Meet Warren Wilson, inventor of Better Blocks!
Through our work on OctoGifts, we've had the good fortune of meeting super interesting people.
That includes Warren Wilson, the Australian inventor of BetterBlocks. The first building block system to successfully compete with Lego, BetterBlocks sold over 2 million kits in the 1990s. The unique feature was that the blocks would bend to shape curves—they were flexible! He eventually sold the business, and now consults to global corporations.
However, bringing out the best in children is still his focus. He has created programs teaching children about entrepreneurship and written the book How to Think Like an Inventor. He is now developing a STEAM education program that brings the joy and wonder of engineering into children's lives.
We had the pleasure of interviewing him recently!
How did you end up inventing Better Blocks?
I love challenges, and I’m always curious to see if I can come up with a solution. I was at a Toy Fair in Nuremburg, Germany. It was snowing outside and I was in one of the warm halls chatting to some friends. We happened to be standing outside of the Lego stand and of course, we couldn’t help but start talking about Lego. At the time Lego had no competitors. In the stores the building block shelves were filled with Lego, Lego and more Lego. My friend said to me, “Warren, you’re an inventor. We need a block to compete with Lego, that’s not Lego.” To be honest I never thought much more about it. After all Lego was a billion dollar company, and I was just a guy working from a shed in his backyard, how would I ever compete with them...but it did get my inventive brain ticking over. Every now and then I would have the thought: “If I could compete with Lego, how would I do it?”
Three months later I was driving through one of my favorite areas of Adelaide, my home town, when I had a sudden flash of inspiration. Why not design a building block which moved? I had no idea how to do it at the time but I knew if I could, I could probably compete with Lego. A building block which moved would be different enough from Lego that it would not infringe on any of Lego’s patents or legal protection.
So, the idea for my BetterBlocks inventions came about because I listened for opportunities, problems that others were having and then asked myself: “If I could come up with a solution, what would it look like?" and of course waiting patiently for an answer. The answers often come to me when I’m at the beach, in the shower or driving because these are the times when I’m happiest and most relaxed.
BetterBlocks brochure. Photo courtesy of Warren Wilson
You wrote How to Think Like an Inventor. If you had to pick just one chapter for a budding young entrepreneur to read that would hopefully entice them to read the entire book, which would it be and why?
I’m not sure of a best chapter but the images below are some of the feedback I received from kids when I spoke to them about inventing. Believing in themselves and never giving up is the message behind all that I do. Also, mistakes are OK. They are not right or wrong. They are just experiments you’ve tried that didn’t work. Take what you’ve learnt and keep on going. Remember Thomas Edison found 1000 ways the light bulb did not work before he discovered the one that did!
Photos courtesy of Warren Wilson
When a father said he was grateful for BetterBlocks "because it’s the first time in four years I’ve sat down and played with my son.”Who was the most memorable kid you’ve ever worked with and why?
Tough question. I’ve worked with so many great kids. I was working with one of the children I was mentoring at the time. We would spend a lot of time building cardboard models. He had a friend who was a little shy but always seemed to be watching what we were doing when he had a chance. I spoke to him and asked if I he would like me to see if I could arrange with his teacher for him to spend a little time with me building models. When I mentioned this his eyes lit up like glowing stars and he had the biggest smile I had ever seen. I did arrange to spend time building cardboard models with him and it was some of the most enjoyable time I have ever spent with anyone. To be around someone who is totally engrossed and genuinely loves what they are doing is a privilege that I will never forget.
What is the #1 piece of advice you'd give a kid with entrepreneurial aspirations and his/her parents?
Here is a short story which I believes sums up what it takes to support your children to grow into the person they want to be, not necessarily what you want them to be. My daughter was about 5 years of age at the time and we were building a home for her guinea pigs on our back lawn. I had a brand new battery operated drill which I loved because I was one of those men who love their power tools. My daughter picked up my drill and started playing with it. I watched her out of the corner of my eye just to make sure she was safe when she started using my brand new drill to drill holes in the lawn, in the dirt. I did all I could to not say anything, just watch her. She drilled a couple of holes then stopped...thank God! As calmly as I could I asked her did she enjoy drilling holes and why did she do it? Her answer was she loved drilling holes in the dirt and was just curious about what would happen!
I learnt so much from that priceless experience. Kids learn from doing, and many adults do too if given the chance. To stifle our kids' natural curiosity is to eventually strangle their curiosity and creativity. Their spirit is actually is being suppressed. The little bit of damage to my “precious” drill was insignificant compared to being able to support my daughter's creativity and spirit.
A wise woman said to me: “Warren, clean up your own life and leave your kids alone.” This is the best piece of parenting advice I have ever received.
Advice for kids? Please take it easy on us parents. We are doing our best but many of us have forgotten what it was like to be a kid.
Anything else you'd like to share?
To quote Aaron May (one of the students whose letter is pictured above): “Believe in yourself and your dreams, keep going and never give up.”
We're grateful to Warren for sharing his experiences with us!
You can connect with Warren here:
and his book is available here:
Thanks for reading, and check out Sebastian's inventions (including 💝 Valentine DIY Kits💝) in the OctoGifts shop!