Me, You, and JaCaRou! Part One
This month I interviewed Anie Maltais, the owner and founder of JaCaRou Puzzles in Quebec, Canada! Join us for Part 1 of our interview as we talk about starting a puzzle company, creating puzzle art, and quitting your job right before a global pandemic.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tracy Williams (Shortened to "T" for the rest of the interview): Hi Anie! It's great to meet you!
Anie from JaCaRou (Shortened to "A" for the rest of the interview): It’s great to meet you, too!
T: I want you to know this is my first interview!
A (best if read with a lovely Quebecois/Canadian French accent): It's my first interview as well. (laughter) We're going to both learn at the same time. Sorry about my English. It's not perfect, but I hope you understand everything I say. Just let me know if I'm not clear.
T: I understand you, no problem. I guess my first question is, “How did JaCaRou Puzzles get its name?”
A: Actually, it's a combination of my daughters’ names. I have two daughters. One is named Jaelle and the other is Camille. Their last name is Rouleau, which is also the name of my husband. When you combine all of them together, it's JaCaRou. When I started the company in 2015, it was a very personal business and they were involved, so the name just came naturally. I thought it sounded good in French and in English and in any language. I thought the name would travel well. That's why I called it JaCaRou Puzzles.
T: I love it! Next question … Why did you decide to start a puzzle company?
A: Actually, the way it started, I was doing a lot of puzzles back in 2014, and at one point I was thinking that it would be nice to create a puzzle for myself with one of my own images. So I looked on the internet and I found some companies that made customized puzzles and ordered a puzzle with one of the images that I had created. Back then, I was very active in some Facebook groups and I showed them my customized puzzle. People reacted to it, “Where did you find it? It looks so nice! The image is good!” I started chatting with the administrator of one of the Facebook groups, Jigsaw Puzzle Connection. I showed her my other images and she thought they were great. She encouraged me to offer them to some existing puzzle companies.
So I sent my designs to some puzzle companies, and to be honest, I didn't get many responses. (laughter) Back then, my puzzle images were quite different. Now there are more colorful puzzle images, like the images I'm doing, but in 2015 puzzle images were not so colorful. Back then, I was not fitting in with the existing puzzle business. I did get some answers, but you know, it was not the way I expected or the way I wanted (laughter). So I thought why not make my own puzzles and do it myself?
Then I started looking online for a manufacturer. I tried the manufacturers in the US, but they wouldn't answer. You know, I wasn't a real company and the volume that I was trying to produce was too small. But China did respond. At first, they told me 500 units per image and I said, “Oh my gosh, that's too much because I want to do at least five images!” But one of the manufacturers agreed to do 100 units, but at a higher price. So I thought “Okay, just to try it. I'll do five designs at 100 each for a total of 500 and I'll see if I can place them in stores and sell them online.” I knew I wouldn't have a big profit margin, you know they were expensive, but I did try it, just to start.
I got my 500 puzzles and I started selling them on Facebook. At first I didn't have any ways to sell them, so I created a website. Then I contacted some retail stores. Umm, not too many takers again. (laughter) That was tough. (more laughter). But people were buying them, you know. And the thing was, I always thought that if people saw them, they would buy them. It's just that the puzzles needed to be out there. So I started doing some trade shows, having a table at a market, showing the puzzles, and talking to people. Sometimes I would sell maybe two puzzles in a weekend (laughter) but sometimes I would sell more.
At the end of 2015, I decided to do more puzzles and I did eight more designs. We started doing more trade shows where we met actual retailers and the people who own stores. We also did a TV show that is the Quebec version of Shark Tank, "Dans L'oeil Du Dragon (In the Dragon's Eye). It's in French, and it's only in Quebec. After the show, more stores contacted us. And basically, we built the puzzle business like that.
I had still had a full time job back then, so I was doing the puzzle business on the side. Then slowly, I cut back two days from my regular job. Eventually, in 2019, JaCaRou was taking too much space in my time and I was comfortable to leave my actual job. My husband followed a few months after and left his job. Now both of us work full time for JaCaRou Puzzles. My daughters come once in a while to help and get some hours in the business. We have a warehouse very close to home. It’s pretty good now, we are in a few more stores in Quebec and in some stores in the US, such as Puzzle Warehouse.
I'm talking a lot. (laughter) When I talk about puzzles, I'm very passionate.
T: I’m passionate about puzzles too! (more laughter)
A: We do share the same passion! Actually, when I talk about puzzles with people who love to puzzle, it's great! I still do puzzles almost every day. It's still a passion for me. I actually like to do my puzzles more. Maybe I'm not objective? (laughter) Did you ever try one of my puzzles?
