Last month, I had the chance to visit the LEGO offices in Enfield, Connecticut. How’d I snag such a sweet opportunity you may ask? Well, the LEGO AFOL Relations & Programs team (aka the “AR&P team”) issued a general invitation to sites like The Brothers Brick as well as to United States RLUG members to participate in a workshop. Unsurprisingly, the workshop spaces filled up in less than 24 hours.
I and 33 other lucky AFOLs got to sneak a peek inside LEGO’s U.S. headquarters and participate in several discussions about LEGO’s community outreach programs. In total, the workshop participants hailed from nine different RLUGs, including QueLUG, WMLUG, NEOLUG, TexLUG, MichLUG, NELUG, ConnLUG, RLUG, and PennLUG.
Representatives from the AR&P team included:
- Paul Striefler – Community Manager of the Americas
- Tanja Friberg – Senior Manager, Community Support
- Yun Mi – Director of Innovation and Development
- Tim Courtney – Community Manager, LEGO Ideas
- Sara Moore – Online Community Specialist
Our day started out with introductions and brief presentations about each of the RLUGs present. Then the AR&P representatives led discussions about various topics. We also participated in a building contest and got a tour of the LEGO Enfield campus, including the Compass House and the Brick House.
Tim Courtney: LEGO Ideas
The first discussion of the RLUG workshop was about LEGO Ideas. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this program, LEGO Ideas (originally named LEGO CUUSOO) is a crowdsourcing platform started back in 2008. Essentially, LEGO Ideas is a way for fans to submit original set designs in the hopes that their creations will be turned into an official LEGO set.
Tim presented the history of LEGO Ideas and shared some interesting insights about the program. To date, 125 projects have reached the required number of supporters (10,000) needed for review. Of the projects already reviewed, 16 of them have become official LEGO Ideas sets, including:
- 21100 Shinkai 6500 (2011)
- 21101 Hayabusa (2012)
- 21102 Micro World (2012)
- 21103 Back to the Future Time Machine (2013)
- 21104 Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover (2014)
- 21108 Ghostbusters Ecto-1 (2014)
- 21109 Exo Suit (2014)
- 21110 Research Institute (2014)
- 21301 Birds (2015)
- 21302 The Big Bang Theory (2015)
- 21303 WALL-E (2015)
- 21304 Doctor Who (2015)
- 21305 Maze (2016)
- 21306 The Beatles Yellow Submarine (2016)
- 21307 Caterham Seven 620R (2016)
- 21308 Adventure Time (2016)
- Coming soon Apollo 11 Saturn V
- Coming soon Old Fishing Store
- Coming soon Women of NASA
The presentation included many interesting facts about the LEGO Ideas program:
- Approximately 35 projects reach the 10,000-supporter level each year.
- Many fans complain that it takes too long for Ideas sets to reach stores, but they actually have an accelerated timeline compared to normal LEGO sets and reach stores much sooner. The main difference is that LEGO Ideas sets are publicly announced earlier than normal sets.
- LEGO interviews the builders whose projects reach 10,000 supporters. These builders are part of what LEGO Ideas calls “the 10K Club.” You can read these interviews on the LEGO Ideas blog.
- The original designers of official LEGO Ideas sets receive 1% of the worldwide royalties earned by LEGO for that set.
- LEGO actively tries to balance the number licensed versus unlicensed LEGO Ideas sets. Currently, LEGO selects averages about 2/3 licensed products (such as Dr. Who or Adventure time) and 1/3 non-licensed products (such as Birds or the Exo Suit).
- There’s a rumor that all the early LEGO Ideas sets are hard to find because they had very limited production runs. This is not entirely true. Only the very first set, Shinkai 6500, had a limited run. Only 10,000 copies of that set were ever produced. It’s so rare that the display set at the Enfield office actually comes from Tim’s personal collection. LEGO Enfield doesn’t own a copy.
- The designers for LEGO Ideas sets are limited to existing parts while transforming the original fan submission into an official LEGO set.
Although we didn’t get to see the upcoming Ideas sets, Tim Courtney thinks that fans will be pleased. He claims that the official versions of both the Saturn V and the Fishing Store capture the spirit of the original designs.
