At 57, Brandon Steiner is surprisingly young. Watching him talk from inside the Steiner Sports New York offices -- less than an hour north of the borough where he grew up and surrounded by all the trappings you’d expect from a life dedicated to sports memorabilia -- he’s frenetic.
There’s an enthusiasm about Brandon and an assuring nervousness that feels more like a fifth grader at show and tell than an executive responsible for a company valued at over $50 million.
And none of that is an accident.
At the core of Brandon Steiner -- as well as the organization he’s built over the last thirty years -- lies a simple idea:
I still got that ten-year-old in me.
“Like when you know you want a triple ice-cream Sundae and not just the single scoop or being willing to cut my arm off to have a player to come up to me, hand me the ball, and sign it. There’s one question -- with all the partnerships, the contracts, customer acquisition plans, promotions, marketing, and PR we do -- that I come back to: ‘How cool would it be if?’”
Understanding how Steiner Sports has thrived in an industry dominated by the likes of Ebay and Amazon -- alongside ultra-celebrity athletes selling their own brands -- isn’t just about channelling your own inner ten-year-old … it’s how you build an empire.
We Still Sell Dirt
Like many entrepreneurs, Brandon started young. At 5, it was lemonade; at 10, fruit delivery; 11, newspapers. At 25, he opened the Sporting Club, one of New York’s first sports bars. Then, in 1987 -- after helping guys like Mickey Mantle and Ron Darling open their own bars -- he founded Steiner Associates “with $4,000, a Mac computer and an intern.”
The first few years were difficult:
God it was painful trying to explain what I did. Back then I was like the Christopher Columbus of sports memorabilia.
But in the mid-1990s Brandon booked a one-hour signing session with Walter Payton and got the self-proclaimed “not an autograph guy” to put his John Hancock on 1,500 items that Brandon had brought with him in the bed of a truck. In 1999, Payton agreed to a second signing session, this time autographing 20,000 items to be sold after his death. “That agreement and inventory,” as Forbes put it, “put Steiner’s memorabilia success on the map.”
However, what really turned the corner was the dirt.
In 2009 -- after two years negotiating and $16.5 million spent -- Brandon brokered a partnership with the Yankees that allowed him to buy the original Yankee Stadium and sell things like the equipment, the wood and even the dirt.
“We got a lot of press from the dirt,” Brandon explains, “and we still do today. Asking if we still sell dirt is like asking if Nabisco still sells Oreos or if M&Ms still sells plain and peanut. Every time a player bends over, picks up a little bit of dirt and puts it in their pocket, they’re promoting my product.”
As high profile as the Yankee Stadium deal was, breakthroughs like deciding to sell dirt -- or the ecommerce equivalent for your market -- always come back to tapping into the excitement of your younger self.
Trust Is the Law
In any business, trust is huge. In memorabilia -- where you’re dealing with people’s passions and their inner, ten-year-old selves -- it’s the law: “You’re either doing it right, or you’re out.”
Trust affects every area of Steiner Sports: the distributors, the athletes, and the customers.
With distributors -- especially big dogs like Amazon, Walmart and eBay -- the biggest danger is price confusion. As Brandon put it, “With so many different margins and the potential to disappoint, who we don’t sell our product to is way more important than who we do sell to.”
This strategy means maintaining control over third party sales and not losing sight of the end customer’s experience, even when there are piles of money on the table.
Likewise, trust is at a premium with the athletes themselves. Simply lining up a few “influencers” in a mad dash to get more traffic and sales can backfire. In the case of Steiner Sports, they aren’t just selling cool products or gadgets, they’re selling someone’s brands, their “greatness”:
“The player has their fan base at their fingertips, and you can’t forget that it’s their name that is on the line. In the end, when the player helps us they have to feel like they’re helping themselves.”
With customers, being a bridge between a player and their fans is a fine line to walk, especially when it comes to promotion and marketing:
“There are 60 million ways to advertise your product today and you have to respect everybody: the bloggers, radio, TV, newspapers, podcasters, all that. Anyone of those channels could be a complete flat zero, anyone could be a homerun.
“The hardest thing I do is make that decision. We’re selling to baby boomers, Generation X, and millennials. The forty-and-over crowd is the most confusing. They’ve got the most money and, while they’re online, a lot of them still read the newspaper and don’t think of Facebook or Twitter as a place to go shopping. Older customers want service and a relationship. Millennials, on the other hand, will shop you to death. They know what they want, and they want to get it as fast and inexpensively as possible.”
So how do you decide where to invest?
You have to come up with a campaign that is pure truth. One that establishes an emotional connection.
That kind of “pure truth,” however, isn’t something born of creativity or in-house brainstorming. Instead, it arises from being a student of your market, knowing how people buy from top to bottom, inside and out. It’s a lot like the great copywriter Eugene Schwartz put it back in 1966:
“The power, the force, the overwhelming urge to own that makes advertising work, comes from the market itself, and not from the copy.”
“Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears and desires that already exist in the hearts of millions of people, and focus those already existing desires onto a particular product. This is the copywriter’s task: not to create this mass desire — but to channel and direct it.”
How would Brandon describe that process? Not surprisingly, he goes back to the same question we started with, “Just ask your inner 10-year-old, ‘How cool would it be if?’ That’s where trust and truth come together.” Of course, staying young isn’t an easy task.
The Obstacle Is the Way
So what’s the secret to Brandon’s youth and Steiner Sport’s success?
Quoting Marcus Aurelius, Brandon boils it down to just five words: “The obstacle is the way.”
“I wake up nervous every day about my competition. I’m scared right now. Maybe someday I’ll mellow out and calm down. I don’t know.”
Learn to trust your discomfort zones.
“It took me three years to figure out how to turn my computer on. It’s scary for someone of my age to learn how to use the web and social media. At first, you feel like you're failing. But really, you’re learning. And you have to not just mentor people younger than you, you have to allow them to mentor you too.”
The attitude of being a learner -- trusting in their discomfort -- has paid off huge.
Since January of 2014, the Steiner Sports Facebook page has grown from 33k fans to over 202k. On Twitter, it has gone from 9k followers to over 51k. And on Instagram, a bare 152 to 70k.
All told, their social media following has increased 1,030% over the last two years. Not bad for a guy who had to “have my Blackberry pulled from my hands, jumping and screaming.”
And the same has been true of Steiner’s ecommerce success. Having launched their Shopify Plus storefront in June of this year, the company has already seen online revenue grow by 15% when compared to data from 2015.
In Brandon’s words:
“You’ve given us a better platform right out of the gate.”
“I try to be the customer, to go to the site myself, and let my naivety and inexperience be a positive. So far, so good.”
And there it is again: “naivety and inexperience.”
Channelling “your inner ten-year-old” isn’t just the secret to Brandon Steiner’s $50 million empire, it should be the secret to your own.