6 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Successful Retail Startup Piper

By Tinuiti Team

6 Insights From Successful Retail Startup Piper

Piper is a kids’ computer engineering kit built with Minecraft software, but its success up to this point is far from child’s play.

Let’s put it this way: Piper sold 2000 units in Q4 2015. In Q4 2016, they’re looking at 12x that number. And they’ve only been around a few years.

Even Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, loves Piper because “it represents what enabled [him] to do all the great technology things in [his] life”.

We first discovered Piper while browsing Amazon Launchpad’s new Kickstarter Products section, and we reached out to Mark Pavlyukovskyy, CEO and one of three masterminds behind the project. He shared about his experience creating and marketing Piper, and his recommendations to other retail startups who want to break into a market with a new product.


Retail Startup Success Tip #1: Clarify Your Vision

The Piper team—Shree Bose (STEM Ambassador), Joel Sadler (CTO), and Pavlyukovskyy—is brimming with smarts and ambition.

Sadler formerly worked on prosthetics, Bose worked in biology and cancer research, and Pavlyukovskyy taught kids in Ghana about ways to improve their daily health and habits. All three have impressive track records and credentials, and it’s hard to imagine they would face many challenges on the way to startup success.piper startup founders

However, with such diverse backgrounds and passions, it wasn’t easy to settle on the right project.

“We’ve tried different approaches to products which we felt could be the most effective to empower as many kids, and more importantly, as many people, as possible,” said Pavlyukovskyy. “The whole thing—just finding the way [we wanted] to have [our] impact—was a difficult journey.”

TL;DR: If you really want to make the most of your time and money as a retail startup, think critically about the product or service that will make the biggest impact on your target audience

Retail Startup Success Tip #2: Pace Yourself for a Marathon


piper startup product

Once the initial challenge of deciding what to build was over, the Piper team realized the work, along with unanticipated obstacles, had just begun.

The additional layers of software and hardware—not to mention the educational component—add more complexity to creating, marketing, and selling Piper.There’s quite a lot of things that go into shipping a product to thousands of people that you don’t think about or realize until you’re faced with the problem. It’s everything from developing the concept to manufacturing the hardware to dealing customer service to dealing with vendors and distributors.

It’s like a marathon—making  sure you don’t fail at any of those points, you just keep going. That’s the difficult thing,” says Pavlyukovskyy. [emphasis mine]

TL;DR: If you’re hoping to create a product that has many moving parts or layers, know there will likely be more setbacks and obstacles along the way.


Retail Startup Success Tip #3: Use Customer Feedback to Refine Your Products

Let’s say you’ve finally launched your product. How much weight do you put on your customer reviews or feedback? For Piper, it was a fundamental part of the early product development process.

Pavlyukovskyy explains, “We initially started as a little computer that kids assembled themselves, and the programming or software piece was teaching kids how to program websites. As we experimented and got feedback, the kids were interested in the physical assembly, but they weren’t that interested in learning to write HTML and CSS.”

That’s where Minecraft came in.

kids playing with piper


“Minecraft is…the most popular game in the world right now, says Pavlyukovskyy. “We initially tried to figure out how to push the Minecraft into the coding, and that didn’t really work. So we took Minecraft and thought, how do we make Minecraft more educational, especially around technology?” [emphasis mine]

The Piper founders scoured the Piper forum for kids and talked to kids about the parts of the computer building process they liked, and the parts they didn’t. (We can only imagine how brutally honest those sessions were.)

Along the way, they found that girls weren’t quite as engaged in the building part of the physical assembly process as boys.



“Girls didn’t find the physical assembly part interesting on its own,” says Pavlyukovskyy. “They were more into things like stories and role playing. So Shree had this idea to incorporate a story line narrative where there’s a reason why you’re building the computer and programming. We developed a small game inside of Minecraft and ended up engaging more girls.”

Another key to Piper’s rapid success? The feedback and improvement process.

“Even now, we’re shipping small batches in units, and every single time we look at feedback. And we’re also [still] looking at the forum, and [seeking] feedback as we come up with new levels and new software updates. So that’s really a big part of our product development,” says Pavlyukovskyy.

