The Story Of A $90K/Month Vintage Comic Books And Comic Book Art Store

$90K
revenue/mo
2
Founders
4
Employees
product
Superworld Comics
from Holden
started January 1986
$90,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
4
Employees
3.23M
alexa rank
2.07K
followers
290
followers
90
subs
market size
$3.53T
avg revenue (monthly)
$49.7K
starting costs
$33.9K
gross margin
45%
time to build
8 months
average product price
$20
growth channels
SEO
business model
E-Commerce
best tools
Instagram, Trello, YouTube
time investment
Side project
pros & cons
31 Pros & Cons
tips
7 Tips
Discover what tools Ted reccommends to grow your business!
email
shipping
financing
reviews
accounting
productivity
payments
analytics
blog
design
stock images
payroll
seo
education
Discover what books Ted reccommends to grow your business!
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

We are Lisa and Ted Van Liew, owners of Superworld Comics, Inc., purveyors of vintage comic books, and original comic book art. Superworld is in its 34th year buying and selling comics from the 1930s to the 1970s. Our customers are nostalgia seekers who remember buying from the newsstands when they were kids, collectors who love comics and filling in their runs, and also investors looking to add some diversity and some fun to their portfolios. Prices of Silver Age (1955-1970) and Golden Age (1938-1955) comics have risen consistently since the 1970s.

Comic book collecting became more organized and serious in the late 1960s. In 1970 the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, published by Gemstone Publishing was launched and has been published annually ever since, creating consistency and professionalism in the industry.

We sell on our website, on eBay, and at comic book conventions around the country, including 22 years at the well-known Comic-Con International, in San Diego, CA. Since the onslaught of Covid-19, we have not been able to attend conventions, which has challenged our ability to sell and to buy.

To cope with virus restrictions, we have increased our web advertising and have also begun a live Instagram show called Treasure Chest Tuesdays, Tuesday evenings from 6:00 pm to 7:15 EST. It features live comic book sales including a free giveaway, plus Ted discussing comics history, art, and interacting with our online customers.

embed:instagram

Due to the success of our Tuesday show, we have recently launched Lunch With Jose on Thursdays at 1:00 pm EST. Jose Rivera is a long-time employee who possesses a larger-than-life personality and great knowledge of all things pop culture and comic book related. Our two full-time employees Joe Fish and Adam Fish have been instrumental in developing and marketing the live shows!

the-story-of-a-90k-month-vintage-comic-books-and-comic-book-art-store Joe Fish (at a computer) and Adam Fish (with camera) and Ted during an episode of Treasure Chest Tuesdays

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Ted has always loved comic book stories and art. As a child, he was enthralled by the fantastic other worlds and superpowers. He read every comic he could get his hands on, often wandering the city of Worcester in search of stores that carried the coveted swivel racks. As a young adult, he began to collect comic books as a hobby.

Ted received a degree in art from UMass Amherst and worked in advertising before starting his own illustration business. Lisa Van Liew has a degree in Communications/Media and also worked in advertising before going out on her own as a freelance photographer. When Ted and Lisa began their lives together (after meeting at an art gallery store) they had two small businesses running. They sometimes shared clients such as Clark University and UMass Medical Center.

Comic books fell into the background until Ted purchased a collection from his friend Richard Mossow in 1987. In order to pay back the loan he had borrowed, he had to sell some of the comics by advertising in a comic fan magazine. In doing so he made some extra money and that sparked the idea of selling comic books for a business. Superworld Comics was born.

the-story-of-a-90k-month-vintage-comic-books-and-comic-book-art-store Running a business together as husband and wife is mostly fun, but we do disagree sometimes on how to best move forward

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

In the pre-internet days, comics were sold by mail order, and Ted began to advertise in the Comic Buyers Guide, a weekly publication for comic fans and buyers/sellers. I wish we had a copy of one of his handwritten ads - he would run out of room listing as much of our inventory as he could in tiny handwriting on a 3”x3” ad space! In those days, Ted worked out of a tiny spare bedroom and packing and shipping were done on the dining room table.

We also started to explore smaller local comic book shows in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Lisa’s dad donated a van to the business for hauling boxes of books from show to show.

Lisa's limited computer skills became invaluable as we created a database and began to publish our own catalogue. Lisa remembers recruiting some of the neighborhood kids to help sticker and stamp the catalogs. They worked for juice boxes and cookies, sitting on a big blanket in the yard!

