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Monica Dennis and the Puzzle Factory.

I have had the pleasure of meeting some seriously talented people during my time in the dLife offices, but one of the most driven, determined, and creative minds belonged to Senior Editor Monica Dennis.  Monica has created a puzzle business that is growing by tremendous leaps and bounds, and I'm so proud to be sharing her story here on SUM. 

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Kerri:  Hi Monica!  You are a very busy woman, working a full time job and also running your own business.  Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Monica:  Ha! The answer to that question is probably indicative of who  I am - a woman who can never seem to do things the easy way and who only wants to live out all the purpose and passions God created in me. I am a wife and mother of a thoughtful and creative 10-year-old boy and a stubborn but amusingly daring 7-year-old girl. I am a writer and all the other stuff you already mentioned. I am huge supporter of positively motivated people who do more than just talk and I am thrilled to be a guest on your blog!

Kerri:  You used to have to work with me, you poor thing.  And now here you are, profiled on a diabetes blog.  What's your connection to the diabetes community? 

Monica of Village Works EnterprisesMonica:  Type 2 is my in-law. My husband has it. His mother has it. Her sister AND brother have it. My husband's two brothers have it and I think their maternal grandmother did too. Those are just the ones I know about. My job is not so much to support my husband with it because, frankly, he doesn't need me to say much. My job is to keep my children from developing it now or later, and every now and again I do have to remind my husband of that. When I got my current job, I wasn't looking to gain more diabetes knowledge. I just love helping people in general and wanted to do something that spoke to my heart. The blessing was that I could help people with something I was in fact living and I could help my own family too because those myths that plague people are pervasive and it's nice to be able to contribute to that conversation when it comes up at the family gatherings - as it usually does. And FYI, working with you has forever left me scarred, er um, I mean grateful to have had you add more color to my world. :-)

Kerri:  LOL!  Well, moving on to your incredible business!  Monica, you have been running your own business for quite some time now, and your products are both customizable and totally fun.  Can you tell SUM readers a little bit about your business?

Monica:  The short answer is we are Village Works Enterprises LLC and my business partner and I make jigsaw puzzles - greeting card jigsaw puzzles, children's puzzles, photo puzzles. Traditional art puzzles are in development. We use 100% original artwork and we do it all right here in the grand old U.S. of A. We take those puzzles and we show people that the jigsaws they loved to play with as kids and that probably contributed to some of their best memories are still capable of captivating you and your children, creating new memories for a new generation. And even better, they can be made to suit your taste. They can be used for more than fun and games, but for business marketing and invitations and favors and fundraisers and on and on and on. (At least 41 different ways and counting. Got the list on our site!) As we tell people, the only limit is their own imagination and even that doesn't have to stop them. We have imaginations too and we're always happy to put them to use for a client of ours.

[More after the jump!]

Kerri:  What made you get involved in puzzles in the first place? 

Monica:  We weren't looking to do puzzles or any business, actually. In the beginning, my friend Ramona and I were volunteering at the summer literacy program held at our church. They needed educational materials and we went looking to buy some things. We wanted jigsaw puzzles but not characters or modes of transportation or colors, that sort of thing. This camp was about showing our children there is more to the world than what they are typically exposed to. We wanted jigsaw puzzles that accurately reflected the culture of the children who would be using them - mostly African-American, some Latino and white, and children adopted cross culturally. Ramona and I went to a toy store and walked down separate aisles calling to each other, "I don't see anything. Do you see anything? Just the usual. Blah!" We got to the end of the aisle and to this day neither of us can take credit for coming up with the business because we literally said it at the same time, "We should make them!" We had no idea what that entailed but it immediately felt right.

Kerri:  Your business has gone from "an idea" to "real deal."  Impressive!!  What helped you move Village Words from a dream to a reality? 

Monica:  1999 was the year everything got under way. It was before we had children and a real motivation to make this thing work. We spent years researching how to do this cost-effectively, and what and how we wanted the artwork to be. I was in grad school at the time, so Ramona took a 16-week business workshop. Three years later I did the same program. We did some serious trial and error of not only the puzzles, but of how to be in business and we did this all in the midst of getting married, having 3 children between us, volunteering, working full-time jobs, me eventually searching for a better fitting full-time job, and then finding my current job, which takes even more of me than any job I had before then - and I love that about it. Ramona is our pastor's administrative assistant so her hours are pretty much nonstop. We took really small steps, there were starts and stops, but by 2005, we felt confident that we were finally operating like a proper business.

