Season 2, Episode 11

How a comic book community turned into a marketplace - Gene Miguel (Shortboxed)

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About this episode

A community can be a strong foundation for a marketplace. In the early days, it helps with onboarding initial supply and demand and creates trust. Later, it can form a powerful moat that defends the marketplace from competitors.

But building a community takes time and work and, most importantly, engaging in it yourself.

In this episode, Sjoerd interviews Gene Miguel, CEO and co-founder of Shortboxed, a marketplace for buying and selling comic books.

Gene and his co-founder have been lifelong comic book nerds. They both had day jobs in tech, but dealt comic books on the side and spent their days off at comic book conventions. They also started a comic book blog, around which slowly a community started to form.

As dealers, they experienced first-hand how poorly and inefficiently the entire comic book secondary market was run. That’s when they decided to build Shortboxed.

In this season’s final Two-Sided interview, Gene shares:

  • How starting a blog helped them build the community
  • How building in public with the community helped them onboard the first supply and demand
  • What a double-blind marketplace is, and why Shortboxed uses that model
  • How they faked many features by running them manually before automating them

A compelling story of a marketplace where passion is combined with a solid business case.

Resources mentioned in this episode


Transcript

Please note: The transcript is automated, meaning that there will be mistakes.

[00:00:00] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Hi Gene, welcome to the podcast.

[00:00:01] Gene Miguel: Hey, thanks for having me. Super, super excited to be on here. I've actually listened to a bunch of these episodes myself, so this is cool to be on the other. Ah,

[00:00:09] Sjoerd Handgraaf: nice. Ah, that's great to hear. Great to hear. We're gonna talk today about short box, your marketplace for buying and selling comics, and then you're gonna do a much better job than me, hopefully at, at describing it, except for the small blurb.

But before we go, really down that rabbit hole, it's always nice for the audience to hear a little bit about who's talking. There's a lot of inspiring entrepreneurs out there, a lot of people who have been thinking about doing something similar to what you were doing. And so could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your, your professional career before you started short?

[00:00:36] Gene Miguel: Yeah, thanks for asking. So I'm based out of San Francisco. I'm actually a Bay Area native and I've worked in tech my entire career as a marketer. But I've done all types of marketing, demand, gen marketing, operations, developer evangelism, product field marketing, sales, community, social pr, digital, branding, a little bit of everything.

But you know, the most formative part of my career was, uh, at Twilio, which I'm sure you know many Elis are probably familiar with. Twilio, the company. I'm also one of the first employees at Twilio. Going from Series A all the way through an IPO was just such an incredible experience and such an awesome journey.

Um, I've been with some other great companies like Single Store, which is formerly mie, uh, Zaine, which is now Microsoft Justin tv, which is now Twitch. So, you know, I've worked with some, you know, amazing founders and amazing teams, and now it's my turn to be on the founder side of things with short box.

Yeah. Were there any, any

[00:01:28] Sjoerd Handgraaf: marketplace companies, because I didn't know all, of course, like Twilio I knew, but not all of the other companies I mentioned. Were there any two sided platforms?

[00:01:34] Gene Miguel: No, this is, uh, this is my first time going at a marketplace and uh, I'm sure a lot of listeners know building a marketplace is, is very, very hard , right?

But, you know, building something around something that I'm super passionate about makes it a little bit more fun, you know, just as important and relevant to this conversation. Also, I'm lifelong comic book nerd, um, as you said, you know, shrimp boxes, company, marketplace. I'm a lifelong comic book collector nerd, you know, and I do say that with a lot of pride.

You know, if you allow me to go on a slight tangent here for sure. You know, comic books weren't always, In fact, they've been a pretty nerdy hobby. And over the past decade plus, we've had the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes just dominate the Global Box office and thrust these awesome, inspiring characters firmly into the mainstream.