Sara Moore – Rebrick
The second discussion of the workshop was about Rebrick which, as Sara explained, has gone through several changes over the years. Back in 2009, the program was known as Shine! and it was intended as a website for LUGs to come together and share MOCs. In 2011, the program changed its name to LEGO Octopus. Then in 2012, the name changed again to Rebrick. Essentially, Rebrick was designed as a social media platform for builders. Sara admitted that Rebrick’s original design was flawed. The website had limited functionality and there was no clear incentive for users. Many users, myself included, found Rebrick difficult to understand and use.
My own experience with Rebrick has been mixed. At first, I thought it was LEGO’s answer to Flickr: a place to upload, store, and share your photos. Then I discovered that several of my builds were posted on Rebrick. Other users had found my MOCs and uploaded them to Rebrick (listing me as the builder, of course). So then I just assumed that Rebrick was a place to share or repost anything, kind of like Reddit. I didn’t know that Rebrick also hosted LEGO building contests regularly.
Finally, last year in 2016, Rebrick underwent yet another redesign. The name of the website remains the same, but it is no longer a place to share MOCs. (In fact, all those old pages of MOCs are gone— presumably, forever.) Instead, Rebrick’s sole function now is a contest platform. The new website works on mobile devices (unlike previous versions of the site) and lists the current contests that LEGO is hosting. These contests often have unique prizes. For example, the grand prize for the recent Adventure Time contest was an electric guitar signed by the members of the TV show’s cast and other contests have given away exclusively-designed pieces straight from LEGO’s model shop.
Sara said that Rebrick’s most popular contest was the one in honor of The LEGO Movie. Builders were asked to create 15-30 second stop-motion animations depicting a minifig taking apart something normal and rebuilding it into a weapon to fight President Business and his micromanagers, and the winning scene was incorporated into the movie. Sara said that there will be 17 contests in 2017 and 22 in 2018.
Tanja Friberg – LEGO House
For the third workshop discussion, LEGO’s Senior Manager for Community Support, Tanja Friberg, told us a little about the new LEGO House in Billund, Denmark. The House is currently under construction and has been in planning since 2010 when LEGO purchased and demolished the old town hall in Billund. Tanja says the LEGO House is not another Legoland. Instead, the LEGO house is intended as a community hub.
The first floor of the building contains over 2,000 square meters of public space, including restaurants and a LEGO store with customized products only available in Billund. The upper floors of the building are paid admission and will feature a museum, a masterpiece gallery, and more. The outside of the building will feature gardens and sitting areas. Everything on the lower levels will be open to the public and shared with the surrounding community. The LEGO House’s grand opening is September 28, 2017.
Some interesting facts about the LEGO House are:
- The LEGO House will be Billund’s tallest building (23 meters tall)
- The design of the LEGO House includes 21 “bricks” and uses a new type of architectural design that doesn’t require pillars inside each room. Instead, the building uses a new type of steel construction resting on keystones.
- The 2×4 brick on top of the building features clear “studs” that you can stand on and look down into the building. This design was added to the original plan after a suggestion by AFOLs.
- The LEGO House set is not actually sold by LEGO. Instead, the company gave all of these sets to local businesses in Billund for free as a way to apologize for the massive construction project. The local businesses keep the profits and LEGO earns nothing. So if you want to purchase a new copy of this set from a store, you’ll have to walk into a grocery store, a pizza shop, or even a car mechanic in Billund.
Paul Striefler – Support Programs
The presentation where I learned the most information was Paul’s discussion about LEGO support programs. LEGO offers eight different types of support for AFOLs. These are:
- Annual RLUG Support Program
- Project Support Program
- LUGBULK Support Program
- Event Support Program
- AFOL Convention Support Program
- RLUG Hub Event Support Program
- Online RLUG Support Program
- RLUG Award Support Program
Essentially, these support programs are LEGO’s way of getting large quantities of LEGO bricks into the hands of people who use more than average amounts of LEGO bricks. Tanja explained that LEGO doesn’t like to see prices go up on LEGO reseller websites like Bricklink. So for example, if you need 10,000 2×2 green bricks for an upcoming build, LEGO hopes you might be able to get them directly from LEGO (through one of these eight support programs) rather than buying the pieces from a third-party vendor. The trick is simply finding out which program you might qualify for, especially since LEGO heavily regulates each of the programs.