TL;DR: Use customer feedback to continuously improve your product or service.

Retail Startup Success Tip #4: Rewards Rule on Kickstarter

1,375 individual Kickstarter backers pledged $280,033 to make Piper happen.
How did Piper get to see this kind of success on Kickstarter? Well to start, they didn’t just throw up a flashy unfinished concept up and expect to gain funds. The process was calculated, and the product was well-thought-out.

“[The Piper team got] funding to come out to San Francisco,” says Pavlyukovskyy. “We started…at Playcolabs, an incubator for companies that focus on using games for educational purposes.”

After six months at Playcolabs, where the team was provided with mentorship for their idea, they worked on Piper for another six months before launching on Kickstarter.

How prepared were they for Kickstarter?
Says Pavlyukovskyy, “We actually didn’t know very much. We [Googled best practices], read as much as we could, talked to as many people as we could, got their advice and compiled a plan for a launch. There were hiccups, but nothing that really surprised us. One thing was that we really didn’t have enough bandwidth.”

The one thing Pavlyukovskyy emphasizes, aside from initial research, is the importance of Kickstarter rewards.


kickstarter reward for piper
Even $9 donations deserve something.


“[It’s important to be] really clear in what your rewards are. People really just want to see [what they’ll get if they support your project],” says Pavlyukovskyy. “I think the rewards drive both revenue and engagement.”

TL;DR: Kickstarter backers really do care about rewards. Make them interesting and clear at every donation price point.

Retail Startup Success Tip #5: Be Proactive When Selling on Amazon

Wondering when Amazon’s going to add your product to Launchpad? The Piper team didn’t just wonder. They applied for placement on Launchpad after proving the worth of their product.

Says Pavlyukovskyy, “We had placed the product on Amazon beforehand, and they had this program called Launchpad that we applied to that is specifically for startup products. We were very proactive about getting ourselves onto the part of Amazon that we felt was the best for us, which was Launchpad.”


launchpad amazon page for piper

After their application was accepted on Launchpad, Piper’s sales kept going up, and Amazon noticed.

“As [the Amazon team] saw the product pick up traction on sales, and [saw] us being really engaged with them, and also having a really great mission, they just wanted to do a showcase as part of their partnering with Kickstarter,” explains Pavlyukovskyy.

TL;DR: If you plan to sell a brand new product on Amazon, take an active approach to your marketing and sales. Special treatment is almost always earned.

Retail Startup Success Tip #6: Be Curious

Still looking for the keys to success for your startup? We’ll let Pavlyukovskyy’s wisdom stand on its own:

Just continue learning and try to understand and to be curious. Constantly try to understand what it takes to get where you want to be. [Ask yourself:] What’s involved? Who are the players there? What levers do I need to pull? Break it down into smaller pieces and be driven by curiosity. Just try to understand why the world can’t be [a certain way.] For instance, why does the curiosity of kids have to stop at a certain age? As long as you have that bigger vision of curiosity to get there, that’s sort of all you need. [emphasis mine]

Q4 2016 and Beyond—What’s in the Pipeline for Piper?

As we head into the holidays, we were curious about what’s in Piper’s future. Luckily, we got all of those burning questions answered in a quick Q&A with Pavlyukovskyy.

Q. Will the price go up in Q4 2016? 

A. The price will stay the same in Q4. We looked at comparable products and looked at what they [were priced like]. We wanted to be competitive, and we still want to impact as many kids as possible. We want to make sure we can go into a place like a Target, and still not lose money on that deal while reaching hundreds of thousands of people with Piper.

Q. Will Piper venture offline and show up in brick and mortars?

A. Our mission is to reach as many kids around the world as possible with the vision of empowering creatives with technology. Every channel that allows us to reach more kids is fair game.

Q. Who’s your target audience right now?

A. Parents mostly, and we’re just releasing education products. Teachers have been asking about Piper in schools, and how they can use it. We have curriculums so they can teach to standards in schools.

 Want to know more about how to succeed as a retail startup? Check out the following posts:


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