There's a really long bridge between dream and reality and to keep going, we simply had to want it. We had lots of times when we were tired. We didn't want to stop, mind you. Just rest - for a long time. Usually around the time of a pregnancy. lol! But my 2nd child actually gave me some weird energy even before she got here and I was going nonstop for about 2 years after she got here before I needed another break. The things that helped get me through those times when self-motivation was practically nil was just being around other people trying to do the same thing. I had joined groups like Ladies Who Launch and worked with an incubator group for a few weeks - just me, about 5 other women in transition, as we were called, and a moderator. It was so darn inspiring and invigorating. I read books and watched business shows like The Big Idea, which is off the air now, but other shows like Your Business on CNBC fill that gap pretty well. I network a lot and am a member of a few groups, but my primary networking group is called Savor the Success. I LOVE LOVE LOVE them. The founder, Angela Jia Kim, and everyone really are so very motivational, always willing to help. Angela's expertise is amazing and she's got that mind like a steel trap. Once she meets you, she knows you and she thinks of ways to help grow your business. I have attended their conference, as I did with Ladies Who Launch, and again the stories of other entrepreneurs can really get you going. But to actually get going, you have to work your business like your life depends on it.

Ramona of Village Works EnterprisesWith full-time jobs, working the business means nights, weekends, holidays, vacations, lunch hours -- you make it work because you love it. You have to love it or it will drain you. You don't need a lot of money to start but you do need time, a willingness to color outside the lines, and if you have support, all the better. You have to know what you're good at and do that, but you can't neglect the other stuff that you may not enjoy. Eventually you get help to do the stuff you don't enjoy, but from the start a business needs planning and strategy. (We learned this the heard way. Please don't ignore the planning stage.) Marketing, sales, networking, customer service, etc. Each of those requires planning. We were fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants types in the beginning even though my creative ways were balanced by my partner's logical, practical ways. A lot of time in the beginning you just do what you can and need to because it's easier to be reactive than proactive. Bu eventually you have to stop and make a plan. Take the time because it's worth it and things flow smoother with a plan. Consistency also takes planning and effort. Customers need to see consistency before they will really trust you for the long haul. Did I mention you need a plan?

This past year has actually been our best ever and the difference, besides finally making good plans, was another thing an entrepreneur needs - help. My mother and brother are graphic designers and worked with us to get going. Other members of my family gave time and money. They all still help. Ramona's family has pitched in financially and has been our assembly line. They still ask to do more. In 2010, we added on the financial investment of working with a coach and a virtual assistant. The costs can seem prohibitive, but you can be creative with this too or start really, really small. I was able to start really small with the coach and it's been a huge help. I believe in telling people what you need and not taking on something just because someone else says you should. The coach I work with now was a quiet voice that stood out among a lot of really boisterous ones that I had happily listened to over the years because they were such cheerleaders, but I was never quite moved to invest in one of them. This coach, Sandy Martini, spoke the things I felt. She wasn't pushy or pitchy or hyped up. She felt in line with our way of doing things and that's how we operate. We work with people we feel are in line with our way of doing things, from the artists to the people who cut our puzzles - sometimes that extends to the customer too. That how everything feels authentic and how we are able to pass that authentic feeling on to our customers.

Kerri:  For readers who aren't familiar with your work - YET - can you tell us about the products you are selling?

Monica:  We sell a variety of jigsaw puzzles:
  1. Greeting card jigsaw puzzles, which are all original artwork. You write your message on the back, break up the pieces and mail. Envelope included.
  2. Children's puzzles - also original artwork. We want to inspire children and we started a line called "Yes, I Can!" The first one was based on the 2008 election of our first African-American president. We extended that theme to a coloring puzzle and an inspirational Dream Big puzzle and we even have blank puzzles for people who want to do their own thing.
  3. Puzzle bouquets - these are puzzles that look like bouquets of flowers. The message on the basket can be customized.
  4. Pre-designed puzzles that people can customize
  5. Photo jigsaw puzzles - send us an image and we can just turn that into a puzzle or we can add some graphic treatment.
  6. Traditional art puzzles - we don't have this on the site yet but we have been working on one for a couple of months now and the project got bigger when we decided we needed to add an educational component to it so it can be just the puzzle or that additional piece (that shall remain a mystery for now) for kids or whomever finds it helpful.
We can even do puzzles drawn by hand - but that's a little treat we're still developing for our customers.
The puzzles are traditional cardboard - REALLY quality. Not that flimsy, cheap stuff - and we have wooden and magnetic ones too. There are about 25 different sizes and piece counts right now, and a couple of shapes like a teddy bear, dinosaur and a heart. We go as small as 2x2, 4-piece puzzles up to 18x24, 551-pieces. We are always working to increase the size and piece counts we offer, though.  We can customize EVERYTHING. We create shapes (we have a child-shaped one so far) and specific piece counts if you want something we don't already have. Sometimes we need a decent minimum to do something brand new for someone, but never be afraid to ask us because you never know what we're already doing. We may be able to work out a deal.