It's amazing, really, you know, a lot of these characters are over 60, 70, 80 years old. You know, Spiderman, captain America, Superman, wonder Woman, Batman. My personal. You know, these characters are the bedrock of modern mythology and they're global icons, you know, just like Mickey Mouse, you know, and Santa Claus, you know, and other, you know, very famous sort of like icons that we all know and love.

And so now it's cool to me that superheroes are, are cool, they're super mainstream and obviously incredibly valuable. Yeah,

[00:02:54] Sjoerd Handgraaf: that was actually gonna ask like, who's your favorite comic book hero, but that's a Batman. I'm a Batman guy. Yeah. Yeah. What makes you a Batman

[00:03:01] Gene Miguel: guy? I actually love that he doesn't have superpowers.

You know, he's just, you know, a regular guy or as regular as, you know, a billionaire can be, you know, that has access to all the technology in the world. But I love that he's just a regular man who draws from something very traumatic that happened to him in his childhood, and he could have easily. Turned into a villa, and as a result of that, watching his parents get killed in front of him in a dark alley and said he, he took all of that trauma and he spent years owning his craft and training and wanting to do good for his city and, and take care of his city.

And, you know, that's awesome. I, I, that resonates with me. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:03:40] Sjoerd Handgraaf: I, I think, like, I'm not a comic book collector, but I think I also gravitate mostly towards Batman, you know, real guy. Real problems as, as real as they get. Yeah. Great. So, short box, like you mentioned, you've been a, you've been a lifelong comic book nerd.

At what point, you know, did you think, oh, this could be a business.

[00:03:57] Gene Miguel: Yeah, so, you know, like many startups and solutions out there, short box was born out of frustration. You know, this was my, my co-founder, who's also a close friend of mine, who's also a lifelong comic book nerd. You know, we've been collecting, buying, selling comic books for, for years now, most of our lives.

About 10 years ago, we actually launched a comic book blog. This is just a way for us to nerd out and start fostering a community online and connect with other collectors, and we actually became comic book dealers ourselves. You know, we both had full-time jobs in tech, but, you know, taking PTO and, and weekends off to hit the convention circuit, set up at comic book conventions, travel and, and, and sell comic books and, you know, become dealers.

This was really just for us to do. For fun as a hobby Uhhuh, but once we were on the other side of the table, we were exposed to just how poorly and inefficiently the entire comic book secondary market is run. And what I mean by that is nothing has changed in literally decades. You know, it's a very antiquated industry, you know, antiquated in the sense that a lot of things are still done, very manual.

very inefficiently. You know, there really isn't any software disruption happening in this industry, and so it bothered us to know when. We found ourselves constantly complaining for years about how bad it is and how complicated it is to do something as simple as buy and sell a comic book. I mean, millions of comic books get bought and sold every single year.

It's a multi-billion dollar secondary market, which may sound crazy to some folks. You know, a lot of folks may be surprised that Complex are still being published and collected today, but it's a massive, massive secondary market. Everything was just done very, very poorly and inefficiently. You know, the only major marketplace out there is ebi, which has been around for decades at this point.

You know, there really isn't a dedicated marketplace built specifically for common book collectors, and, and it should exist. It needs to exist. And then we realize that it wouldn't exist unless we built it ourselves. You know, that was sort of our light bulb moment where we realized. We wanted this thing to exist so bad and we just kept complaining that it didn't exist.

So that's sort of when it hit that we needed to just build it ourselves because we realized no one else was gonna build it unless we did.

[00:06:19] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Yeah. And what were some of the things, you know, that you were missing? What were some of the pain points that you kept on running into and that you now feel you're really like solving, which are short boxed?

Yeah, a a

[00:06:30] Gene Miguel: lot of it just comes down to complicated processes, right? So, you know, when I say eba, . Sure. It, it, everyone knows and understands eBay. I'm sure many people have bought and sold on eBay, but it's actually not that simple. You know, you still need to set up your account. You basically need to teach yourself HTML to create a listing that stands out.

