Imagine that your desire to build sandcastles with your children leads to an appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank” and results in a significant buy-in from Guest Shark Kendra Scott. That’s exactly what happened to Kevin Lane, a 1998 Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design graduate of Western Connecticut State University.
Lane, who grew up in Danbury, was an avid skier and initially enrolled at Green Mountain College in Vermont. Too much time on the slopes was costly in terms of both tuition money and loss of focus on his studies, so after a year Lane transferred to WCSU. “I started off studying Fine Arts in Vermont,” Lane explained. “Fine arts is a tough journey, and when I transferred to WCSU, I majored in Graphic Arts, which provides more opportunities.”
Even before he graduated, opportunities presented themselves. As an art major, Lane’s work was revealed to the community at the Senior Portfolio Exhibition, an annual event that showcases the creativity of graduating seniors. Matthew Kornhaas, who had graduated from WCSU in 1990 with a Graphic Arts degree, saw Lane’s work and offered him a job doing magazine spreads at a print publication. It’s a story often told by WCSU graduates who got their career start from a fellow alumnus.
Lane said he “saw the writing on the wall” about the future of print as digital media started to take off, and with a friend began a startup as a web developer/designer. “It was a pretty easy read that print was falling off the cliff as 1999 turned into 2000,” he said. Lane later met and married his wife Laurie, began a family, and was offered an opportunity in Darien doing larger-scale web design. For about a decade he managed a team of four web designers and developers before reinventing himself again as an information architect for a Shelton company that provides insurance solutions.
In 2016, Lane, his wife and pre-teen children were visiting family in Laguna Beach, California. Because they had flown there, he hadn’t brought any of the tools he used at home to build sandcastles with the kids. He watched another father and young son struggle to successfully create a castle with the implements they had on hand. A trip to a local hardware store in search of shovels and building materials turned out to be equally frustrating. Since he had his laptop with him on vacation, later that night Lane searched the web for the tools he was envisioning without success — so the graphic designer drew up what he had in mind and ran it by a project engineer he knew through his freelance web development work.
In 2017, Lane formed an LLC and Create a Castle was launched the following year. It wasn’t long before the business exploded. In 2018, Lane’s product was featured as a “Hot Summer Toy” on “Live with Kelly and Ryan.” Lane was named Connecticut Entrepreneur of the Year in the Community Favorite Venture category in 2018 and 2019. Also in 2019, his product was featured on three live QVC airings. 2020 saw Create a Castle win the Toy Association’s International Toy of the Year, and at a toy fair the following day, Lane was bombarded with orders from big box retailers like Walmart. “We weren’t ready for it,” Lane said. “We do our own fulfillment from our warehouse in New Milford. The number of orders coming in was unprecedented.”
Lane said sales valued at $600,000 in 2021 jumped to nearly $3 million in 2022 after Costco Canada and Sam’s Club USA began to carry the product.
As the business continued to grow, the Lanes were presented with the opportunity to appear on episode 1403 of ABC’s hit series “Shark Tank.” The episode aired in October 2022, and resulted in an offer of $350,000 from Guest Shark Kendra Scott for a 20% share in the business. Since the show aired, Create a Castle is carried at Target, Barnes and Noble, Dick’s Sporting Goods and more.
The product is still distributed from Lane’s 1,000 sq. ft. facility in New Milford, with his wife, Laurie, and children Danny, 21, and Julia, 18, actively involved.
“My children and wife are my huge inspiration for doing all of this, and are instrumental in our success,” he said. “Julia has picked the colors for the product and Danny has developed apps, among other contributions. Laurie is the majority shareholder in Create a Castle, making the company a woman-owned business. She does all the logistics, EDI work, portal work, bookkeeping, taxes and order fulfillment. Laurie does everything you can imagine to help me hold the business together, and is the heart and soul equally with me in Create a Castle. I couldn’t have done any of this without her by my side through all of it.”
Reflecting on the company’s meteoric success, Lane acknowledged that in addition to having an amazing partner in Laurie, he has a trusted collaborator in Matt Kornhaas. “My friendship with fellow alum Matt Kornhaas also continues to this day in his role working with us on future product development ideas, as well as in the role of creative director at Create a Castle.”
His graphic design studies played a part, too. “The design skills that my WCSU art instructors taught me are the foundation that translated into Create a Castle. Anyone considering college should absolutely save your money and go to WCSU. It’s just as good as any college or rival school in this realm. You don’t have to go to Harvard or Yale — you can accomplish it at WCSU.”