Here’s the Most Interesting New Way to Play with LEGOs

Pley is the sharing economy's answer to children's toys

Picture this: It’s a sweltering hot day in mid-August, and you’re moving your family from a two-bedroom city apartment into a nice big house in the suburbs. While tackling the kids’ room, you stumble upon a storage bin you forgot even existed. You try to lift it. Oof – what’s in here? LEGOs, hundreds and hundreds of LEGOs.

LEGO, the tiny plastic bricks that form the building blocks of everything from spaceships to submarines, have spawned an empire of play, spanning store shelves at Toys’R’Us to Hollywood and video game consoles. No surprise, the Denmark-based LEGO Group pulled in $4.3 billion in revenue last year, $1 billion of which was net profit.

Pley, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based startup, is hoping to build on that popularity. The company wants to change the way parents—and their kids—think about buying toys. For rates starting at $9.99 a month, Pley lets users rent LEGO sets, build them, then send back the pieces when they’re done. “Pley started in late 2013 after I realized that I spent $3,000 on my son’s LEGO [sets],” says CEO Ranan Lachman, who co-founded the company along with Elina Furman, who authors parenting newsletter A-List Mom. Lachman, a former fighter pilot with the Israeli Air Force, says he founded the company after unsuccessfully searching for a LEGO rental service.

“We started with LEGO because it’s a $5 billion dollar toy that’s sold worldwide, obviously the number one toy in the world,” explains Lachman. Juli Lennett, a toy market analyst with The NPD Group, says that reasoning makes sense: “Building sets grew 13% in 2014 and was the top dollar growth category as well, so it’s no surprise that any retailer, traditional or not, wouldn’t want to jump on that trend.” Some 50,000 users have subscribed to Pley so far, according to the company, which has raised $16.8 million in venture capital.

Pley’s selling point is the price. Lachmann claims Pley’s users save “up to 70%” compared to buying LEGO sets off the shelf, depending on how many sets they typically purchase.

The service is a novel test case in the so-called sharing economy, which includes companies ranging from taxi-hailing service Uber to freelance marketplace TaskRabbit. (In one way or another, sharing economy companies try to rationalize unused goods through new technology like the Internet and smartphones.) Children, especially with regards to their toys, may have trouble with the concept. “One of the problems with little kids is the notion of ‘it’s mine, it’s mine,’ all the time,” admits Lachman. “When you’re growing in an on-demand economy, when a lot of things are being shared, you don’t need to own them.”

More urgently, Pley is not currently sanctioned by LEGO. Lachman says he’s had “multiple conversations” with LEGO executives about the company. “We cannot comment on other companies’ offerings, other than to say that other options for children to build keeps us on our game,” said LEGO spokesperson Michael McNally. He added: “We love the idea of more children having a chance to build. LEGO play empowers children to build anything they can imagine, and we don’t see that ending with the completion of one model.”

Lachman plans to forge ahead. Pley’s newest offering, PleyWorld, lets LEGO builders design a set of their own, then upload it to a cloud-based platform. The site’s users can vote on the sets they’d most like to build. If the design gets 5,000 votes, Pley will gather the pieces into sets and offer them for rental. The service is similar to LEGO Ideas, which lets LEGO fans submit ideas for official sets to the LEGO Group for a voting and review process. Official LEGO Ghostbusters, Back to the Future and Minecraft sets have already hit store shelves after being submitted through LEGO Ideas.

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