T: Oh yes!! I’m doing “Country Living” right now! I love it!
A: Okay, good! That's one of the new releases!
T: I’m curious … How do you design the puzzle images?
A: When I design an image, what I'm thinking about is a puzzle. I don't make an image to be framed on a wall. I actually see the images that I create in pieces, “This corner is going to be fun. This pattern is going to be good.” I don't want the puzzle to be boring. That's why I don't make big areas of the same color. Because personally, I create the images the way that I like to do puzzles. I figure that people will like that too. Like me, there are people who want to have a puzzle that they can finish without it being too hard or needing to spend hours and hours to finish it. Wanting to do a puzzle doesn't mean that you want it to be difficult. So I try to keep my puzzles fun.
So where was I? Oh, yeah, we were doing trade shows and toy fairs and then the pandemic came and everything was canceled. Fortunately, we are planning to go back to the big trade show in New York in 2023. I hope to have the puzzles in more stores in the US and I would love to be distributed everywhere. I do have one website in the UK and one in Spain that carries our puzzles. I get contacted by a lot of people in other countries, but shipping is so expensive. It's very hard to export my puzzles everywhere the way that I’d like to.
T: What are the challenges involved in getting your puzzles into other countries?
A: The main challenge is shipping cost. I could have a distributor in other countries. Then I would ship the puzzles directly to that country from the manufacturer instead of having them come to Canada. The thing with distributors is they want to take a big chunk of the profits from the actual product. It would take a big volume for me to have distributors because there's no point in doing it if someone is taking the product and not giving me anything in return. I did have talks with one distributor in the United States, but in the end, he was giving me less than what I was paying for the actual product … because I do have to pay for the puzzles to be made. (laughter) So, I'm just waiting to find the right opportunity to have sales reps in the US and then in other countries. I'm just trying to find ways to do it.
T: Do you use the same manufacturer for all your puzzle designs?
A: When I was looking for a manufacturer, I had each of them send me some samples because I wanted to make sure the quality was there. I eventually found the one that I like. I've been working with the same person in China because she knows the quality I need. I usually stay with the same manufacturer, but if something happens or something changes in the market, then we're going to find one that matches what we were doing. I want to make sure that the puzzles are good.
I get samples sent to me prior to the actual goods coming here. So if something happens, I will know ahead of time that something is wrong. I assemble all of my puzzles more than once. I keep all the assembled puzzles so if there's a piece lost … it happens sometimes, you know, pieces go missing, we cannot prevent that. (laughter) So if someone loses a piece, or the dog eats it, or whatever, I'm going to replace the exact same piece for them. It's not a problem for me. I actually enjoy doing it. I have all my puzzles assembled and then when I need a piece for someone, I can go and get it directly from the puzzle. People enjoy it because they don’t have to start the puzzle over again. Instead of getting a new puzzle, people really want to complete the one they already have. We can do that for them.
T: Have you ever had something go wrong? For instance, your person in China calling you to say that the machines broke down or that your shipment is lost?
A:No, no, no, that’s never happened! (laughter) I did have some quality issues at one point and I had to reproduce a product. The manufacturer had made some changes to the machine and I was not 100% happy. I couldn't put them out on the market like that. They did replace them for me, because I was not satisfied. That's why I want the samples beforehand, so I can test them myself. I cannot prevent everything. Sometimes a puzzle gets a bad cut, and I can replace that one. But replacing a whole production, that wouldn't work. So I have to prevent that from happening. It's a lot of pressure actually, but at the same time, I love it so much. I'm a very calm person. Every time there's something happening, I always find a solution. For me, it's more like, “Okay, we have a problem. Let's find a solution.” I don’t say, “Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?” I say, “Okay, let's find a solution. There must be something we can do.” And that's how I handle issues that come up.
T: Yeah, I’m that way too. I’m great at solving problems, but afterwards I need some time to recover. (laughter) What was it like for you and your husband to quit your jobs at the end of 2019 and then have the pandemic happen a few months later?
A: Actually, the pandemic was a good thing for us, because we had the stock and people were looking for puzzles. People were like “Oh my gosh, Jack! Everyone! Quebec! We found a company that has puzzles!!” and we had the inventory at that point. The timing was perfect. We were just moving into our new warehouse and everything was in place to be able to respond quickly to all the demands. The other companies didn't see it coming (we didn’t see it coming either, we were just lucky) and they were not ready because all their products were already out in stores. They had higher requests for their products and what they had available was not enough.
The thing is, you still need to be there after the pandemic! We're still selling, but two years ago was crazy! CRAZY!
T: Is it just you and your husband running the business or do you have employees?
