Some teenagers chart their progress by the classes they take: first biology, then chemistry, finally physics.
Some do it by advancing from freshman sports through junior varsity, and on to varsity.
Nick Drbal does it this way: Black Sharpie. Black pen. Blue pen.
The Staples High School senior — a Westporter since age 5 — loves sports. A former baseball player who organized a very competitive and popular flag football league, he collected his 1st autograph at Yankee Stadium. It was on a cheap baseball — and it came from a coach, not a player.
“Not very impressive,” Nick admits. But he was hooked.
It took a ton of work — buying balls to be signed, waiting for hours for athletes to appear, learning the right way to ask — but Nick quickly figured out how to make his hobby pay. He sold the autographed memorabilia.
That’s when Nick’s life — and this story — gets very interesting.
The teenager researched which hotels visiting teams stayed at in New York and Boston. Then he began cultivating “connections.” Drivers, doormen, barbers, even family members — all provide access to athletes that ordinary fans don’t have.
Nick invested in overnight stays at hotels. In one, he met Albert Pujols’ relatives — and bought them lunch. In return, they got the Los Angeles Angels 1st baseman to sign 10 baseballs.
Nick chatted with Bryce Harper’s dad, asking the father what he’d taught his son. When Nick met Harper a few hours later, the Washington National thanked him with a few signed baseballs.
Nick created a shirt for Mike Trout, with his son on it. In return, the outfielder autographed some baseballs.
A friend of Mariano Rivera got him to sign 48 balls. Nick paid the man a set price per ball — but on eBay, Nick earned quite a bit more apiece.
In the intricate food chain that is today’s autograph market, some buyers are professionals who in turn sell the memorabilia for even more. Others are collectors, who keep it.
Why would an athlete let a barber or driver — or a friend or family member — “use” him like that?
It’s a way for the athlete to help those people make money, Nick explains.
As Nick built up his business, he learned plenty of things. One was the efficiency of selling in bulk.
He discovered how to branch into jerseys and 16×20 photo prints. How to price and market his product. How to develop and nurture relationships. How to talk with professional athletes and experienced businessmen. And how not to (as once happened) hand over memorabilia and get burned in return.
Nick learned to budget his time. He spends up to 30 hours a week on his business — not including trips to hotels, stadiums, even the annual Baseball Writers Association of America dinner in New York.
“In school you aren’t taught persistence and negotiating skills, investing and marketing tactics, and how to run and maintain a business,” Nick says.
“I think the skills, experience, and knowledge I’ve had to apply to real world situations will help me in the long run. I’ve really had to understand the ‘big picture.’”
He’s also learned some “tricks of the trade.” An autograph under the baseball’s logo is valuable; one on the side is almost worthless. And a full, legible signature is far better than a hastily scrawled one.
Nick says that when athletes sign balls for family members or friends, they do it slowly, in the “right” spot.
And, he notes, it’s in an athlete’s best interest to sign autographs. A robust market helps that athlete when he negotiates club and endorsement contracts.
Like any good entrepreneur, Nick is extending his brand. He’s moved beyond baseball, getting autographs of athletes like LeBron James, and stars like Stevie Wonder and Robert DeNiro.
Learning that Paul McCartney was appearing on “David Letterman,” Nick waited outside the studio. The ex-Beatle signed a vinyl copy of “Abbey Road” — which Nick sold for a nice profit.
In a few months, Nick heads off to college. He knows he won’t have as much time to devote to his very lucrative sideline. But he relishes the opportunity to take the next step.
“This has given me great exposure to business,” Nick says. “Now I’m looking forward to playing with bigger money.”
Oh, yeah: about that black Sharpie/black pen/blue pen progression.
Nick started with Sharpies. He soon learned that autograph collectors paid more for signatures in pen.
But when he realized that blue pens were the gold standard, he really started rolling in green.