Pii Poo

Tuomo came to Helsinki about ten years ago to study landscape architecture, worked in that field for five years during his studies, and got a Master’s degree. But then he realized he wasn’t happy. He had to be honest with himself and think of something that was both interesting and doable every day as a job. And something that always interested him was… Lego. So four years ago he opened Pii Poo, the only specialized Lego store in Helsinki!

Was it scary to abandon your career?

Yes, there were risks. I had to take loans for the start money and I had to turn down the decent monthly income I was making at the time. And it is risky to abandon a career, do something else, and try to come back if it fails. How can you go back in after you’ve been gone for four, five years? But both my mom and dad have had companies of their own, and that was inspiring for me.

How did you become interested in Lego?

It came into my life when I was about four years old, and accompanied me during all my childhood. Of course I had other toys, but Lego was my favorite. I forgot about them for a few years as I tried to be a teenager. But when I was 20 or so I became interested in them again, but from a completely different perspective: animation. There was a trend about animations made with Lego, so I started to create short animated stories as an outlet for my creativity.

Cool. Are you still doing it?

Nooo, that was like fifteen years ago. It’s such a time-consuming hobby, I couldn’t do that now. But I think some of the old animations can still be seen in YouTube.

Where did the idea of a Lego store come from?

Since I was little I loved to build stuff. I thought I wanted to be an architect like my father, who has his own studio. My mother, on the other hand, had a toy store. So I always thought I’d follow my dad’s lead and become an architect, because selling toys didn’t seem as cool. But look at me now, I followed my mother’s lead instead! But frankly, this is not just about Lego. During the years I have become more and more interested in business.

Your mom had a toy store? You had all the toys!

I almost always chose Lego. (laughs) Although I remember one time when my parents let me choose anything from the store, and I went for a little winged, purple pony.

That’s cute. What did you build out of Lego?

Cities and worlds. They could be medieval or modern cities, but I wanted to build worlds and create stories. I wasn’t that interested in the details, like furniture or cars, it was always the design of the world on a larger scale.

And so you became a “brick-pusher”.

(laughs) We actually do more than that. Our Lego events, managed by my brother Timo, generate one third of our revenue. So it’s a family owned business, and my brother and my wife are full time here. Actually my wife is now on maternity leave.

Congratulations! And what are Lego events?

Thanks! Lego builders are continuously creating exciting stuff, and they want to show it to others. So we arrange a venue where they can display their creations, and the people can come to see them and interact. We also offer plenty of bricks for people to play with and build during a whole weekend.

Are there also competitions, with judges?

Most of the audience are children, so we don’t judge. We think every effort is worth showing, and every build is great.

Is Pii Poo an official Lego store?

There’s no official Lego store in Finland (the closest official stores are in Stockholm and Copenhagen). We are an independent store, with strong relations with Lego Finland and Lego Denmark regarding events. So basically anybody could open a Lego store, or arrange Lego events.

Is your mom’s toy store still open?

No, that was during the 90s, in a very small town. Nowadays toys are mostly available in supermarkets in big cities. In Finland, Kesko and the S-Group control a huge market that also includes toys. Most of the small toy stores, which used to offer really cool toys from small manufacturers, have been muscled out of the market by these big groups.

How has licensing, like Star Wars and Harry Potter, affected Lego?

Lego as a company had difficulties at the turn of the millennium, but after they licensed Star Wars they took off again. Licensing has been a blessing for them.

In the past, we used to build complex stuff out of generic bricks, but doesn’t it seem nowadays that pieces are hyper-designed, and you can only assemble the model that is pre-built for you?

Many people say that and it is true, from a point of view. For those who build occasionally, this may seem the case, but hardcore builders and fans see it in a different light: there are so many new parts and so many more possibilities! For example, let’s say there’s a specific piece designed to fit a particular Star Wars model, like a lightsaber. That year, the piece fills that purpose, but next year that part is available to design other things. That’s what excites the builders’ imagination, because they can use new pieces for completely different and creative purposes. And it’s amazing what people will come up with, it’s truly an art form. I see amazing models built by Lego fans, here in Finland, and globally.

Have Legos changed fundamentally in the way they’re produced?

Lego bricks as we know them today were released in the 50s, and the material changed during the 50s, 60s, and maybe 70s. After that it’s been the same material, ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) which is a kind of plastic, used in almost anything because it’s non-toxic. During the 70s a study said some toxics were present in the pigments of some colors used in the Lego Duplo bricks, but nowadays they’re perfectly safe. Lego are even looking into producing bricks out of plant-based materials.

