A Wisconsin man's childhood passion for Star Wars has led to a multi-million dollar business, which recently passed the threshold of $5 million in annual sales.
"When I started, I was a 16-year-old kid," Brian Semling, 37, told the Rochester Post Bulletin. "It went from being a hobby to a business that was an extension of my hobby to becoming a real career."
Semling started collecting "Star Wars" toys when he was in high school, and then launched Brian's Toys, a mail-order collectables business, in his family's basement in 1994 to make some extra money for college, according to the Brian's Toys website.
His hobby turned into much more. Semling started taking out ads in trade magazines and attending conventions – with the help of his family, the start-up quickly grew, the Winona Daily News reports. He was in college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but was traveling back to the Midwest nearly every weekend to work on his ever-growing business.
In 1996, as a sophomore, Semling decided to leave MIT and transfer to Winona State University, where he could fully commit to developing Brian's Toys, the newspaper says.
Now, the company, which is headquartered in Fountain City, Wisconsin, but has two of its main warehouses in Winona, claims to have the "world's largest selection" of "Star Wars" toys and collectables with customers in all 50 states and over 100 countries, according to the company's website.
Semling has also included Winona in his success. He has hired most of his 26 employees from Winona State University, Saint Mary's University or Southeast Technical College in Winona, the Rochester Post Bulletin notes.
Changing with the times
Semling has altered his business plan to change with the times. First, he advertised through ads and by attending conventions. As technology advanced, he started using eBay to sell the collectables. Now, with a website, and the popularity of social media, he's reaching 10,000 potential customers with each tweet and Facebook post, the Rochester Post Bulletin reports.
Brian's Toys is also not just about Star Wars anymore. The business has grown and also sells "Transformers," "Masters of the Universe," "GI Joe," LEGO and "Indiana Jones" collectables, according to an e-newsletter from Merchants Bank.
Semling also has plans to launch a smartphone app this fall. The app will allow customers to use their phones to scan bar codes of toys in their original packaging. This will simultaneously create inventory and give the customer price quotes from Brian's Toys, Semling told the Post Bulletin.
Although Semling has been adapting his business, he and his family are still a major part of the company. His parents assist part time, his wife, Carina, helps with payroll, and his two young children, Sonja, 7, and Erik, 4, help out on occasion, according to the company's website.