You need to fill out all these forms. There's a lot of scams that happen on there. There are very few, if any, buyer protections on there. It's a generic marketplace that doesn't have features specific to comic book collectors. You know, that's ultimately, The thesis of, of our business is their value in building a super focused verticalized marketplace for a very specific, passionate user.

And that's where we landed, you know, and there's a lot of features that common collectors need that they're not gonna get from, you know, generic marketplaces. Yeah. Yeah,

[00:07:21] Sjoerd Handgraaf: it makes sense. Of course. I mean, Facebook being such a, like a huge horizontal, like they're never gonna be sort of vertical specific features, like what, you're probably gonna build the short box.

I get that journey. Is there, was there some sort of like market research, some sort of pre-product validation where you're like, okay, you know, you have the tech background, you feel the pain, but before you go sort of all in or, or even half in, like, did you do some kind of like, how did you validate the idea before building.

[00:07:46] Gene Miguel: Yeah, so you know, the interesting thing here is that because my co-founder and I were both collectors, it was one of those things where we initially just trusted our gut because we realized that if we wanted this to exist, surely other collectors want and need this as well. So I went out and I talked to our community.

You know, obviously spending many years writing a blog in fostering community, being dealers, we have many relationships with people in the industry. So I talk to dealers, collect. Comic bookshop owners, pretty much everyone that I can talk to that's related to, to this industry, and pretty much every single person told me not to do it.

Oh, yeah. You know, we heard it all that we would fail. There's too much competition. You're never going to beat eBay. There's a lot of existing auction houses that have been around for many years. You know, it's an uphill battle. No one's going. We're crazy for not building a website and focusing on mobile first because older collectors will never use an app.

You know? I heard it all. Yeah, yeah, I know, and I still do have all of those notes from those conversations, and I do refer to them regularly, you know, just sort of as a reminder that we are building something that. No one knew the industry needed, you know, until now. But you know, ironically, that's how I knew it would work.

You know, hearing all of those reasons and not to build it because it was very clear to myself and my co-founder that we needed a better way to do things and we needed a new way to usher this industry into the future. And, The opportunity was clearly there. It's just we just had to build it, right? We had to go out and build something that didn't exist yet.

So of course, no one thought that it was going to work because no one's ever attempted it, you know, they've just been used to the status quo. You know, it's just, and, and the status quo admittedly, is horrible. It's trash. It's been that way for years and so that ironically gave me even more conviction that we were on the right path.

The fact that everyone was telling us that it was gonna fail and we shouldn't do it because they're just used to the way things have always been. You know, I do joke that collectors have been so used to being scammed and taken advantage of and things running so poorly cuz that's all we've known as a group.

We've only known poor experiences, so of course we're, we're a little bit more jaded. Again, just that the irony of. All the reasons we would fail is what gave us the, the conviction to actually build it. Yeah.

[00:10:01] Sjoerd Handgraaf: So people are saying like competitors, but like just competitors in, in sort of different ways, right?

Like sort of competitive alternatives, not necessarily like people doing exactly what you're doing with Short box,

[00:10:10] Gene Miguel: right? Right, exactly.

[00:10:12] Sjoerd Handgraaf: So what was the

[00:10:13] Gene Miguel: first version like? So our MVP, if you will, we had to build an app, right? The MVP was an app, you know, there, we knew we wanted to go mobile first, so we didn't go out and build.

A landing page or a very simple website. We knew we had to lead with mobile first cuz that's what we wanted to essentially just bet on. If I can interrupt, like

[00:10:32] Sjoerd Handgraaf: why were you so convinced you had to go mobile first?

[00:10:35] Gene Miguel: Very simply, most consumers today do most of their browsing and shopping via their phone.

it just came down to that, that, that, that was essentially it. And you know, a lot of people said that it wouldn't work because comic book collectors, they've only been buying and selling on websites. They're used to all these clunky web based tools to create listings and collect payments and do all these kinds of things.

