An avid collector and Newbury Comics's CEO talk about managing young workers.
A long time ago, in a basement far, far away -- in 1992 in Fountain City, Wis., actually -- 15-year-old Brian Semling embarked on an intergalactic entrepreneurial adventure. Watching Return of the Jedi on television raised a simple question: What ever happened to those Star Wars action figures like the ones he played with when he was little? He decided to rebuild his collection, and on a family vacation to Orlando, Semling found three stores fully stocked with Lukes and Hans and Leias. His hobby, he discovered, was really a marketplace with established price guides and magazines. Semling placed ads for trades and shipped figures all over the place. "Buying and selling toys was a very natural extension of the collecting I had done," he says.
By the time he enrolled as a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Semling's home had become a clearinghouse for $35,000 in toys. At first Semling just worked on the company during winter and summer breaks; by the fall of his sophomore year he was flying home every weekend. He left MIT in 1996 for Minnesota's Winona State University, across the Mississippi River from Fountain City. Brian's Toys (#264) made $207,000 that year. Semling took the business online in 1999. Revenues took off like the Millennium Falcon in hyperspace, and in 2000 the business grossed $2.5 million.
Semling's youthful success has left him little time to learn how to manage people. And the people he manages are a challenging batch: 16- to 26-year-olds. "Dealing with people, hiring employees, managing, making sure they're treated fairly -- it didn't necessarily come naturally," he says. "I've had to fire four people. I really don't like to have to do that." Semling now plans to debut an employee handbook. "For me the number between 15 and 20 employees was the point where it couldn't just be dealt with informally."
Number of employees
Brian's Toys (#264)
Newbury Comics (#284 in 1986)
Newbury Comics (2000)
Use the Force, Brian
Like Brian Semling, Mike Dreese fled MIT to sell collectibles -- in Dreese's case, comic books. Newbury Comics Inc. (#284 in 1986; #313 in 1987) now sells mainly CDs, but the 22-store, Boston-based chain also stocks offbeat merchandise for the dorm-room set. In 1999, the year of The Phantom Menace, Dreese sold $150,000 in Star Wars toys -- and more than $4 million in Pokémon trading cards.
Newbury Comics employs 500 people, with an average age of 24; Dreese doesn't hire anyone under 18 because they're too immature. "In the early years I was a complete maniac," Dreese says. When displeased, he demanded that workers punch out on the spot. Out of maybe 50 such workers, half of them never came back. He feels no remorse. "If you want to run something to be explosively growing, you have to be a heretic who says 'It's my way or the highway," he says.
Dreese didn't institute an employee manual until about five years ago, when the staff had grown to 300. "That's one thing I wish I'd done earlier," he says. "As you grow, there's an assumption that everyone knows the rules, and it's all through the grapevine. But somebody who has worked for you for six weeks has no idea what the rules are. That can lead to a general sense of unfairness."
Still, managing postadolescents takes a firm hand, and Dreese warns that if Semling "doesn't have the stomach for dealing with 20 people, he's probably not cut out to be the CEO of a company."