As a kid, Kevin Lane watched his mother and grandmother build elaborate cakes by stacking layers upon layers of confection using pans that could split apart. When he wasn’t in their bakery, he was learning how to draw different shapes with a book his mother had bought him. His favorite thing to design? Castles.

“It’s almost like that seed was planted way back when and it took me several years to bring it to life,” the founder of Create a Castle says. The seed sprouted in the summer of 2016 when a family vacation led to a life-changing idea.

I spoke with Lane about the growth of his game-changing splittable sandcastle toy, which has quickly moved from an idea to a Toy of the Year (TOTY) award-winning design. He spoke of the future, how the TOTY award affected his business, and the importance of building memories.

Toy Book: I read you were a web developer and started Create a Castle after a vacation. Tell me about that.
Kevin Lane: Back in 2016, we decided to go on vacation and visit family in Laguna Beach, California.

I was self-employed — actually, I still am self-employed — with a business called Code Hounds. While on vacation, I was trying to escape just for a little while from the daily grind of building and designing websites. I went down to the local hardware store, bought some five-gallon buckets, a hacksaw, and some tools to do some sculpting.

[I went] down to the beach and did what I had to do. [I] hollowed out one of the buckets as a form. [Then] I saw this dad and son using a flip mold — the traditional flip mold that everybody and their mom and grandmas have. They flipped it, they went to lift it, and I think the plastic had broke as they flipped it. They lifted it and it didn’t work right, and the dad and son just got frustrated and they [just said], “Let’s just go in the water.” That’s really the aha! moment I had on the beach, watching that dad and son interact together. We’ve all seen it, we’ve all been there. Even if [those molds] do work it’s kind of one dimensional.

So that’s really how I dreamed it up, and it was just by chance that I happened to be doing all this website development at the same time and I wanted to escape from the technology. That was really my escape, just building sandcastles with my kids.

TB: Is Create a Castle a full-time endeavor now? If so, how did you make the transition?
KL: As time went on with Create a Castle, we realized that there was a lot more upside to it. It could scale much larger, much quicker. I started putting a lot more energy into Create a Castle.

I taught my wife how to manage all the legacy accounts we had with Code Hounds. She would focus on doing all of the updates and simple redesign changes. Anything out of scope for her, if I wasn’t around, either we could wait until the night when I could do some things or we’d reach out to one of the outsourced team members that we’ve built up over the years.

The Pro Tower Kit features a split-apart design for a new way for families to build sandcastles.

TB: How did you design the Create a Castle? What was the process of bringing the brand from an idea to an actual product?
KL: A lot of this feels like divine intervention. While I was on vacation, I was working as entrepreneurs do, and one of the projects that I happened to be working on was rolling out someone else’s invention into the Amazon channel. The inventor actually put me in touch with the engineer that he worked with to bring his product and brand to life so he could give me some tips on how to roll it out onto Amazon. I started talking with the engineer … and that’s really how I formed my relationship with our engineering team by owning Code Hounds, working while on vacation, and building that relationship.

After that, we got home. I did a ton of research between looking at Amazon and Walmart for similar products. Bigger places, to see if anyone had anything like this. I ordered an eight-gallon or ten-gallon bucket from Amazon, got it, immediately cut the bottom off, cut it in half, drilled holes for a crude prototype, went down to our local lake beach, and saw if my theory would work. There’s no way you can lift a large bucket filled with wet sand off because of the vacuum issue. I said, “Let’s just zip tie it and cut it off.” So that was the initial crude prototype really.

From there, I started talking with the engineer more in-depth. I think we went through more than 100 prototypes in total. On the first one we were both happy with, I actually had friends in the 3D printing space, so I could take his CAD files. At MakerBot they would modify it for the 3D printer and rip out prints for me almost overnight. I would literally be bringing these things to the beach and building audiences of 40-50 people during the peak summer. [They would be] asking “What is that?” and “Where can I get that?”

After that, it got to the point where I really had the true prototype and I would bring it to the beach. I literally had, I believe, five or six different investors approaching me on the beach. That’s when I knew that I was really onto something. That just doesn’t happen by chance — random people on a beach saying can we invest in your idea.

I didn’t want to jump to any investor; we could self-fund at that point. We really wanted to hold all the equity for the business upfront. We’re talking to investors now, but they’re specialized in the toy market.

TB: What changes has your company undergone since its inception in 2016?
KL: The idea was formed in 2016. The actual business wasn’t formed until 2017, in June or July. Our first container landed in December of 2017.

We haven’t tapped into the bigger market, so we haven’t had to make a lot of changes as of yet. Winning a TOTY is changing that perspective because it puts a spotlight on us.

Kevin Lane and his wife at this year’s TOTY ceremony, at which Create a Castle won the award for the best outdoor toy.

TB: How has your business changed since winning the TOTY award for the best outdoor toy?
KL: It’s really put us into the forefront of the toy industry. We’re a young startup. I don’t know if there’s another company that has done what we did — win the TOTY in just over two years as a startup.

We were kind of thrust into this position of our five to seven-year plan now turning into a two to three-year plan. Now we’re talking with bigger box stores, clubs, and we’re basically on everybody’s radar. It’s going to give us many more opportunities for distribution and to help bring our business to the next level.

TB: Do you have any plans to expand or enter into any licensing partnerships?
KL: Licensing is definitely in our five to seven-year plan. We have some really big plans to expand out to do some really unique things with licensing. It goes way beyond the standard with some really hyper-creative ideas that will be able to change the topography of not just sand sculpting, but also snow because our product works year-round.