How much do you interact with Lego Finland and Lego Denmark?

We interact with Lego Finland regularly. They’re part of the Lego group, which has a company in every country (in Finland they have about ten employees). Their job is to promote Lego locally, and to supply distributors like us. With Lego Denmark we do mostly event coordination.

There are so many sets! How do you decide what to stock?

They recommend us to “buy this!” and we take it all and try to sell it. (laughs) There are official Lego sets and then there are licensed items, like pens, storage boxes, keychains, and other products not produced by Lego, so we talk to other distributors as well. But by now we know and understand what sets and what minifigs (Lego figures) are the most popular in Finland and in our store. Global sales statistics don’t always work as well as our own intuition.

Being the only Lego store in Helsinki, you must be a strong hub.

We are, but our main focus is children and occasional builders. Hardcore builders get the pieces they need directly from online marketplaces.

How does that work?

Well, the Lego brand doesn’t focus on selling individual pieces; their business is to sell sets and stories about the sets. But Lego hardcore fans and builders require specific pieces, not full sets, so they get them from individual sellers at online marketplaces. The sellers’ business is to buy sets, sort and catalogue everything, and sell piecemeal on the marketplace. If we wanted to compete with something like that, we would be only one more seller among hundreds, thousands of them.

Wow. There’s a whole parallel economy of Lego bricks!

(laughs) It’s really cool, actually. Without these marketplaces, it would be very difficult for pro builders to get the exact pieces they need.

How big is the Lego community in Finland?

There are some 200 adult builders in the community, of which about 50 are more or less active. Of course many builders are active but don’t participate in the community, they build in their own garages and don’t show their work publicly. But those 50 active builders have lively discussions, show their builds, share tips.

What’s the benefit of coming here to buy Lego, instead of going to a toy store or a supermarket?

We have a wider selection, we offer an experience, and our customer service specializes in Lego. We try to have all the sets that Lego offers. You could buy from the net, of course, but you’d have to wait a few days for the delivery. If you want it NOW we probably have it here at the store. Our prices are more or less like those at City-market and Prisma, not cheap and not expensive either. We try to get people the Lego they want while making it an experience, especially for children. At our store we’re always displaying unique builds, something different and exciting to get inspired by.

Do you still build?

I used to build a lot. I don’t have too much time now, and builders are not paid to build (not in Finland at least). So working with Lego is the next best thing.

What do you enjoy most of having your own shop? And least?

I enjoy making decisions myself, and having nobody to answer to. And what I don’t like… Hmmm, I can’t just sit behind the counter selling all day, I need to be developing things, building store decorations or creating a marketing campaign. In my heart I’m not a customer service person, I rather be a manager of Lego stores. In the past I thought becoming an architect would allow me to be creative, but it didn’t (lots of bureaucracy and other stuff). But with the shop, I could design and build everything. All the furniture you see here in the store is made by me. If I delegate I know it will be done, maybe even better, but not the way I wanted. (laughs)

What did you think of The Lego movie?

I thought it was great. When I saw it was in development, I was afraid it was going to be just an animated movie with Legos thrown in, but no feeling, or the special things you’re familiar with as a Lego builder. But it surprised me! They knew what they were doing, there were lots of little details, like a cracked spaceman’s helmet, for example. If you had a spaceman minifig as a kid, you know the helmet was always cracked! Self-aware details like that, which builders could spot and have a laugh at, showed Lego more like it is, not perfect. So the movie was kinda honest in that sense.

Do you know Vesa Lehtimäki (Avanaut)?

We’ve talked a few times, I like his Star Wars book and his work. He seems very passionate; his pictures are not only about the objects themselves, they’re very cinematic and moody. I follow many Lego photographers, and I can see the influence Avanaut has had on them.

Where does the name “Pii Poo” come from?

It comes from an old Finnish fairy tale, that people from my grandma’s generation (about 90 years-old now) were very familiar with, from the Etelä-Pohjanmaa region. The Pii Poo is a character from that fairy tale.

What’s in for the future?

Continue hosting events, encourage people to have fun with Lego in different ways: Lego action park, museum, birthdays…

What does your mother say about your “toy store”?

She passed away before we opened. It’s unfortunate, because she only saw me becoming an architect, as my father. She never got to see that I became what she was, the owner of a cool toy store.

This is Pii Poo’s Instagram, Facebook, YouTube channel, and this is their website.