And again, it goes back to what I said earlier was they didn't know what they needed. And the challenge for us was not how do we. A traditional web experience and shrink it down into mobile. Instead, how do we completely redesign that experience so that it's better via mobile, that you don't even need a website?

You know, and, and thankfully that's what we did with our app. We wanted to make it so simple and seamless. That you wouldn't even need a website. We have cameras in our pockets. Yeah. To create a listing, literally all you do is take a picture of the front, the back, submit your price, and that's it. It takes 15 seconds to list a book compared to doing it on say, you know, eBay for example, is just, it's, it's very clunky.

It takes a lot of steps and a lot of time to do that. So our mvp, our earlier product was just, it was still just a very simple mobile app, but it was actually not drastically different from the app today. It's just the app today is a lot shinier with a bunch of new features baked in. The overall look and feel is very similar to the first version.

I had a clear idea of how I wanted the app to look and feel, and you know, thankfully we haven't had to stray too far from that, but in the beginning there were a lot of manual processes involved with it, and I mean very, very manual. So we had to allow people to take pictures and and create a listing, but every time we got an order, it was literally myself and my co-founder, we would have to go to.

Our laptops, ironically, we would have to capture the payment. We would have to process the payment manually. If someone wanted to submit an offer on a book, I was literally just copying and pasting. And saying, okay, this buyer wants to make an offer of $90 on this book. I would email that to the seller and say, Hey, I would fake it and make it look like an automated email cuz I was just using templates.

Yeah. Hey, congrats. You received an offer on this book. But it was actually me manually sending and receiving emails through, through an inbox of people and, and capturing payments that way. So just sort of wow, faking it those first, those first couple months. Also with payouts, when a seller sells a book, they have to get, pay it out and a lot of.

Still wanted to get paid via check. You know, when I say this, in antiquated industry, a lot of sort of old school dealers still get paid via check, and so we had to fake it and say, of course, we offered check payouts. It was literally me and BJ Beach is my co-founder spending weekends in his apartment.

Just we'd throw in a bunch of movies and we would be handwriting. Checks like by hand. We weren't even using a check payment processor. We were literally handwriting, hand signing checks to people using a calculator to calculate how much we owed them, you know, for their book. So thankfully we're not doing that, uh, anymore.

We have a much, much more sophisticated system.

[00:13:30] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Yeah. I love when people like so many of the successful marketplace I talk to here in the pod, cuz it's, well, like I remember from last season where we had someone like we had a marketplace. White hat, which was about like finding a apprenticeship and their whole marketplace was basically like, sort of like a website with the form and then a whole bunch of like Excel sheets behind it.

And that's sort of like communicating back and forth behind it. So yeah, I love that. Yeah. So what was the reason for you to do it like that? Like why? Because of course you come from a tech background, so then you're like, I've also seen people from quite similar positions like yours and who go all the way, like, oh, we need, you know, payment, integration, everything else.

What was the motivation to do it like,

[00:14:07] Gene Miguel: We just wanted to launch quick and iterate. That was essentially it because we knew and expected that we wouldn't be processing a whole ton of orders. Right. It's building marketplace is really, really hard. It takes a long time to ramp up to get marketplace liquidity, you know?

So we sort of expected us to not have hundreds of orders, you know, right off the bat. You know, in the beginning we got one a day, then came two a day, three a day. So it was enough for us to handle, and the trade off was. Having to process all these orders manually versus spending weeks or maybe even months of additional development, building out, you know, really complex payment processing system, building out offer systems, doing all that stuff.

We just wanted to launch and get it out there. Getting into the hands of users, cuz we needed to know right away was this something that people were willing to use, were collectors willing. To download an app. You know, we weren't even sending 'em to a website, which is how all collectors expect to, to interact.