A: We don't have an employee yet, which is crazy, because people can't figure out how we do it. My husband does the shipping and I do the website. I have to wear many hats. We work almost seven days a week and have been for the past seven years. I'm taking my first vacation at the beginning of June. We will actually take one week for vacation and it's been seven years. That's crazy.
I do have an artists' collection now. I started out using only my designs, but I always planned to use the work of other artists and to use other types of images. In 2020, because of the pandemic, it was a good time to add an artists’ collection because the demand was there. So I contacted a few artists and now we have seven or eight artists who create art for our puzzles. At first I used local artists around Quebec, but I'm going to have my first US artist in the next collection.
I'm looking for new artists all the time. Unfortunately, I cannot produce every image that people ask me to do. (laughter) When I have an image that I feel is going to work well, then I include it. But I'm not producing 80 new images every season, so I have to keep it reasonable. If I produce 15 images, maybe six or seven of them will be from other artists.
T: If an artist is interested in making art for your puzzles, how should they go about contacting you?
A: Usually people send me an email and show me their images. Sometimes I will personally contact an artist because I saw their art and I feel it would be a good fit. But most of the time when people contact me, it's not exactly what I need. Sometimes their art is beautiful, but it won’t make a good puzzle image. I need to attract a lot of people to an image, so I have to be sure that most people will like it. Most people will not be doing the puzzle in order to put it in a frame on the wall. People want to actually have fun doing the puzzle. Sometimes I have to refuse because although it may be a beautiful image, it will not be fun to puzzle.
It's hard for me to tell someone, “I love your art, but it's not exactly what I’m looking for to make into a puzzle.” I feel it's very difficult. So I don't try to have a lot of people contact me because I hate saying no. (laughter) For every artist that I use, I give them licensing back. I pay for their art. So if I produce 500 units, they're going to get some on each image. I want them to be happy. I put their name on the box, their website on the box, and I tell who they are.
T: That's cool! Art licensing is so important for artists. You mentioned your new collection. Do you have a new collection that comes out every year?
A: I have a new collection twice a year, typically in the spring and fall. When I say spring, it's more like February so that they arrive for spring. And for fall, it’s more like June so that they are ready for the fall toy fairs. But it's twice a year.
T: How many designs are in each collection?
A: Actually, I wish I could put out a lot of designs, but it's about 15 new designs for every collection, so that’s around 30 new designs a year. The last collection had some 2000 piece puzzles. I do mostly 1000 pieces because that's what sells more. But sometimes people do ask for other piece counts. I have some 500 piece puzzles, a few 300’s with extra large pieces, and the 2000 pieces, but most of our puzzles are 1000 pieces.
Two collections ago I started doing some square puzzles that are 25” x 25”. It’s 1000 pieces, but it’s a square puzzle.
I changed the box to make the box square too and I added a poster. People were asking for the image to be on a poster. As a puzzler, I don’t use a poster. Every time there’s a poster, I just leave it in the box, so I was not thinking of including a poster in my puzzles. But some people enjoy having a bigger image, so I put a poster in the square puzzles. I do try to find new ways and sometimes I'm going to change something because I think it's going to be much better and sometimes I'm going to decide not to change it yet. But I'm very open to suggestions.
T: I love that you can see the entire puzzle image on the front of your boxes. One of my ‘puzzle pet peeves’ is when there is a big sticker on one corner of the puzzle box that has the brand name or the piece count. I always think, “Not on the image! Don't put anything on the image!” (laughter)
That's another thing. I know that some brands cover up part of the image on the box. I was working on a puzzle the other day from another company and one of the corners had a bunch of little things. That part of the image was covered up on the box top, so I used the poster at that point because I couldn't see the image. Because my image is large and clear on the box, I guess it's okay to not include a poster. The image on the box is still big enough for people to find which pieces they need.
T: I see that you have some mini puzzles in your line?
A: I have some 150 piece puzzles. They come in clear plastic tubes. I also recently added some wooden puzzles to our line and they come in a wooden box.
A: I notice some places have ambassadors. You work with Puzzle Warehouse and you do a blog for them?
T: Yes, I do! Puzzle Warehouse has a blog called Jigsaw Junkies. There are 11 ambassadors for 2022 and we each write a blog post every month. The post can be about anything related to puzzles. I liked your puzzle so much that I decided to do a brand review on JaCaRou Puzzles. Then I thought, “I've never done an interview. I'm going to see if Anie will do an interview with me!” And I’m so happy that you said yes!
A: I'm actually a shy person. And as I said, my English is not perfect. I was really nervous…
Join us next month for Part 2 of this interview when we talk about puzzle die cuts, the raging debate between glossy vs. matte finishes, and peculiar puzzle habits!