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The Origin of Mail Order Comics: SBA helps propel business adventure up, up and away
Mitch Meyer (center, wearing dark hoodie) and the crew at Mail Order Comics in Gretna, pose with some of their wares.
Mitch Meyer, the comic book fan, knows his Daredevil and his Punisher, his Dark Knight and his Green Lantern. But in his alter-ego as a successful businessman in Gretna, Meyer also knows his “margin” and “efficiencies” and “tangible value.”
Early in 2011, Meyer, with the help of his parents, bought the Comic Book Supermarket retail store and its attached warehouse business, Mail Order Comics, located at an outlet mall just off busy Interstate 80 southwest of Omaha. With his fresh energy, in less than a year, even in a tough year with turmoil in the comic book industry and fits and starts with an updated web site, Meyer said the business already has made $1.9 million in revenue.
Mail Order Comics, for one, is proud of being the fifth-largest distributor of the popular Marvel Comics brand in the country, and is a source for collectable fantasy figurines, statues and game cards. Customers can pre-order comic titles two months in advance using the web site.
Truth, Justice ... and providing great service to its customers
Meyer's eight full-time employees and 17 part-timers make sure the business can ship "two or three pallets a week," he said, with the largest group working two shifts on a single weekend from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. to do most of the work.
"We have one employee who writes his paycheck back to the business just to pay for his comics purchases," Meyer said with a laugh. "I think we’re almost making a profit on him working for us."
Five percent of their business is to foreign customers, such as Argentina and Pakistan. He's become an expert in vicissitudes of export diplomacy, noting his business has to be careful how to package and ship comic books to ensure customs agents let through the merchandise to his customers without delay.
"Our guy in Argentina usually spends $8,000 a month," Meyer said, before checking his order statistics on a nearby computer. "... Actually, he spent $10,000 in December."
Meyer said many of his retail comic store customers order through his warehouse because of their competitive discounts.
"We offer a 38 percent discount off the retail price," Meyer said, "where the bigger guys offer 35 percent. Plus we offer occasional specials like half off to 75 percent off merchandise. We scoop up some of the smaller retailers the other distributors skip over."
Meyer also is honored to participate in Operation Shoebox, a non-profit effort out of Florida arranging for morale shipments to troops in Afghanistan, donating an entire pallet of comics for troops in the field.
Every great business comes with a story of its origin
Every great comic book character starts with an origin story, and Mail Order Comics has one just as worthy of telling.
It starts with the company's previous owner, a collector of miniature statues himself, who started the business out of his basement more than a decade ago as little more than a hobby. He sold comics over the internet part-time, eventually growing the operation out of his home to the outlet mall and into a retail store; by 2008, Meyer nabbed a job running it.
But when the owner got a promotion at his day job at Omaha Steaks, moving up to an executive position in the marketing department, he sought to cash out.
"My folks were the ones who were trying to convince me to run this business," Meyer said. "You know, I was running the retail store, but that was only about 10 percent of the whole business. And that's a lot of responsibility for someone just 26."
Meyer's father, a former pilot, was looking for the next chapter in his life, so he joined his son in offering a letter of intent in Nov. 2010 to purchase the store and warehouse.
The SBA to the rescue
With a down payment from his father, and an SBA-backed standard 7(a) loan through Wells Fargo approved Feb. 22, 2011 for $472,000 to purchase the business and provide $40,000 in operating capital, Meyer found himself in the comic book business.
"Sure, the process of getting the loan was frustrating sometimes," Meyer said. "I’d provide one thing to the bank, then they’d ask for 10 more things."
One big sticking point to get the SBA guarantee was a requirement for the owners of the mall to provide the business with a lease with a three-year option, a provision designed to protect small business owners who obtain SBA financing. The owners weren't comfortable with that requirement since they had begun redeveloping the shopping center, and after much back-and-forth negotiation, Wells Fargo got the SBA to waive the lease requirement, and Meyer got the loan.
"Our whole family is involved in the business," Meyer said. His younger brother Mike helps with operations, and a family friend handles the books and orders.
"Mike has a college degree, but he'd rather be working here," Meyer said.
Destined for the comic book business
And to think, but for a single pull-up, Meyer would be wearing Air Force blue rather than leveraging the new storyline for the X-Men for more business.
As he neared high school graduation, Meyer looked to follow his father and become a pilot. With good grades and test scores, and a recommendation from then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, only a physical training test stood between him and the Air Force Academy. But even after three times, he couldn't master the pull-up portion.
"I passed everything else, and I went back and worked on that, but then I got bronchitis, so I bombed it and didn’t make it," Meyer said. "On the third try, I did two quick ones, and I was just one pull up away from going, but it was weird, almost like someone put their hand on my head, and I couldn't do the last one. So I kind of think I was destined or something not to go."
After high school, Meyer tried a bunch of majors at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, "but nothing worked." As a freshman, he got a job at the airport as a lineman, flagging in planes and gassing them up. He also worked as a cook at a half-dozen local restaurants before getting the job running the retail comic book store, getting experience which eventually led to the purchase of the business.
Rebooting the Mail Order Comics operation
One of the first projects Meyer undertook taking over the operation was updating the mail order web site, making it easier for customers to find what they want; eventually, he'll merge the separate sites for the retail store and warehouse. That's one part of leveraging technology to expand the business.
"We have a customer who runs a podcast and does advertising, and he said he’ll do social media for us," Meyer explained. "We’re working on optimizing Google searches for the web site, and we're finding new things focused on how we do things to fulfill orders, and improve efficiencies."
Mail Order Comics is already on Facebook, promoting their special deals, spending lots of time just talking comics, timing the conversation to leverage the arrival of the new Avengers movie.
Then there was the challenge last July when the popular brand DC Comics elected to "reboot" its entire line of comics, giving its roster of characters from Superman to Batman and beyond entire new background stories.
"Whenever you do a relaunch, when you do any changes, it's scary, especially in the comic book world," Meyer said. But any anxiety about the editorial content changes of his merchandise were quickly dispelled as the media attention brought to the reboot meant "our sales went through the roof. Customers were even upset because we couldn’t keep them in stock."
While Meyer is enjoying the business' current success, he's on the alert for future challenges and opportunities, such as new technology offering comic book fans a chance to download digital copies of titles to e-readers for instant enjoyment.
"Marvel and DC want to appeal to digital downloads, and my brother has already gotten in contact with a digital download distributor to see if we can sell some of those," he said. "I don’t want to be left behind."
Privately, Meyer doesn't see an immediate challenge to his business selling hard-copy versions of his merchandise.
"Sure, if you’re getting digital downloads, you can scan them and read them, but a big part of the fun of collecting comic books is having a physical, tangible value," he explained. "You can’t trade them at conventions, you can’t sell them, you can’t have the creators and artists sign the books. That's a big part of the whole fun."
Besides, he often sees younger collectors brought into the retail store by parents looking to pass down the enthusiasm of comic book collecting.
'Almost like fate, finding the store like that'
And to think that if his brother hadn’t chanced upon the comic book store location one day, none of this success story might even have happened.
Growing up a comic book fan, Meyer worked at different jobs since he was 15, and spent his spare cash on his stash at area stores every chance he could get.
However, it wasn't until one day his younger brother and fellow comic fan Mike found the store, and excitedly pointed out the outlet mall location to him that Meyer realized the large shop, crammed with long boxes of the latest titles, even existed.
"It was almost like fate, finding the store like that, like I was supposed to be here," Meyer said.