You know, we were forcing 'em to change their behavior right off the bat. And so, you know, again, it was one of those we didn't want to invest too much time and effort into building a fully fleshed out app right off the bat. And it, and it ended up working out because we were a lot able to iterate quickly and build the features that we needed.

Obviously the first major feature we built, You know, an actual payment processing system. So, you know, that helped a lot. Yeah. .

[00:15:25] Sjoerd Handgraaf: I hope so. Yeah. Yeah. It's only that many movies you can watch in a weekend. Writing checks. Yeah. Right. No, that makes sense. I think by now it's obvious to people who listen to this podcast more often that this is the way that I think it, like in most cases, is the right way to do it.

You just get something out and iterate on the go instead of like postponing, like contact with the customer because he's just like hiding behind another things he built. So, so, yeah, I'm, I'm, I'm a big fan of this approach.

[00:15:49] Gene Miguel: Yeah, the, the poor thing is that it still had to work, right? We still had to make sure that we were actively processing orders, sending offers, and so there were times in those first few weeks where I had alerts set on my phone.

Whenever we'd get an an order, my phone would buzz. I would literally hop out of bed sometimes in the middle of the night and I would run to my laptop to capture that payment and, and manually fill out a shipping label and send it to the seller so they could do it, because I did not want. Multiple hours until later, you know, in the morning when I woke up three hours later.

So I was, I was waking up in the middle of the night creating orders and, but thankfully, you know, we, that only lasted for, uh, a few weeks before we started, you know, building for scale. Yeah. Awesome.

[00:16:29] Sjoerd Handgraaf: So did you constrain the marketplace in any way? Like, I don't know much about comic books. I used to collect records, vinyl records, so I guess there are some similarities, but I wouldn't know how I would constrain a comic book marketplace.

Did you do

[00:16:41] Gene Miguel: that in any. Honestly, it's one record collecting is super cool and a lot of parallels to come up with collecting. You'd be surprised it's, yeah, it's very, very similar in terms of the communities and sort of the, the ecosystem. But for short box, it, it still is a very constrained marketplace, number one.

I love this question because you know, it, again, it's classic advice given to marketplace builders and know, constrain your marketplace, niche down build for specific user. Not everybody, and I do think it's a hundred percent true, at least in. But for us right now, there's multiple constraints and I, and I can go through them.

One, we're mobile first, right? So we constrain ourselves not just through web, but from mobile first. We're focused on not just collectables as a whole. When I say collectibles, think of things like comic books, toys, sports cards, you know, records, all those other things. It's not just collectibles, but we're constrained to just comic books only, right?

And also within comic books, it's not just any comic books. Collectable comic books and also not just collectable comic books, but we actually only allow people to list third party authenticated comic books only before we, I don't wanna get too deep into the weeds, into the details there, but there's basically comic books that you can buy that are what we refer to as raw comic books.

Think about buying your comic book off the rack at your comic bookshop. You know, it's just, it's loose. You can flip through the pages, you can read it, and then there's, there's authenticated comic books, which. Graded. No, they're encapsulated, they're assigned a condition based on the book itself. And so this actually removes a lot of potential for scams because, you know, these books are authenticated by a third party, so people can't have undisclosed issues like restoration or missing pages.

We can straight it down to as far as we can go, and we, and that was by design, right? Because again, I, I said this multiple times already, that building a marketplace is hard and dealing with fraud. Fake books and other types of things is not something we wanted to deal with right off the bat. Being a new marketplace, establishing trust is incredibly important because once you lose.

The whole thing unravels. And so we constrain ourselves down to only allowing sellers to sell third party authenticated comic books. Ah,

[00:18:50] Sjoerd Handgraaf: that's interesting. Was

[00:18:51] Gene Miguel: that an existing service? Yeah. You know, there's a couple really large companies consider them, you know, the, the Coke and Pepsi of the industry where, where they create comp books.

