The story of Conceptis - how it all began: Interview with Conceptis' founders

Friday, April 19, 2002 Green and Lerner

The flight from Japan was delayed. Dave Green, a hi-tech marketing executive, could barely contain his curiosity over the magazine his Japanese colleague was studying intensely in the adjacent seat. Kiyoshi Sakai, a senior director at a leading Japanese company, had settled back comfortably into his seat, and removed a sharpened pencil from his pocket.

At first glance, Green thought he was preparing to solve a crossword puzzle. Upon closer investigation, however, he realized that the lines and numbers on the page were like no crossword puzzle he had ever seen, and stranger still, there was not a single word on the page - just a grid of narrow lines and a series of numbers on the sides.

Green and Kiyoshi Sakai

Carefully counting out squares across the grid, Sakai-San started to fill in selected squares with his pencil, while in others; he marked an "X". As the flight progressed, out of the tiny filled-in squares a picture immerged in front of their eyes. With the image complete, Sakai-San gave a sigh of satisfaction and moved on to a new page. "That episode in 1993 was my first introduction to picture-forming logic puzzles" Green recalls, almost 10 years later.

On his next visit to Japan, Sakai-San presented Green with a gift - a puzzle magazine and he immediately sat down to solve the first puzzle. "Since then" Green admits, "and like so many others who've discovered this intriguing Japanese pastime - I was completely hooked".

A Knack for Puzzles

Today, Dave Green (49) is President of Conceptis Ltd., which controls over 90% of the world market for picture-forming logic puzzles. Already in his youth, Green was drawn to intellectual challenges and scientific problem solving. His father, a physics teacher, would frequently bring home experiments and games for teaching physics, which his son would happily tackle.

Self developed printer

As a young man, Green studied Electrical Engineering and for his final graduation project he built a computer printer using parts from an old typewriter, a sewing machine and a rotary telephone exchange. “It worked like a robot and made a lot of noise”, Green remembers happily.

After completing his studies, Green entered the hi-tech data communications industry, which, in the early 1980’s was taking off on a meteoric rise. In this dynamic atmosphere, Green quickly realized that his true calling was not technological development but rather in marketing and sales. For the past 20 years, Green has held several positions in the hi-tech arena, and is now a senior marketing figure.

A Matter of Synergy

Lerner, Haifa 2002

Lerner (38) is currently Conceptis' Technical Director and Green's principle partner. He was born in Gorky, Russia into a family of scientists; his mother is a mechanical engineer and his father an electronic engineer.

Lerner received his Bachelors degree from the Polytechnic University in Gorky and a Masters degree in Nuclear Physics. A remarkable autodidact, Lerner pursued computer studies, and in parallel, worked for hardware and software development companies.

The first meeting between Lerner and Green took place in 1991, when they both worked at the same hi-tech communications company. In spite of, or perhaps because of the tremendous differences between the two – both in background and in personality – Lerner and Green recognized an instant synergy between them.

The impulsive Green provided the creative thought and the excellent interpersonal communication skills, while Lerner added his exceptional technical capabilities, analytical thinking and a cautious worldview. “Dave likes to experiment, trying out things, analyzing the results and then reaching the conclusions”, Lerner explains. “I prefer to study the problem first and learn how it works before I actually start trying anything. That’s why I think we complement each other perfectly”.

People were interested, but something was missing

Green with Tetsuya Nishio

The puzzles that Green came across were invented in Japan in the late 1980s simultaneously and independently by two people: Tetsuya Nishio, a well known puzzles developer, and Non Ishida, an architect who came up with the idea while working on a project for creating geometric patterns by illuminating windows in a high-rise building in Tokyo.

Tetsuya Nishio and Non Ishida published their new puzzles in several local puzzle magazines. Within a short time, these puzzles became a huge success in Japan. However, similar attempts at that time in the West did not yield comparable results.

Games Magazine, one of the most popular games and puzzles publications in the US, launched a puzzle book called Paint By Numbers, which was only moderately popular.“People were interested, but something was missing” Green explains. “The puzzles which were created in Japan were small and less challenging than those which we have today, and the picture content was mostly of Japanese themes which are more suited for the Japanese market. There was no company in Europe or in the USA at that time able to supply these puzzles in quantities and at professional standards”.

In 1990 an English entrepreneur named James Dalgety, who was responsible for bringing Rubik's Cube into the UK, discovered Non Ishida's puzzles and immediately recognized their commercial potential. With Non Ishida's approval, Dalgety approached the Sunday Telegraph and convinced them to include a puzzle in their weekend supplement. The puzzles, titled Nonograms, received modest interest and have been published every weekend since then, including publication of year-end books containing all the puzzles featured that year. But while the growth of interest in Nonograms in the UK was sluggish, in Japan the new puzzles were wildly successful.