What we were really excited to offer in 2010 is price matching, money-back guarantees and to be able to say we can do most orders in 2 weeks or less (after the customer approves the artwork) and that's during the holidays too! We explain more about why should buy a Village Works puzzle on our site so you can see all you get.

The thing about our puzzles is they are so versatile. They are great for their traditional uses, but you can also do invitations, favors, business marketing, thank you cards, change of address cards, birth announcements, sports team photos, school photos....so much stuff! We usually use boxes and tins to package the puzzles, but when we do custom jobs, Ramona and I treat each one individually and look for packaging to fit the occasion. We'll find what you want, but we'll give you some thoughts about ways to improve it too. We have our own artists and graphic designers who all have different styles. You just get so much more than what you see on our site because we don't send out anything we don't love. And puzzles are a perfect fundraiser too because the more you sell, the better the production price can be and in turn the more money you can raise for your organization. And when you do a fundraiser with us, if you choose, you get your own page on our website with a unique url and form for people to fill out, but we can send you something to print out as well or we'll do it for you. Some people are more tree conscious than others. :-)

We are really easy to keep up with on Facebook and Twitter. And people who opt-in to our newsletter (you can choose weekly or monthly) are automatically members of our Bronze Puzzlers loyalty group, which has a few perks of its own. You get bumped up to Silver Puzzler after your first purchase.

We know there are other companies out there doing puzzles, but most of them are just doing photo puzzles and some of them offer puzzles for fun too, but take a look at their art then take a look at ours. Compare their quality to ours. Come on! We are SO much more colorful and fun - and our puzzles aren't bad either! lol!

Kerri:  So what's next for Monica Dennis and Village Works?

Monica:  Groupon! We heard about them when the company wasn't yet 1-year-old and for a company likes ours that thrives on bulk production, Groupon seemed perfect! The problem was they were focused on brick-and-mortar businesses and getting people to do things locally. It makes perfect sense, but what about us online businesses that can service the world, you know? Still we emailed, we called, we had out virtual assistant email. We watched them grow and finally come to Connecticut then we thought, "Now! Surely now!" But nope. Not quite.

Well, Nov. 19, 2010 was the day Oprah did her Favorite Things episode and she listed Groupon as one of her favorite things. Now, I don't watch Oprah that much like I used to years ago so even though I knew that episode was coming up I didn't know when. You know who told me about it? Pete - from Groupon. He called me that very night, asked me how I was doing and told me they were insanely busy because they were just listed as one of Oprah's favorite things. Then he asked if we wanted to do a deal in Fairfield County. Um, heck yeah! He explained how they were finally branching out to online businesses and how he thought Village Works would be great for this. I was bouncing off the walls at the thought of not only finally working with them, but doing so right after they had just gotten the best endorsement a business can possibly get right now. We planned a conference call with Ramona on the line for another day and we worked it all out. It was a matter of getting the information together and then waiting for a date. But right around the new year, Pete was transferred to a different department - Oklahoma.

So you want to know what's next for us? Because of Pete's transfer, our Fairfield County feature deal not only has a tentative date now, but Pete held on to us as his client and he has already made us a side deal in Oklahoma City too! You'll see us there from January 31st through February 2nd!

I can't tell you how excited we are to have this much exposure at one time. We started this because we wanted to help children and, ultimately, our community. We want to have a nonprofit side to the business that can focus on philanthropy. We also want this business to show our kids that you can choose the route of a traditional job, like my husband - and me and my partner too, for now - or you can pave your own path, but you can be fulfilled either way you go as long as you are true to you and your abilities. My children see that in me and my husband, who loves his job too. Ramona's daughter sees that in her. All of this is our goal. We're making that dream come true - please, please pardon the pun - piece by piece.

Kerri:  Monica, thank you so much for all of this information, and I hope the Village Works Enterprises efforts are HUGE and SUCCESSFUL in 2011!


Good to see Monica grace SUM, absolutely!

:-D And we're happy to be here!

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