So they're established. We are official partners with them. So again, it makes it easy for us because each of these books has unique. Certification numbers. And so when I mentioned earlier the process for listing a book for sales, you just take a picture at the front. We're actually scanning the book and we're scanning the label and we're scanning the certification codes.

We're actually pulling data directly from these companies and auto-populating all the information and metadata on the books, which is why we're able to create, you know, a process where you can list the book in literally seconds instead of having to type it out yourself. But again, you know, very constrained there.

You know, the only other way we can constrain it even further is if. Told people, you can only sell Batman books otherwise that, I think it's as far as you can go. But again, this was by design. Limit what can be bought and sold allows to establish trust and credibility and safety. And, and again, we do have plans to expand past that and, and loosen it up a little bit.

You know, as we continue to grow. I'd

[00:19:50] Sjoerd Handgraaf: imagine that the grading, okay, like the payment obviously, but the grading and the authentication is a big ingredient in the trust mix and that you somehow, Like outsource that or like, yeah, it's great that it exists, of course, but I can also see that there are some risk there.

Well, on the one hand, like, I don't know, I see some competitive risk there, right?

[00:20:07] Gene Miguel: There's also potential for many conflicts of interest if we are the ones authenticating the book and signing the condition and the grades to it, and we're also the marketplace. There's potential for conflicts of interest there versus, well, as you said, outsourcing that to existing companies and, and thankfully it's, it's been well established within this industry, again, for decades now.

And so it's, you know, an accepted practice. Yeah. Yeah. No,

[00:20:28] Sjoerd Handgraaf: it makes, I don't wanna, it makes sense. Like I said, I don't know much about it. And of course, especially if it's a, you know, if it's a habit that's already familiar with everybody buying, selling comic books, it makes a lot of sense. I had no idea.

Okay. Some kind of ratings agency. That makes sense. Yeah. Cool. What other things do you do? Because like you mentioned like trust is an important thing, so what other things have you done to create and, and establish this trust in the community?

[00:20:48] Gene Miguel: Yeah. So in terms of trust, short box is a little unique. And that's, and, and I guess this is also a solution for, for things like disintermediation on the platform, is that short box is a, what we call a double blind marketplace.

So the seller doesn't know who the buyer is, and the buyer doesn't know who the seller is when it comes down to it as a collector. Most collectors don't necessarily care who they're buying a comic book from. You know, they primarily care about am I getting the book that I want at the price that I'm willing to pay?

Likewise, on the other side of the equation, sellers also don't necessarily care who they're selling the book to. They just wanna make sure that they are receiving the price that they're willing to sell the book for. You know, this isn't a nanny service, right? Where it's like really important to know exactly who's coming into your.

And doing those types of things. So it, it's a double blind marketplace and what this allows us to do is we facilitate the entire transaction ourselves. So because it's a blind marketplace, we capture the payment from the buyer, and once we capture the payment, we process the order. And we are the ones that actually automatically provision a prepaid shipping label that gets sent in real time to the seller.

So the seller, all they have to do is print out the label. Ship out the package. As soon as it gets confirmed delivered, then we remit payment back to the seller less our our take rate. And so there's many points where we can actually control exactly what's, what's happening and, and protect both the buyer and the seller in both cases.

And on top of that, obviously we offer, you know, insurance for both sides of it and, and all that good stuff. And so it allows us to control any potential for fraud and. That's

[00:22:24] Sjoerd Handgraaf: interesting. Yeah. Double blind market. I don't think we have had that type on the podcast. That's really interesting because in many cases, the whole one thing to know who sells it and who buys it, is a way sort of establishing trust, right?

Like, is this person reliable? Is this person going to pay me? Is this person selling me something good or something bad? But of course, if you cover those bases already through the service that you mentioned and the other things, it makes total sense that it's like double blind. That's really, yeah, I hadn't thought about that.

Of course. And then it really doesn't.