Waiting for the catalogues to arrive and the phone to start ringing was agony in those days as we were running on a shoestring budget with a new baby in tow. What if no one called?

the-story-of-a-90k-month-vintage-comic-books-and-comic-book-art-store Baby Jacqui seems lost amidst the comics and photo gear in this photo

the-story-of-a-90k-month-vintage-comic-books-and-comic-book-art-store Our first catalogues were copies on colored paper

the-story-of-a-90k-month-vintage-comic-books-and-comic-book-art-store With a copy of the publishing software Pagemaker, we moved into the computer age

After about 2 years, the comics business was making more money than illustrations and we decided to focus on Superworld Comics and photography.

Accepting credit cards (as painful as the fees are) was a real turning point in the business. So convenient for the customers on the phone and also entices people to spend a bit more if they can pay over time.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Our first website had bright yellow fonts on a black background, no connectivity to a database, and was designed by the son of the owner of a pizza restaurant we frequented. To update the inventory, we had to upload an updated Word document once a week. Not terribly functional, but it was one of the first comic bookselling websites!
Google uses longevity as part of its algorithm.

Our first New York City convention in 1996 (in a giant church basement) was a breakthrough in many ways. We realized how big the market had become, and also met some of the people that would become partners and connections for over 32 years. Robert Storms from High-Grade Comics shared expensive table space with us, and we also collaborated on collections.

We also met Gary Dolgoff, of Dolgoff Comics, a long-time comic book dealer with an enormous warehouse in Western Massachusetts. Gary was instrumental in our early launch. He would allow us to take one or two long boxes of comics, sell them over a course of a month or so, and then pay him. He essentially extended us a comic book line of credit.

Without the help of other dealers, friends, and family, we might have failed. Besides my dad’s donation of vehicles or some cash, Ted’s sister Jan also would “buy” comics and then “sell” them back to us as a form of the loan!

In 2000, one of our comic customers, Lou Larocca, started his own software/web design business and he needed some example websites for his portfolio. Not only was he offering us a bargain price, but he had extensive knowledge of comics. He had a handle on specifics like when a title changes from Golden Age to Silver Age- information that we were having trouble conveying to other contractors.

We jumped at the chance to have a more functional website connected to an inventory database. At first, it was a mind-boggling amount of labor (that actually made Lisa cry) because every single comic book had to be given an individual inventory number of 10,000 comics. For the first time, however, we had a truly professional website and the business soared.

Lou’s business, J2 Interactive, is now an award-winning software development and IT consulting firm specializing in customized solutions for health systems.

With a toddler and the business expanding exponentially, working out of our tiny cape house was no longer an option. We found a 3rd floor warehouse space in Worcester, MA that was big and cheap (also cold and occasionally leaky). We had some great business neighbors during those years; some other new entrepreneurs and some more seasoned pros. We all relied on each other for coffee breaks, advice, and sometimes a pep talk.

The future looks extremely bright for collectibles. Prices have been going up in recent years due to the success of the Marvel movies. Interest is very high.

Twelve years ago we moved into a small retail plaza in the town where we live that afforded us more convenience and safety. The space is bright and new and has excellent neighbors. We manage with about 1300 square feet of space. We may expand into space next door in the next few months. Big decision time. With a small business, it is often big decision time!

In order to finance larger collections, the next big step to growing the business, we needed a line of credit, so we approached a local bank. With good personal credit and our house as collateral, we were approved for a small line of credit ($10,000). Today our credit line is $150,000 and no longer attached to our home.

We started to need more help and found a great employee who was the son of one of Lisa’s photography clients. Jesse was enrolled at Framingham State University studying Graphic Design, and he was happy to work part-time if we could accommodate his class schedule. Jesse really helped determine the look and feel of our website banners and ads for years to come. He is a very successful graphic and UX designer today.

Our marketing plan was to make Ted the star of the business. Position him as THE expert on comic book collecting and investing. We also brought our natural sense of humor to all of our advertising and communications. After working in serious businesses like health care, we were eager to let loose and have some fun. Our motto still today is: “There is no such thing as a comic book emergency.”

the-story-of-a-90k-month-vintage-comic-books-and-comic-book-art-store Click here to see more of our classic promotions

Several years ago we were looking to find something to make a social media splash. This led us to create "Trash-a-Comic” videos where we trashed low-value comics in various ways: paintball, blender, fire, farm animals. They were a huge hit and created the social media buzz we needed. Check them out:

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

First and foremost, customers are attracted to Ted’s expertise and love for comic books. His enthusiasm is truly infectious. As a company, we also practice “Extreme Customer Service.” Returns are always accepted, books are packed exceptionally well, and shipped quickly. Our preferred customers always receive first notice about special sales and new collections.

Also, Lisa’s background in advertising and willingness to learn new platforms and marketing strategies helps us consistently reach new customers. Two years ago we moved our website over to WordPress. It was painful to learn new tools, but content management is the way to go for better search optimization.

