“If anybody had told me this is where we would have ended up, I wouldn’t have believed them,” admits Back, co-owner and co-founder. “It’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time, recognizing an opportunity, and running with it.”
Were it not the for the versatility of large format digital printing delivered by digital presses, the business may never have flourished.
The great idea Back and three friends had was painted cornhole sets. At the time, cornhole (or corn toss), was primarily a regional game, popular in parts of the Midwest, southern Ohio, and Kentucky. Players are challenged to score points as they toss sewn bags of corn kernels through holes cut in four-by-eight wooden boards at set distances.
The game boards of their youth were largely homemade—cut from plywood or cobbled together from boards.
“We thought we might be able to sell some painted cornhole sets and offered them for sale on eBay,” Back recalls.
Their intention was to test the concept without risk. They had no stock and didn’t build their first set until they had an order. One came almost immediately. Then another. And another. Soon a business was born.
From Garage to Warehouse
Working out of a garage, Back and friends assembled then painted those first game sets in a few colors.
Today he and partner Jason Wahl ship somewhere between 100 and 200 cornhole sets each day during the busy summer and holiday seasons from the company’s 30,000-square foot print and warehouse facility. They’ve expanded their offerings to include accessories and other game sets, including a tabletop version of the game.
AJJ Enterprises now employs twenty-five people, including three full-time graphic artists.
Interest in the game is now so great that they source their pre-built game boards from China then print and apply the graphics in-house. Buyers can choose from thousands of designs or submit their own graphics for custom-printed sets from the company’s e-commerce site. The catalog also includes licensed NCAA, fraternity, and sorority sets and even boards decorated with members of the rock band KISS.
Everything is printed digitally. “Roland printers have been a big part of our success and one of the prime reasons our business has grown,” says Back.
Niche printing was not part of the original plan, however.
“After we started selling more sets, some people asked if we could put photographs and other graphics on the boards,” he says. “We started working with a local print shop.”
That company printed the designs on adhesive-backed vinyl, which was then applied to the cornhole sets by Back, Wahl, and their team.
AJJ Enterprises outsourced their printing for about three years. Demand for the cornhole sets grew to the point where they considered bringing the printing in-house.
“We started to realize how much we were spending on printing and the money and time we could save if we did it ourselves,” Back explains.
Following the lead of their print services provider, AJJ purchased the Roland VersaCAMM® VS-540 with a 54-inch print width, in 2011.
For the next two years, it hummed along, reliably running up to twelve hours a day. The business grew as a supplier of customized cornhole sets in limited quantities.
In 2013, an order arrived from the Old Navy® retailer for 600 cornhole sets, taxing their production capabilities. Back turned to his local Roland reseller, Nazdar SourceOne, to ask what they had on hand that would immediately boost production capacity.
“I ended up buying the Roland [VersaCAMM®] VS-640i 64-inch printer cutter they had as a demonstration unit,” he says.
Running in tandem, the two Roland presses kept pace with the ever-increasing demand for game sets for the next few years.
Then Back saw the Roland VersaUV LEJ-640FT UV flatbed printer at a tradeshow last year. Intrigued he brought some blank cornhole sets to Nazdar SourceOne to test the direct print capabilities of the flatbed. The results convinced him he needed one for his company.
“The main reason I bought it initially was because I saw we could save as much as five dollars per set with direct printing on the flatbed,” he explains. “I also recognized flatbed printing would give us new capabilities.”
His company still wraps most of its game sets in vinyl printed on the VS-540i and 640FT. As far as the graphics, consistent favorites include those featuring a patriotic or military theme.
Some of the company’s most popular design themes are proving to be the “stained” and “retro-stained” series produced with the flatbed. On these sets, the design is printed directly onto game boards with enough transparency so the grain of the underlying wood shows through for a distinct look.
Clients can select and preview these or choose from hundreds of other designs and place their order on the company’s Web site. Combined with its digital print capabilities, e-commerce has helped the business flourish in ways inconceivable in the pre-Internet, pre-digital era.
“Most of our advertising is done online and through Google,” Back reports. “People anywhere can search ‘cornhole’ and find us.”
In fact, the reach of the Internet and the customization AJJ Enterprises provides in pre-built, personally designed corn hole sets has helped the game expand beyond its regional roots.
“We’ve grown every year we’ve been in business and now get some large orders from corporate customers,”says Back. Those game sets have figured in promotions for Coca-Cola®, Kroger’s®, Jim Beam®, and Jack Daniels®, to name a few.
“The largest single order we’ve had is for 3,000 sets for a Mountain Dew promotion,” he says.
Back estimates the company will ship a total of 16,000 sets this year, all showcasing graphics produced on one of his three Roland printers.
“Being able to provide people with better graphics and being able to offer them so many choices has certainly helped our success,” he says.
By Mike Antoniak
All photos: AJJ Enterprises.