Create a Castle can be used to design snow sculptures.

TB: Where do you see Create a Castle heading in the future? What new kits are on the way?
KL: We have new shapes and sizes mapped out to be out within the next year or two. Instead of a round castle, you might see a square one. Different shapes and different sizes, different add-ons for the original and the new platforms. That’s the really cool thing about this; it’s a really open system.

If you think of LEGO, it started with just the one core of brick units that would stack together. Now look at all of the different things you can do with LEGO bricks. I feel like Create a Castle has the same kind of possibilities. We can get into different shapes, sizes, and add-ons.

Not all sand is created equal. One beach may have incredible sand with clay that forms really nice and easily, whereas other beaches are more granular and you can’t always stack it. I can stack on one beach, but on another I have to break all the parts apart and do them individually. Still, you can do some amazing stuff with or without stacking. That goes back to the open-endedness of this platform. It doesn’t have to be one single tower — it can be a whole village full of different sizes and shapes.

TB: What are your best tips for building sandcastles?
KL: Use Create a Castle. That’ll make your life a whole lot easier in the process of building more elaborate sandcastles.

The true importance — just like everything else in life — is practice makes perfect. I always stress to all of our customers to watch the videos. This isn’t the traditional way of building a sandcastle; it’s definitely a little bit different. Watch the videos we have out there as resources and learn. Then just practice over and over.

TB: Tell me about the Create a Castle lesson program.
KL: I was heading to Surf Expo, but it got canceled because of a hurricane. We took a hard right turn and headed to Destin, Florida where there was a sand sculptor who I wanted to meet. I hooked up with him and came up with the concept of using his ability and my platform to fire up a lesson program.

We were supposed to start it now, but we can’t due to COVID-19. The lesson program is unique because we’re partnering with businesses that are going to be selling our products like Kitty Hawk Kites and potentially Walmart. You’re going to learn about the program and realize, “Gee, I’m on vacation — I can now take this kit and go and learn some really advanced tricks from someone who knows about the industry” and how to use our platform like no one else. We basically built this platform on the premise that you’re going to come and get a lesson for one or two hours, and you will always walk away with a kit and you’ll understand all the parts inside and out.

The open-ended possibilities of sandcastle making shown through a chessboard in the sand.

TB: Besides the delay in the programs, how has COVID-19 impacted you?
KL: We did a lot of trade shows throughout the end of 2019 and early 2020. We spent a lot of time and money to build relationships and get orders, but unfortunately, a lot of the specialty shops are putting their orders on hold or just pausing them because they’re not open, they don’t want the inventory, and they don’t know how long this is going to last. That’s really the biggest impact for us. All the time, effort, and dollars we spent in the trade show marketplace has come to a screeching halt.

This is our peak sale time, and it’s all on pause right now. Amazon isn’t allowing non-essentials to ship to its warehouse at the moment. It’s one of our biggest channels and we can’t even ship to them right now.

TB: Is it true that a percentage of your sales go to the Marine Mammal Center? Why this particular organization?
KL: We’ve changed that a little bit. We originally had a relationship with Mystic Aquarium because we wanted to find a good cause to give back to. It seemed like assisting with marine life [was the best way to do so], but we’ve pivoted.

We found a different charity in the same area where we are starting up our training program, and it’s going to be the perfect synergy. This amazing organization called Sandcastle Kids takes kids from all over the country and it gives them an all-expenses-paid trip for a one-week vacation in Florida. The reason they’re doing this is for families that have children who are battling cancer. This is a smaller organization really giving back to an incredible cause. It’s less capital intensive for us, and we’re giving something to families that are going to be making memories with their kids in a time when they really need it.

TB: What is the biggest challenge for a sandcastle toy company? What competition is there?
KL: We’re changing the lifelong mindset of how someone is conditioned to build a sandcastle. Our whole system is, “split it, don’t lift it.” I’ll hand it to a family and ask them to use it. The first thing they do is fill it and try to lift it. The biggest hurdle for us has been to recondition the mind that you don’t have to lift this thing anymore, you don’t struggle and have the whole top break off. Just split it in half.

Merchandising with specialty retailers is another. They were putting our kits next to the cheaper flip molds. They’re not really direct competition, but they still are because they still make a sandcastle.

We’re working on a box design right now to help that and we’re looking into POP displays for select stores. [We are] properly merchandising it, so you walk up to this beautiful display, a video goes off that talks about what Create a Castle does, and it will show examples on the video and maybe a couple of quick tutorials to show people how we’re differentiated.

I don’t feel like we have direct competition because our sandcastles are sandcastles on steroids. We’re compared to those traditional molds, but it’s just not in the same ballpark. This is really more for those families who want to make a memory.

Anybody can take a bucket, fill it, and lift it. Even if it does work it’s not going to be doing a whole lot. Our whole concept is really about making memories together and taking photos.

That’s the stuff we’re learning right now through COVID-19. That’s the stuff that matters. Technology is great; it’s a great babysitter for a little while. But are your kids really going to remember one of 10,000 apps? No. Will they remember that day they built an awesome sandcastle with their mom and dad? Yes.

With COVID-19 in full swing now, I feel like families are going to really cherish these moments going forward. In light of it all, I think this [era] is really going to harness the power of the family unit.