Annual RLUG Support Program: This support program is a free allocation of play brick, sets, and activity boxes that LEGO sends directly to RLUGs in exchange for the brand awareness and goodwill LEGO fan clubs bring to the company. This brick can be used for shows, for collaborative builds, or essentially anything that improves the health and sustainability of the RLUG.
Project Support Program: This program is available for groups undertaking large, unique LEGO building projects. For example, if your group wants to build a life-sized LEGO dairy cow for an upcoming county fair, you can apply for the project support program in order to purchase the specific bricks you need directly from LEGO at a discounted bulk price. However, in order to qualify for this support, LEGO must approve your build idea, which means it needs to be unique, it must adhere to LEGO’s guidelines, and, of course, it needs to be impressive. Only a handful of projects have been approved since the project’s inception.
LUGBULK Support Program: If you are a member of an RLUG, you’re probably already familiar with LUGBULK. This support program is a once-a-year sale of LEGO pieces at a greatly discounted rate for members of qualifying RLUGs. Do you need 5,000 Angry Kitty Tails? Well, if you meet certain qualifications you can purchase them through LUGBULK! (Trust me, people have done stranger things before and they’ll do it again). The main purpose of this program, according to Paul, is to stimulate individual builders by growing their LEGO collections. LEGO asks that LUGBULK buyers not resell these discounted pieces for a profit. (In fact, that is generally the rule of thumb for all of LEGO’s support programs.)
If you’re curious what LUGBULK orders typically look like, check out these images from Germany’s 1000steine.de LUG’s 2009 order, GMLTC’s (the Greater Midwest LEGO Train Club) 2010 order, and TexLUG’s 2012 order:
More fun facts about LUGBULK:
- There is currently a LUGBULK pilot in testing where individual RLUG members place their own individual LUGBULK orders, pay for their own order separately, and their parts are delivered directly to their home address (rather than the massive ordering, paying, and mailing system that is in place now). Paul said that this change will add more time to the LUGBULK process internally, but that it’s something LEGO believes would benefit the process. Currently, large LUGBULK orders often get stuck in customs. Additionaly, if there is even one tiny error on an application, an entire LUG can miss getting the chance to order parts through LUGBULK for the year.
- I once heard a rumor that LUGBULK orders take so long because they are packed by a few little old ladies in the back of the Lego factory. That’s actually not too far from the truth. In Denmark, retirees are known as “Pensionists.” So, it only makes sense that people who retire from the LEGO Company are called “Legoists.” These retirees volunteer their time packing LUGBULK, excess parts, damaged boxes, and anything else that LEGO tosses to the wayside into boxes for charity. Then, LEGO purchases some of these boxes back from the charity groups to send them to RLUGs as support.
Event Support Program: This support program is available for RLUGs that are holding events, such as LEGO shows open to the public. Each LUG can apply for event support for up to three events per year, and for each one that LEGO approves, the RLUG will receive sets and assorted play brick. According to Paul, the purpose of this program is to compensate and support LUGs for their efforts in building LEGO’s brand awareness among the public. The support also can enhance the event, as the pieces can be used as general public play brick or for other interactive purposes. Additionally, LEGO is testing a pilot “purchased event support program” in Australia which allows RLUGs to purchase brick at a discounted price for events. Depending on the success of the pilot program, this could be expanded into yet another type of LEGO support.
AFOL Convention Support Program: This support program is a way for convention organizers to purchase discounted loose bricks, sets, and playbrick. It’s similar to the event support program, but open to groups other than RLUGs. Common uses of this support program are to buy the pieces necessary for brick badges, event kits, and even trophies.
RLUG Hub Event Support Program: This support program is available for events that LEGO deems a “Hub Event”, i.e., that are run by at least 3 RLUGs and have an international and wide-reaching appeal. Furthermore, the event cannot be for commercial profit. According to Paul, Hub Events are popular in Asia, in part because there are no AFOL conventions in that part of the world. To date, no events in North America have qualified as a Hub Event.
Online RLUG Support Program: This program used to be called “LEGO Fan Media Support”, and it is essentially a support program for virtual LUGs and LEGO-related websites (or RLFM). For example, The Brothers Brick qualifies for RLFM status. This support program provides sets, bricks, and other support to drive online activities such as news articles, set reviews, and YouTube videos.
