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It was summer 2011 and my 19-year-old son Ryan was returning home after having completed his freshman year at the University of Florida, where he’s studying computer science. He had done well but had no concrete plans for the summer. My husband Jim and I didn’t want to see Ryan turn into the quintessential lazy teen – up all night hanging out with friends or playing video games, then sleeping away most of the day.
We suggested to Ryan that he look into getting a summer job, although with the economy stalled, jobs, especially for teens, were in short supply. Instead, Ryan came up with an interesting business plan and asked us to front him a few dollars, which we did.
Ryan’s business idea was to obtain and then resell used Lego sets. Remember Legos? They’re those snap-together bricks used to build everything from miniature houses and cars to complex, themed action sets replicating scenes from the Star Wars and Harry Potter movies.
Ryan proposed a business that capitalized on his favorite childhood toy, Legos.
Ryan had loved Legos as a kid and collected many sets. Just before leaving for college the previous summer, he had cleaned out his closet and sold most of his Legos on eBay for some pocket cash to take to school. He’d taken notice of the interest his Lego auctions generated and was surprised to find that many sets sold for even more than we’d originally paid years earlier. From that glimmer of success came Ryan’s business idea.
Ryan’s idea was to sell “gently used” themed Lego sets, such as those featuring scenes from Star Wars and Harry Potter movies.
With our support firmly behind him, Ryan placed some ads seeking Lego sets. He quickly got a few bites and negotiated to buy some large Lego collections using the seed money we’d loaned him.
The sellers were mostly young men in their 20s who’d been saving their Lego sets for years and now wanted cash more than their childhood toys. Ryan was banking on the fact that most of the sets were old enough to be out of production now and therefore considered rare.
The garage soon became a storage and staging area for incoming Legos.
Once he had the collections, Ryan began building each set to make sure it had all its parts. Some had well over 1,000 pieces. As an experienced Lego builder, he was able to swiftly assemble them.
Ryan enlisted the help of his sister Katelyn in sorting and organizing loose Legos.
Once built, Ryan photographed each Lego set and created a video showing any moving parts and action figures. He wrote compelling ads, speaking from the heart as a long-time Lego lover.
Battery-powered Lego models that moved and functioned were always in high demand.
Finally, with all his marketing materials ready, Ryan began placing auctions on eBay, selling each set individually for the greatest profit. And sell they did! Often within minutes of launching an auction, the bids began rolling in.
At any one time, Ryan had 20-30 Lego auctions in progress.
Using the profits from his initial sales, Ryan ramped up his efforts, buying more collections and posting more auctions. At any one time he had 20-30 auctions in progress.
Any dusty Legos were soaked in a soapy solution in our bathtub and laid outside to dry on the pool deck.
He became more organized, setting up systems for his operations and building spreadsheets to track everything from profit and loss to customer communications.
Ryan bought boxes & bubble wrap in bulk, storing the shipping supplies in his bedroom.
Ryan found he was able to make two to four times what he paid for each set and occasionally, luck into an online bidding war for a rare set, netting him an even greater profit.
Lego models in various stages of assembly covered every flat surface in the house.
Lego mini-figures were valuable and could be sold with sets or separately for a premium.
Over time, Ryan became more savvy about acquiring product and the selling process. He learned how to find and negotiate for the most popular sets. He discovered how to word his ads and take professional-quality photos to generate the most interest. Finally, he continually sought ways to streamline the various steps leading to auction, maximizing his profit margins.
Ryan purchased shelving where he placed Lego sets on auction. As soon as an auction ended and he’d received payment, he sealed the box and shipped it to the winner.
He also set up spreadsheets to track every expense and sale. He learned basic accounting and handled his own banking and bookkeeping with precision.
Looking back, the only downside of the business was that our house resembled a garage sale all summer. Lego models in various stages of production covered every flat surface.
This is what guests would see when we opened our front door.
Cardboard boxes and shipping supplies occupied every shelf and corner. No doubt we will be finding pieces of styrofoam peanuts for years. Nonetheless, the mess was a small price to pay for a lucrative and fun little e-commerce business.
The Lego business turned our home into Ryan’s personal warehouse.
Spread around the dining room were filled boxes awaiting shipping labels.
Do Jim and I think Ryan has a future with his Lego business? Yes and no. Ryan is delighted to have the cash, having made considerably more than if he’d worked in the typical summer position at a fast-food restaurant or grocery store. And as Ryan is quick to add, “Playing with Legos is way more fun than flipping burgers.”
In nearly every room, packages were scattered amid the furniture.
While we don’t see Legos as Ryan’s future career, (We’re spending too much on his college tuition for that!), Jim and I were delighted to see him run a business and get a taste of entrepreneurial success.
Ryan and Katelyn closely monitored the bidding on their eBay auctions.
He even employed Katelyn, our 12-year-old daughter, to build some of the sets and assist with uploading the auctions, so she was in on the venture and enjoying it just as much as Ryan.
Ryan set up sound effects for any activity on his auctions. The house sounded like a Las Vegas casino with bells ringing for every bid and a cash register opening for every sale.
Both kids are already making plans to resume operations when Ryan comes home for a month at Christmas and then to ramp up for next summer after Ryan has completed his sophomore year at college.
Items like functioning trains were rare and would cause a bidding war that often went into the hundreds.
While the money is nice, of course, Jim and I feel the real value of selling Legos is what both kids have learned. The business skills – understanding supply and demand, negotiating for product, writing ads, creating marketing materials, streamlining production, handling fulfillment, and servicing customers – are transferable to any job or business they have in the future.
Perhaps more important though is that both children now know they can, on their own, without an employer, find a way to generate some income. Resourcefulness is the unexpected but meaningful life lesson acquired from Ryan’s childhood-hobby-turned-business in what we’ve come to know here as “The Summer of Legos.”
Postscript: It’s now been several years since Ryan’s Lego business was in operation. I’m happy to report Ryan graduated the University of Florida with a BS in computer science and received multiple job offers. He’s convinced that some of the offers came from him having described the success of his Lego business in his interviews. If nothing else, he said, it made him memorable to the interviewers as “the Lego kid.”
He currently is a Senior Software Engineer at a mid-sized consulting firm in Charlotte, North Carolina. As for me, his proud mom, I’m thrilled Ryan is succeeding in his chosen career and, best of all, the Legos are gone and I’ve got my house back!