[00:22:50] Gene Miguel: Right. The only way this works is because we assume all the risk. Essentially, if something goes wrong, they reach out to short box customer support cuz they have no way to contact the the seller directly, which is why we had to really be very strict with the way that this whole process worked, which is why we have to capture the payment to make sure that the seller actually follows through and pays for the book.

We have to make sure that we are the ones provisioning the shipping label so we can. The book, we know exactly when it gets sent out. We know exactly when it gets delivered. We know if there's any issues or holdups at s p s and which law. We have to make sure that we actually control the payout as well.

And the seller won't get paid unless the book is delivered. So if they choose not to ship the book out, well they're not gonna get paid. And again, like there's, there's multiple points where, where we have to control the entire process because again, we are the ones that are actually responsible and we take on all the risk.

But that is a benefit to our users because again, another benefit of this for sellers is, Compared to say, you know, building your own website or using another marketplace or using eBay, for instance, there's a lot of competition among sellers. They need to invest in making sure that their books are being seen by other people.

They have to invest in their own communities and, and in marketing and you know, all that kind of good stuff. Whereas this, they just rely on short box to be their primary shop, you know, and it's our job as the marketplace, as a platform to make sure that we're building in tools like discoverability and search, you know, and then all these tools to allow people to find the books that they're looking for.

Again, just a sort of classic, you know, marketplace features. We need to establish liquidity, how easy it is to find the book that you're looking for, because we get hundreds of listings a day and you know, it, it's a lot of books that go up. There's tens of thousands of books that are currently listed. So it's our job to make sure that we're getting as many eyeballs on these books as possible and making sure that people can find the books that they're looking for.

And basically, again, playing matchmaker between buyer and seller. Do you have

[00:24:40] Sjoerd Handgraaf: like sort of a personalized recommendation, right? Like you might also like based on, on, on. Purchase history, like in your case, like if you would be buying that, you would recommend some awesome rare Batman comic because you just bought one a couple of months ago.

Do you have those kind of things wheeled in as.

[00:24:55] Gene Miguel: Yeah, great question because we're actually building that right now. So we actually are building, uh, a personalization engine and a personalization algorithm into the platform right now. But you know, this, this might be a little bit more interesting to, to the folks that are listening that are still early stage and just getting the marketplaces off the ground.

That can also be done manually. And that is actually what we did very manually in the beginning, where, when we're only getting, you know, a handful of orders per day, it was easier for us to see each buyer's buying history. So if we notice that you. Buyer, John Doe was only buying amazing Spider-Man books from the 1960s, graded between, you know, a 5.0 and a 6.0.

We could just go through and I would curate an email of all those possible books and send it to that specific buyer, making it seem like it was an automated personalized recommendation engine. And. You know, hot linking it back to the app to, for them to, to buy and discover those books. Um, but we do, we do use data a lot now before launching our actual, you know, real time personization engine.

Cuz we can see trends in real time. What are the hot books? You know, what's trending if you know? Uh, black Panther Will Condre just came out, so we're seeing an uptake in Black Panther books. So we are able to globally curate the app to put the right books in front of, uh, the audience as a whole, but still being able to do it on an individual basis as.

Awesome. Yeah. Super

[00:26:16] Sjoerd Handgraaf: cool. When you launched it, like you mentioned, you, you and your co-founder were like basically like part-time dealers on the side, so you have a whole community established. You mentioned already earlier in the beginning that, you know, community is a big part. It started the blog. How did you get the community on board with this?

Like how did you get the first download? How did you get the first people to list things? How did you get the first people to buy things? Like how did you

[00:26:37] Gene Miguel: kickstart. Obviously community is the most important thing to us in our, without our community, we have nothing. So everyone in the company treats our community with, uh, most respect and care.

And by the community, I don't just mean our users. I'm also referring to the wider comic book collecting community. But you know, that's really the context behind it. So the way that we did it was because we spent so many years building and fostering a community. We didn't launch the marketplace from.

right? We already had the buy side and seller side ready to go, and now we're building in public. The community knew that we were building this. We had the support of the community. So when we launched, we had instant traction because we had spent, you know, many years sort of fostering these relationships right off the bat.