Breaking into Publishing

Lerner on airplane to London

Green and Lerner acknowledge that, when they first developed their puzzle program, they had no business plan or strategy. “Coming from the world of hi-tech, we had absolutely no knowledge about the business of publishing,” admits Green. “Nor did we have any notion of the commercial value of our product”.

In 1997, Green and Lerner decided to make their partnership official, and established Conceptis Ltd. They named their Japanese puzzles “Pic-a-Pix” and began to contact publishers. The first Conceptis puzzle was published in 1998 in a small monthly crossword puzzle magazine. After several months, the puzzles began to catch on. “The publisher started to get calls from readers who wanted more puzzles or who were stuck in solving them” Green recalls.

Still working in the hi-tech marketing field, on one of his many overseas trips Green met with an editor at the world famous German publisher “Gruner + Jahr” in Munich. “Their most popular magazine”, Green realized, “was Stern”. This fateful meeting heralded Conceptis’ entry into the international publishing market.

“I sent them several samples by e-mail and very soon they started publishing one puzzle each month”, Green recalls. “The reader responses were good – people were really enjoying them. I was then referred by our German publisher to BEAP in the UK, who started publishing two or three puzzles each month. In 1999, BEAP helped me contact VNU, the giant Dutch publishing house. They were already working with some Japanese puzzle people, but were interested in acquiring our puzzles as well.”

Green and Lerner in Conceptis t-shirts

By July 2000, VNU in the Netherlands published the first magazine dedicated exclusively to Conceptis puzzles, called Japanese Puzzles XXL. Soon after, in September 2000, BEAP in the UK published the first copy of Tsunami Japanese Puzzles with 40 puzzles from Conceptis.

The Western public had embraced the Japanese invention and the demand for Conceptis puzzles, which were getting more sophisticated and varied by the day, grew rapidly. Conceptis puzzles started appeared in magazines in the USA, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Finland, Israel, Hungary, Spain, Argentina, France, Denmark, Korea and Russia. Even in Japan Conceptis works with four publishers and its puzzles will soon be available over the Japanese cellphone system as well.

From an amateur adventure and a two-person obsession, Conceptis Ltd. succeeded in establishing itself among the largest European, American and Japanese publishing houses. Today Conceptis has ten employees, and is continuing to develop new logic puzzles and new puzzle concepts all the time. “Conceptis is our obsession,” says Green “and we will not rest until we create worldwide awareness for these wonderful puzzles. Hopefully, our efforts will make this world a slightly better place to live in.”

A Better World to Live In?

Green with fiberoptic mux

Green sounds quite sure of himself when he describes how logic puzzles can contribute to society. “There’s no doubt that solving logic puzzles can improve a person’s cognitive skills”, he explains. “So many people have difficulty in mathematics and logical thinking, particularly children who are intimidated by math from an early age – yet it is exactly these logical thinking skills that are so important for success in life.

And it’s here that logic puzzles can help. Logic puzzles are challenging, and a challenge is the best way to motivate anyone, including a child. Using logic puzzles can help overcome the fear of math and problem-solving from an early age”.

“In the near future”, Green explains, “we plan to share our didactic know-how with educational systems around the world”.

To strengthen his point, Green brings up the example of Trevor Truran, editor of Tsunami magazine and one of Conceptis’ first publishers. “In an interview we published on our website,” Green says, “Truran describes a math teaching concept he developed, which is based on logic puzzles. One of his main achievements was to reduce the notorious math-fear in many of his students.”

Among Conceptis puzzle fans, some signs of addiction have begun to show. But Green knows that, unlike other habits, Conceptis puzzles have a definite positive effect on the users’ logical capabilities. Gerda Antonis of Holland, a reader of Japanese Puzzles XXL writes: “I want you to know that Japanese Puzzles XXL are fantastic, very big and sometimes very hard to solve. Will you please make a new issue every month, because I am totally hooked!"

Expanding the number of picture-forming logic puzzle enthusiasts

I was immediately hooked

“I picked up your Tsunami book for something to do. I was immediately hooked and finished the puzzles yesterday. What can I do until the next issue?

Emma Hope, a Tsunami magazine enthusiast from the U.K. writes: “I subscribed to Tsunami magazine, which is published by BEAP in the UK. I was wondering if you knew of any other magazines published in the UK that are just for this type of puzzle because I think they are very good and when I buy the magazine I finish it in a week and have to wait another three weeks for the next one! I hope you can help."