Social media has been helpful to us in gaining and retaining customers, as well. Mailchimp has been the most useful in getting our messages out to our specific customers. We have a tight mailing list of preferred customers; approximately 3000. We never spam and only send an email when we have something our customers will be truly happy to see, like a new collection or a big sale. We have been adamant that our customers get a 24-hour notice on sales and new collections before the general public.

We also use industry-specific platforms such as Comic Art Fans, the CGC chat boards, and Scoop, a weekly online newsletter published by Gemstone Publishers. Scoop has been especially helpful in getting the word out about events.

We also use old-school methods like flyers and business cards which we insert with each outgoing package.

One mistake we made early on was not separating business/personal money. We just took money out of the business as needed. Once we incorporated and set up a business account, it helped us so much.

We spend about $1,000 per month on Google Adwords. Our goal is always to come up on page one in organic searches by leveraging our website’s success, blog posts, and other social media. Recently we engaged Andy Fish, a well-known comic book artist (who also happens to be the father of our two full-time employees, Adam and Joe Fish) to write our blog. He is really helping to drive business to the blog and therefore the site!

Additionally, eBay auctions are a good way to reel in new customers. Because eBay has such an enormous global reach, we always keep a presence there. To keep the new customers that come in through eBay and other sources, we use exceptional customer service, including expert, fast and inexpensive shipping.

Additionally, eBay auctions are a good way to reel in new customers. Because eBay has such an enormous global reach, we always keep a presence there. To keep the new customers that come in through eBay and other sources, we use exceptional customer service, including expert, fast and inexpensive shipping.

the-story-of-a-90k-month-vintage-comic-books-and-comic-book-art-store

I wonder how many other businesses would dare to have their eBay feedback displayed live on their website?

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

The future looks extremely bright for collectibles. Prices have been going up in recent years due to the success of the Marvel movies. Interest is very high. The hobby has historically attracted mostly men, but as the hobby grows into more of an investment, it is attracting women as well.

Since we don’t make our product, our biggest challenge is finding replacement inventory of a scarce and vintage product. Our Google ads reflect this and we spend more on “Selling your collection?” than “Buy comics here.” The competition is fierce. We rely on our stellar reputation when dealing with potential sellers. We often hear “We talked to several dealers and we liked you guys best,” or “We liked your ads.”

The comic book conventions are also an important outlet for buying because people will bring their collections in to sell, or walk around talking to dealers and collecting business cards.

the-story-of-a-90k-month-vintage-comic-books-and-comic-book-art-store Our booth at San Diego Comic Con in 2016

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

One mistake we made early on was not separating business/personal money. We just took money out of the business as needed. Once we incorporated and set up a business account, it helped us so much. Additionally, we hired a payroll company and started paying ourselves a salary. We were able to see how much money we could spend as a household. This also began paying regularly into social security and a retirement account.

Another mistake we made was to try to farm out the packing and shipping. We lost one employee and thought, “do we really have to have an employee with all the associated costs to pack and ship?” We contracted with a local pack and ship business to take on our shipping. However, it wasn’t long before packages were returned to us with incorrect addresses, and when we opened them we realized that the comics were not packed to our specifications.

Since one tiny corner nick can turn a $5,000 book into a $3,000 book, we require lots of specially cut cardboard, bubble wrap, and sturdy boxes. Since then, we’ve had one part-time employee-focused almost solely on packing and shipping.

A force outside of our control that has increased interest in comics is the popularity of the Marvel movies. Every time a movie is announced, the associated books start flying off the shelves. We are waiting for the other big comic Book publisher DC to have similar success! So far the DC movies have not generated the same excitement, so the DC titles are still relative bargains!

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Mailchimp: easy to use, great reports, pay as you go option. We get very high open rates and click-through rates by being very careful about what we send our customers.

the-story-of-a-90k-month-vintage-comic-books-and-comic-book-art-store

WordPress: easy to update. Great for searchability.

Google analytics: great information about the customers, times of day

See links to social platforms below.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies

the-story-of-a-90k-month-vintage-comic-books-and-comic-book-art-store

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

You have to work very hard. Always. Keep your goals in mind. Revisit your goals every year or every six months. Things constantly change and you have to move fast to make use of opportunities and challenges. Since I began writing this story we encountered a global pandemic that forced us to pivot the business in a few different and possibly more profitable ways.

Find your niche - we are not the largest. We are a boutique business catering to upscale discerning collectors. Then Brand Brand Brand!.

Give superior customer service. Your customers will reward you with loyalty.

Find employees that you trust and then treat them very well. Our employees enjoy flexibility, autonomy, and bonuses based on quarterly sales.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Ted and Lisa VanLiew,   Founder of Superworld Comics
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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