Maker Stories

Inside the Artists’ Studio with Sam Buss and Derek “Ducky” Dahl

August 2, 2017

Sam and Derek outside the industrial brick building that’s home to the Nordeast Maker Space and their studio. Photos by Marisa Bowe (unless otherwise noted)

Sam Buss and Derek “Ducky” Dahl, friends since they were in their teens, make original games in Nordeast Minneapolis, one of my favorite neighborhoods in my hometown city.

Last time I was there, I took a bus on a warm, sunny day to the brick factory building-turned-maker-space they share with other interesting firms and artists. “It’s a maze,” they warned me, “so call us when you get here.” But a friendly co-tenant told me how to find the underground, windowless space.

Given the nature of their games, all of which (so far) involve beer drinking, I expected boisterous frat types (they did meet in a frat while attending the University of Minnesota). What I found, though, was a couple of low-key, thoughtful guys.

As they talked about their history as friends and business partners, I realized what courage it took for them to quit good jobs and throw themselves into being entrepreneurs. Neither of them had any prior business experience, so their road has been full of learning experiences. A few of those— early game prototypes—are on display in their studio.

They demo’d a couple of fancy machines for me: a huge CNC (“Computer Numerical Control”) router, which precision-mills their specially-shaped game boards; and a laser cutter, which emits a little red dot—just like the one my cat likes to chase—except it can cut and engrave wood. The Nordeast Maker Space makes these otherwise-unaffordable specialized machines available to small, independent makers like them. 

It was exciting to hear how the duo are able to realize their ideas, forge their own path, and have some fun along the way. Read on to learn (and see) more.

What are your most essential tools?

Derek: Creativity and resourcefulness.

We got started thanks to a community makerspace which had all the design and manufacturing equipment needed to make ideas into reality, for a relatively low monthly fee.

The space consists of a CNC router to carve raw material into shaped pieces, laser cutter/engraver to burn designs and graphics into wood and other materials, and 3D printers for prototyping. We also eventually had some complicated injection molded parts made on a couple of production models.

Sam: Laser cutter, CNC router, and computer aided drawing software such as Illustrator and AutoCad. These tools allow us to make quick and low cost prototypes. We also use these machines in the manufacturing process.

Where do you find inspiration within this space?

Derek: Our peers. In the Nordeast Makers’ space and around the building, we see projects other makers are working on and bounce ideas off each other.

A vintage 1969 drinking board game they came across

Sam: It definitely helps bouncing ideas off different people. Also, just play testing by making or purchasing different objects and see if they have good gameplay features.

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?

Derek: We shoot hoops on our mini basketball net, bang out some beats on the drums, and play racquetball or tennis during the day to mix things up.

Sam: There can be a lot of down time especially when you are trying to develop a game and hit a creative block. I like to listen to podcasts like “How I Built This” or “This American Life”. I also have an online subscription to the Star Tribune which is a pretty good newspaper.

A reminder to chill, and a sloth setting a good example

What was the toughest lesson you learned as young designer/makers starting a business?

Derek: Work-life balance. Starting a business as a side-hustle is challenging. You can only burn the candle on both ends for so long before it burns out.

Sam: There is so much more in design then just having a cool concept. You need to understand manufacturing, costs, packaging, aesthetics, and putting these all together to make a quality product that is affordable.

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?

Derek: Never stop learning and asking questions. Don’t think you know it all because you don’t and never will.

Sam: Spend more time with your customers. You can learn a lot from the people who are buying your product, and they give you a lot of inspiration for new products.

How do you set goals for yourself?

Derek: We notice the bank account is dwindling down and realize we need to start selling units in order to pay our bills…

Sam: Still working on that… designing a board game can be a challenge because you really don’t know the final outcome. You just have to keep on making tweaks as you go and hopefully it will all come together right before the holiday season.

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?

Derek: We basically celebrate regardless. It’s part of the daily cycle. Otherwise, it’s just a job.

Photo by Shannon Bauer, United States Army Corps of Engineers, March 14, 2009 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library, USACE photo ID 20090314-A-9999B-001 This image or file is a work of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers soldier or employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Minnehaha Falls, Minneapolis. They sometimes freeze solid. It’s cold there. (Public domain photo)

Sam: We usually try and set something up after the holiday season because that’s when we are putting in the 80/hr weeks and by the end of it you just want to lay in bed for awhile. Then after I am all rested up try to plan a trip somewhere tropical because it’s always nice to have an escape from the Minnesota winters.

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?

Derek: “The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively.” – Bob Marley. A reminder to keep a smile on my face and enjoy what I’m doing. It’s posted up on the fridge next a photo of him with a cheesy smirk ☺

Sam: “The longest road that a man must walk is from his head down to his heart.” I’m not really sure what it means to me but it’s a great lyric from a local band I like.

Prototypes from the past

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?

Derek: All of this was new for me, so I’m basically daily trying to figure out how to be a business owner, product designer, woodworker, accountant, graphic designer, accountant, and human being simultaneously, so there’s plenty to perfect!

Sam: I am not sure if this a skill but inventing and designing. I really like when people have unique request for new products. It can be very challenging at times, but the more I can understand how things are made and function the better I get at design.

Inspirational office Lego plane

How do you recharge your creativity?

Derek: Traveling. Learning from different cultures near and far, seeing a variety of problem solving strategies. Attending festivals and events and getting firsthand feedback from people playing our games, seeing what crazy things people are up to that we haven’t heard of yet.

Sam: I find that I am most creative usually right before bed or in the morning when you can just lay there, clear your mind, and try to tackle a problem just my thinking through it.

Their teenage band, A Distant Future. Derek: “I believe we were 13 years old in this photo, which was taken in my basement. The lyrics were probably something like, “I love Mountain Dew and am afraid of girls…” (Photo courtesy of the makers)

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?

Derek: We’re constantly collaborating, professionally or just in passing. Our friends are our best play testers who throw out fresh ideas from different perspectives.

Sam: The best way to make a good product, logo, sales video, is through collaboration. It’s no fun trying to think of something on your own, and you get way more ideas when you are collaborating. I think we have about a list of 30 inventions we came up with on our wiki page although I don’t know how to access that anymore.

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