The Bits and Bytes of Antiques and Collectibles
Businessman and entrepreneur Will Seippel has made a successful career out of fixing people's problems.
That skill led him to create WorthPoint, a Reston, Va., social networking firm that aims to offer a clearinghouse of information on antiques and collectibles for the average consumer.
"There are many people who say the real collectors are old or dying, but the antique industry hasn't done anything to revolutionize itself," said Seippel. "While WorthPoint has users in their 80s and users in their teens, we're really about creating a new era of collecting."
Seippel has been hired many times to revitalize ailing companies, particularly those with nonsensical databases that need to be cleaned up.
About four years ago, Seippel was working with a New Jersey company, trying to organize 7,000 nurses and their clinical data when something happened that planted a seed in his mind and pushed him to create his business. An accounts payable manager there who had chronic personal financial problems left work for a few days to attend to her mother's funeral and effects. Upon her return, she commented that she had to rent a dumpster to throw away so many things, including a complete set of Ebony magazines.
Seippel recalls wishing she knew what he knew: some of those magazines, especially those featuring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., were worth a lot of money. Had she known, she might have gotten herself out of debt and on the track to financial health.
"I thought about the need to create awareness among people that many of their financial solutions might be right in their own homes," said Seippel. "As things are passed from one generation to another, the new generation often doesn't know the value of what they may have inherited."
Besides being a database wizard that has helped him acquire houses in Maine and Georgia, and a condominium in Florida, Seippel is a collector. He has been collecting since he was a kid - Boy Scout badges, coins and stamps were a few of his early interests, but that's expanded into Lionel trains and Star Wars figurines, among other things.
A job with Digital Equipment Corp. moved him to New England and his time there reactivated what he called his "collecting gene." After he began renovating a 17th century New Hampshire house in Kennebunkport, Maine, to live in with his family, he began hunting for antiques to fill it.
"I love the history that goes with things," he said. "For me, it's easier to understand antiques as investments rather than buying stocks which can end up worthless. I can have a painting, love it, appreciate it and enjoy it." It's also the thrill of the hunt. "There's something fascinating when you're looking to find something."
In New England, he made a lot of friends with people who ask owners of older houses if they can take a look at what they've got in their barn or attic. "Yankees are the ultimate resource because they don't throw anything out and history really accumulates in some of the older houses and the weather keeps items well," Seippel said.
A lot of these "pickers" take unwanted items from these families and, in some cases, passed them on to Seippel's family. With initial help from Seippel, his five kids (a 15 year old and 10-year-old quadruplets) started an eBay site and each earned their college tuition within five years of selling the goods online.
During this time, Seippel was again reminded how difficult it was to get good data on antiques and collectibles, and he married his clever ability with databases and his love of collecting to create WorthPoint in March. The firm now has about 15 employees and about 30 contractors, some of whom are based in the Philippines and China.
Seippel hired a doctoral student from his alma mater, George Mason University, to help create the database and build a catalog. He also recently gave the university's School of Management a gift comprised of cash, artwork and shares of WorthPoint stock with a total value of about $250,000.
So far, about 250 auction houses have given WorthPoint their inventories and related data. "They won't give it to each other but don't seem to have a problem giving it to a third party," he said. He estimates that there may be about 10,000 auction houses across the nation.
The site, worthpoint.com, currently is in beta form, but visitors are welcome to use it and explore. Eventually, it will allow a user to evaluate items by posting them on YouTube and asking experts to respond.
Users also have the option of working with a "worthologist," a specialist in antiques who will give them an estimate of what an item is worth. This service costs from $2.95 to $14.95 depending on the complexity of answer desired. Worthologists also may make a house call to a WorthPoint subscriber. Charges for that would range from $50 to $500. The firm hopes to develop a large network of these experts, making it possible for face-to-face connections around the country. Worthologists sign a statement of ethics with WorthPoint declaring they won't buy anything from someone who comes to WorthPoint for help for a three-year period, so "people can feel safe that there's not an ulterior motive there," said Seippel.
The site, which will be supported by advertisements, also will offer users the option to sell a product via an auction house or sell it via WorthPoint at a fixed price. WorthPoint's founders also envision building communities online, creating chat groups around collectible items with some of the site's content provided by members of those communities, according to Stephen Johnson, WorthPoint's communications director.
Seippel acknowledges that the site has a long way to go before it is truly ready for public consumption. He's trying to keep a somewhat low profile on it until a new version is released this spring.
But he's preparing to boost WorthPoint's image and is working on an advertising campaign. He's also hired the branding manager who was in charge of creating the Coors Silver Bullet brand.
He acknowledged that there are other firms that "touch on what WorthPoint does, but nobody has put it all together prior to [us]." Seippel cites Artfact.com as an example, but notes that it focuses on high-end, expensive antiques and there is a minimum $250 annual membership fee to participate. "You won't find Ebony magazines there and I want to be able to help the average consumer," he said. ""We are kind of like an Antiques Roadshow on the Internet," said Seippel, referring to the popular TV program that helps people identify household items of worth.
The firm is cataloging popular collectibles like Northwood pottery and Fostoria glass and assigning them identification numbers so that they can become easily searchable.
Although Seippel has been mulling over the blueprints for the firm for three or four years, he said "it's only possible now. This really is a technology confluence."
He's looking for large venture capital participation in March or April and would like to use the funds to expand database and marketing.
"I hope to help people figure out how to successfully dispose of or monetize assets that you haven't thought about monetizing but probably should," said Seippel. "You're just a custodian of that item over time. If you think back, we're solving a basic problem. If you equate this to a financial market, you'll see there's no information and no transparency."
By Sharon McLoone |
December 17, 2007; 10:00 AM ET
Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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