RLUG Award Support Program: The RLUG Award Support Program is a way for RLUGs to get financial support from LEGO for a unique project. So far, no one has applied for this support program, but it is available for special projects where non-LEGO equipment such as cameras, software, or computers are needed to complete a LEGO project. A qualifying project needs to involve multiple LUGs and explain why the special equipment is necessary.
Yun Mi- LEGO Ambassador Network
The last discussion of the day was led by Yun Mi, LEGO’s Director for Innovation and Development, and it was about the evolution of the LEGO Ambassador Network (LAN). The LAN consists of a single representative from each RLUG and RLFM, and is intended to serve as a program for cross-pollination of ideas between groups, as well as a hub for LEGO to disseminate information to the groups. I’ve heard from more than one Ambassador that the website leaves a lot to be desired. According to Yun Mi, the LAN will soon have a new platform. The goals for the new LAN will be to add forum capabilities to facilitate dialogue, to provide for better opportunities to learn from one another, (whether it’s LUG to LUG or LUG to LEGO communications), and to provide automated forms and community
support applications directly within the LAN, such as automated LUGBULK application forms. The current plan is to start with a simple LAN 2.0 (projected to be ready this year) and continue to evolve the platform over the years, adding more features.
One of the main debates during this session was whether or not non-Ambassadors should have access to the LAN. Yun Mi specifically said that LEGO doesn’t want to drive traffic away from other online platforms by creating a EuroBricks-style forum, but rather wishes to encourage discussions between LUG members. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of debate about this issue from the participants, with some in favor of opening the website up to all LUG members and others adamant that the LAN should remain Ambassadors-only. One important part of the existing LAN is already open to the public, the LAN blog.
Tour of the Enfield LEGO Campus
We also got the chance to tour the entire Enfield campus, which houses approximately 900 LEGO employees and is composed of two main buildings: the LEGO Compass House and the LEGO Brick House. Most of the space is filled with employee cubicles and, unsurprisingly, a lot of LEGO. There is LEGO wall art, sculptures, and practically every employee’s desk is covered in LEGO.
There’s a LEGO store inside the Brick House so employees can shop on their breaks. Sara Moore explained that “feeling” the Collectible Minifigure Bags (to try to guess what is inside before you buy) is forbidden, but that so many employees collect the minifigures for their desks, that there’s a very robust word-of-mouth “trading network” in place so that everyone can get the figs they want.
On the left in the image below is the infamous “red brick room” inside the Compass House where LEGO displays all of its upcoming sets. To prevent leaks, only top-level LEGO employees and VIPs from retail stores like Toys ‘R Us and Target are allowed inside. Sadly, we did not get to see inside. In fact, Paul swiped his employee badge to prove that even he didn’t have access to the room.
The call center is located on the second floor of the Brick House and, depending on the season, it contains approximately 100 to 200 employees speaking dozens of different languages. There’s even a room filled with all of the LEGO sets currently being sold in stores, so that employees can have the set in their hands while they are helping customers on the phone. They can even build the set right along with the customer!
One of the coolest things on the tour was this glass case located in the Brick House. It’s basically a treasure trove of AFOL goodies. It’s called the “Window into the Community” and it’s filled with random things that AR&P team members have collected from AFOLs around the world. Look closely and you’ll even see some Brothers Brick swag!
The last stop on our tour was the model shop. Unfortunately, this area is a 100% photo-free-zone. But I can tell you that it looks a lot like the model shop located in Legoland Florida shown in the video below. Inside the large workshop, employee cubicles surround the walls and the central area is reserved for building large creations. There are so many LEGO creations and piles of bricks that the model shop really looks more like an AFOL’s basement than a corporate office space.
Since all of the LEGO model shop’s creations are glued, there are dozens of strange clear bowl-shaped contraptions hanging from the ceiling that pull glue fumes from the air. And there are countless bins with LEGO parts (even more in the warehouse just behind the model shop) and piles of non-production-color bricks just lying around (such as the flesh-like color used for sculptures of Friends characters). We even got to see two master builders working on a massive, person-sized creation.
What are your thoughts?
Since the main purpose of the workshop was to provide feedback to LEGO, I’d like to pose the question here as well. What are your thoughts about LEGO Ideas, Rebrick, the LEGO House in Denmark, LEGO’s current support programs, and the LAN? How could LEGO better help LUGs and AFOLs? Is there anything LEGO doesn’t currently provide that you’d like to see? Let us know in the comments.