Great Ideas for your Small Business: Turn Your Passion into Profits
Geoffrey berliner is a tinkerer. he began tinkering with old watches, pens, and lighters when he was at Harvard Divinity School in the late 1980s. “I like to bring things back to life,” he explained.
As a student in Cambridge, he frequented a pipe and tobacco shop that had a collection of vintage pens and antiques in the back room. He began collecting old pens for around $25 each because he couldn’t afford to buy old watches. “Those pens warmed me up,” said Berliner, who intended to be a college professor, but became a paralegal when he moved back to New York City.
In New York he began haunting flea markets and antique stores, buying and repairing pens, some more than 100 years old. “I began machining some of my own parts and finding parts from old junker pens,” he said. “I was still collecting and working out of my apartment.”
His fame as a “pen doctor” grew. He began writing articles on pen repair for Pen World magazine and became a director of the Pen Collectors of America. “I’ve always liked the idea of living in another century,” said Berliner. “Pens slow you down—they’re very deliberate. Computers make you do everything quicker.”
When it was apparent there was a real market for his products and repair services, he moved his business out of his apartment into a 1,000-square-foot space in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. And as he became busier, he couldn’t keep up with demand. He met his future partner, Bernard Isaacson, at a flea market, and they became friends. Isaacson eventually gave up his job as a hospital administrator to work full-time at Berliner Pen. Today their cozy shop sells both antique and contemporary pens. They also have a pen museum, a website, and a quarterly magazine, Penfinder.
“We are a full-service pen shop,” said Berliner, who sells pens ranging from $35 to $20,000. “You’ve got to spend at least $300 on a quality pen.” Berliner said sales are between $500,000 and $1 million a year. At some point, he’d like to design his own line of pens, “but who has the time?”
Berliner has this advice for entrepreneurs who want to turn their hobby into a business: “Enjoy what you’re doing, and the money will follow,” he said, adding that being ethical when you parlay your passion into a business is essential.
Why? Because you want to develop long-term relationships with collectors and customers.