Another enthusiastic fan from Essex writes: “I picked up your Tsunami book for something to do. I was immediately hooked and finished the puzzles yesterday. What can I do until the next issue? I've spring-cleaned the house, washed the dusters and brushed the dog - I even found myself watching daytime TV! Can't you issue smaller books each week?"

According to Green, Conceptis has introduced a new approach into the conservative world of printed publications by applying computer programs to puzzle development and by supplying the puzzles through the Internet. But even though they are created using sophisticated algorithms, Green insists that Conceptis puzzles still have a soul. “The software algorithm element is only a small, albeit crucial part of the puzzle creation process. Thanks to it, our artists and creative staff can create puzzles that are more beautiful and more sophisticated, in a shorter period of time.” Green explains.

At Conceptis, Green is constantly working towards expanding the number of Picture-forming Logic Puzzle enthusiasts around the world. New publishers are recruited in countries in which Conceptis is not presently represented, and new puzzles are created each day. “We hope to have a thriving community on our website” Green says, “which will learn about our puzzles and then buy the magazines from our publishers in their countries”.

Building a Worldwide Community

Green with first puzzle

Green and Lerner agree that, in terms of a business model, they didn't discover anything new. "As with all companies which ended up becoming household names, they usually started with a small product in a niche market that hadn't been of interest to the large companies until then. The real challenge," Green believes "is to leverage that position, take control of a larger portion of the market and turn the product into a brand name. And that's exactly what we did. We started with our puzzles at a time when awareness of them was practically non-existent in the West. We had to persuade the publishers we had something good, which was also a good business opportunity. And so, country after country, Conceptis expanded its puzzle publishing base."

Today, Conceptis puzzles are regularly featured in over 30 magazines, which are published in 20 countries around the world. Even in Japan, where these puzzles were originally invented, the company works with several publishers. Conceptis today is the leading supplier of picture-forming logic puzzles in the world, supplying an overwhelming 90% of the market share. "We estimate that over 20,000,000 Conceptis puzzles are printed worldwide each year" says Green, "which means that on average, one Conceptis puzzle is printed somewhere in the world every 0.7 second!"

Paradoxically, the rise of Conceptis actually coincided with the drastic fall of the hi-tech industries. Yet even as they are enjoying the fruits of their hard work, Green and Lerner are not resting on their laurels. They are continuing in their efforts to leverage their achievements for further success.

In 2000 Conceptis launched a website at www.conceptistech.com to promote its business-to-business interests. "The website served as a marketing instrument to recruit new publishers, and as a customer fulfillment tool to supply them with thousands of puzzles" Green recalls. "Now that Conceptis has established itself with satisfied publishers all over the world, we are looking for ways to expand this marketplace and to increase the number of puzzle solvers".

To that end, Conceptis launched a new website in January 2002. In addition to serving its customers, the new website now offers a wide range of content and activities especially targeted at the logic puzzles community.

"We are now able to support our publishers with more puzzles and better services" Green explains "as well as provide puzzle fans with free puzzles, online puzzles, the opportunity to read stories sent by other puzzle fans and much more. We even provide our puzzle fans with the chance to win a puzzle with their own portrait and our exclusively designed T-shirt. Our Puzzle Fans center is a unique establishment and the only one properly catering to the needs of these puzzle lovers in the world. By providing a professional business-to-customer website we are confident we will build a remarkable community all over the globe."

Even though the Puzzle Fans center is still under construction, it is already attracting thousands of excited visitors each month from just about every country in the world. "Our goal is to provide quality and not quantity," explains Green "so as not to compete with our publishers. If our website visitors like our puzzles and want more, they can easily locate the publisher nearest to them and buy their magazines."

Conceptis' top priority, according to Green, is to "increase the awareness of Conceptis puzzles worldwide". To achieve this, Conceptis launched the new website, developed new types of logic puzzles and offered new online puzzle services. "We are developing an Internet framework especially for our puzzle fan community" he explains, "to showcase the new puzzle ideas and to recruit new puzzle enthusiasts. And we are constantly exploring new technologies to make our puzzles a more interesting and exciting experience. We are poised to enter the electronic puzzles arena, with applications for the PC, Pocket PC, Palm and the cellphone platforms as well".

It's hard not to be affected by Green's enthusiasm for, and dedication to the world of logic puzzles - which obviously transcend simple commercial interests. In a moment of candor, Green recalls a memory from his youth, which must have made a profound impression on the young puzzle enthusiast. "When I was in the 11th grade", he relates with a smile, "One of the top students in my class used to tease me about being childish. I wish I could meet him today to tell him that, first of all, he was right, and secondly, how lucky that he was!"