsurprisingly, when he was a child.

“My parents didn’t keep alcohol in the house, so I used Lego to get away from the family,” Keller said, only half joking.

His mother realized he was using Lego to connect with his sibling’s children, so she unearthed all the old building guides from Keller’s childhood sets.

“There were two sets in particular I remembered and wanted to track down,” he said. “There was this motorcycle shop I never completed, and another set was opened at my 7th birthday party. Some pieces got lost and I couldn’t finish it.”

Keller said he scoured his childhood home for the pieces, and that he would have paid 10 times the value just to finish the sets.

Although he considers himself a creative type and had degrees in industrial design, he was working with a management consulting firm doing digital innovation in Los Angeles.

“I was pretending to be a suit,” Keller said. “My wife was promoted at Boeing, so that gave me an excuse to come to Seattle and change from a career I wasn’t really enjoying.”

When he arrived in the Northwest, he joined an adult Lego fan group and started meeting and building with other people. His data-science interest helped spur a desire to make a technology company revolving around Lego and how people approach creativity and building.

A long-time Lego retail partner help set up Keller and Bricks and Co.’s co-founder Justin Marx. Starting as an online-only company, they worked to buy and sell sets.

The brick and mortar location is more of a Lego laboratory, Keller said.

“We are into understanding the frustrations and aspirations around a builder’s experience with Lego,” he said. “We’re also the only Lego store in Seattle proper.”

Because Bricks & Co. is a second-hand retail store, Keller is able to sell in-demand mini-figures like those from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. But you can also make your own figure for $3 from a table covered in Lego body parts.

Bricks & Co. is also using crowd-sourcing in a way to help put sets back together. When the company gets a new set, it will put the pieces and builder’s guide into one of four work stations. Adults and teens (and advanced 12 and 11 year olds) are welcome to come put the sets together according to the guide to see what pieces are missing. If a set is complete, it’s good enough to sell. If not, builders are encouraged to sift through the tables of extra bricks to find a matching one.

“We’re the only store I’ve ever heard of doing something like these community build stations,” Keller said. “If you are waiting for friends across the street at Cafe Flora and have a half hour to spare, come over and build. We’re also playing with the idea of rental models. We’re seeking to deliver a world-class retail experience.”

While the storefront itself is tiny, Keller said that at any one time, Bricks & Co. has from seven to 10 times the amount of sets that would fit in the store.

“It feels like a small footprint, but we’re really much bigger than we seem,” he said. “We want to encourage building in all forms. We even have a “requests” tab on our website for those hard to find pieces.”

Keller and his wife, who hails from Central Europe, are heading to Europe on vacation this winter. While the Lego House in Denmark isn’t explicitly on the agenda, he said he’s crossing his fingers.

Visit Bricks & Co. online at