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Building Blocks

This Berthoud Couple Has Made a Career Out of Lego

Meghan Nelson could never have known the Christmas gift she gave her boyfriend would completely change the course of their lives.

A Lego creator set.

 Set #5765, the Transport Truck, to be specific. The Nelsons still have it — a semi that transports a helicopter — as well as the sealed package of that kit, which they later ordered as a sentimental collector item. Today, it’s a memento to mark the beginning of their unique business, Mr. Brick Designer.

Like many people, the Nelsons grew up playing with Lego, but they drifted apart from it as they grew older. So when Ryan Nelson opened up that Lego set for Christmas, it rekindled his childhood joy. 

“We built it together and caught the bug again,” says the Berthoud man.

They began gifting each other Lego sets throughout the year, until Christmas rolled around again. This time, the couple was married, and Meghan Nelson had been working on a special surprise for her new husband.

“She was of the opinion that I needed a bedside lamp. I didn’t care to get one,” Ryan Nelson says. “So in complete secret, she sourced the parts, designed and built and gave me a Lego lamp for Christmas.”

(Not to be mistaken for the famous Christmas leg lamp.)

The task was extremely challenging, since she had no background in making original Lego designs. While researching, she discovered an adult Lego fan community of people building incredible battleships, trains and buildings. She also found a website called Bricklink, a sort of Ebay for Lego parts, where she could shop for individual bricks. Using pieces from there, she built a Lego shell around an existing table lamp.

Ryan Nelson, who had a lifelong career in e-commerce, says he was so impressed with her creation that he suggested they make more and sell them online. So he made an Etsy account, posted a photo and the orders began trickling in. At first, it was a part-time gig, while they worked full time (he at PayPal and she as a researcher). But the orders steadily grew.

Later that year, Meghan Nelson was laid off. While job hunting, she also did development and tested a ton of different Lego designs. She used her background as a research scientist to assess the durability of their designs. Getting a Lego lamp to ship across the country and arrive in one piece (not just a pile of bricks) required finding the perfect fusing agent, as well as a unique packing solution.

They expanded their offering beyond a lamp, too. For original creations, they came up with a handful of lamp designs, as well as earrings and frames. The Etsy demand became large enough to warrant an presence.

They also began selling Lego singles on that Bricklink page Meghan Nelson had discovered years ago. (Their account today contains as many as 1.1 million pieces.) Sorting the inventory was a massive endeavor and required outside help. But after having all of their bricks in a row, they still had leftover Lego mini figures; the Lego fanatics that use Bricklink weren’t so interested in those.

 So the Nelsons began selling those mini figures on Ebay. They discovered another market in a different niche of collectors for those.

Ryan Nelson says he knows people who sell parts on Bricklink, and he knows people who sell figures on Ebay.

“But I’ve never met anybody who tries to do all of them,” he says. “They all think I’m nuts.”

However, as he sees it, it’s practical and reduces waste. If an original design gets damaged in shipping, it’s easy to take it apart and sell the pieces on Bricklink; and many of the Bricklink-only crew have piles of mini figures they don’t know what to do with.

 “I tell them, ‘I can sell that stuff,’” Ryan Nelson says.

Needless to say, by 2014, Mr. Brick Designer had grown large enough to warrant Ryan Nelson go full time. For the past six years, he’s been a staple at conventions, and Etsy alone has more than 1,500 sales of original products.

He ships hundreds of pounds of Lego a month from his home business in Berthoud, where they moved this year from a small town in Nebraska.

This year, due to quarantine and more people being homebound, Mr. Brick Designer’s business has surged.

“Like puzzles, you sit down and focus on one thing and don’t have to think about other things,” he says. “It’s a good way to find peace and build something, create something.”

The lamp design that started it all has grown up, too. No longer is it built as just a shell around an existing lamp. Instead, the entire skeleton is all Lego, filled with what Ryan Nelson calls “lamp guts” (the cord and electrical components). The bricks are chemically bonded together so they won’t break.

“We threw one off our second-story balcony, and it survived,” he says.

 Every lamp is still hand-made by Ryan Nelson (he has built up some serious brick-pressing callouses), which is time-consuming, but there’s really no other way to do it. There’s no machine that can press Lego bricks together like fingers can. Even the most famous Lego designers have to hire human help.

The lamps don’t pay the bills like Ebay and Bricklink do, but they’re the heart of this business.

Still, years later, the original Christmas gift Lego lamp sits on Ryan Nelson’s bedside. It’s a little dusty, but it remains.

“A lot of my friends who still work for PayPal don’t understand why I’d work two times as many hours, if not more,” he says. “You either get it or you don’t, but it’s mine. And that’s worth something to me.”

Want a Lamp?

The holidays often have a backlog, but you can currently get a lamp within seven days of ordering it.

There are three main lamp designs: the hourglass multicolor lamp, the spiral hourglass and a spiral candlestick (the best-seller).

You may even be able to request custom colors and other custom designs during the slow season.

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