And so really it's because of, of those years of, of fostering community, it allowed us to, to get instant traction. Right away. You know, with that said, short box is actually two products. You know, obviously there's the app, you know, the app is our quote unquote town square. That's the primary way that both sides of the marketplace interact with each other.

But the other product we have is our community, and we treat our community as a product line. You know, and it does exist in, in multiple places outside of the app. And so, you know, we have to find ways to scale that community as well because a lot of it's still manual, but you know, as you continue to go, we need to make sure that we're scaling it outside of the app.

Cuz the downside, if there is one of, you know, the double blind marketplace is that. There isn't a social aspect built into the app yet. You know, there is no way for buyers and seller to connect with each other, but we do manage and, and engage with our community outside of the app. So obviously on social media, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, we do have a Discord that's very active.

We have a street team of, of, you know, influencers and folks in the community that go out and we're also very active with in person events and conventions. And so there's, while there is a lot. Products that we're building at scale to handle the growth. There's still a lot of personal elements involved in engaging with the community.

[00:28:38] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Yeah, yeah. Because it makes sense. Like, you know, you can't throw money at a community usually to grow the same way you can do with

[00:28:43] Gene Miguel: marketing. I'm really glad you said that because that's something I feel very strongly about is that a community can't be bought. No. And, and, and, and that is a hill that, that I am willing to, to die on.

Building a community is really, really hard and there is no shortcut. To build the community. Other companies have, have tried this, you know, sometimes, you know, a company may raise a lot of money and they think they can just throw money at a particular group or community to try and sort of win their trust.

But with regards to collectors and collectors, I mentioned earlier that we've spent our entire lives being scammed and tricked and, and so we're, we're, we're just very jaded by that. So whenever an outsider comes in and tries to sell us something, you know, the, the alarm alarms go off. And so, We were able to see it because we spent years building community, you know, and there is no shortcut to that.

It's literally just. Time and effort and, and authenticity and respect, and that can't be rushed. I can't stress that as much as possible. You know, you have to put in the work to start fostering your community as soon as possible and doing it in a way that's actually providing value to the community. And it's hard, you know, again, there is no shortcut to building the community.

You can't just buy one. Yeah, that

[00:29:51] Sjoerd Handgraaf: makes sense. And so you have the, of course you have the platform, it's double blind, so people can't interact there, like you said, but then you have the, like the discord on the side. There is like a chance of dis intermediation, of course, that people are like, Hey, you know, like you're into this, you're into that.

Are you doing anything? Are you doing anything to prevent that? Or are you just like, ah, that the app provides enough value that people should just not go

[00:30:12] Gene Miguel: outside of. Exactly, because okay, we, we provide full protections for both the buy and the seller, which does not exist on, on any other platforms. But there is an opportunity for us to open up the platform a little bit more, and that's something that, you know, is a constant discussion between myself and the leadership team is there's.

A range of, of openness in a platform. And, and once you start opening it up, then, then you start poking holes into it and people will find loopholes to do it. But the, the challenge for us really and for any marketplace builder is can you provide as much value or so much value to your users where they would rather just sell or buy or interact on your platform than not, right.

So, uh, I use Airbnb as a perfect example to. Most users, I would probably guess would probably feel a little bit more comfortable transacting. Through the Airbnb platform versus going on, you know, Craiglist and just emailing someone to see if they can rent their house for a weekend, because Airbnb provides, you know, a lot of protections and insurance and, and all these things.

It's just a lot safer. And again, collectors have been used to being scammed for so many years and, and we we're all. Uh, scared of that. And so being able to provide a platform where they feel safe, transacting is really important for, for the hobby as a whole.

[00:31:28] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Yeah. And of course I think short box also offers like some other things besides just the, the insurance.

Right. Like I watched another interview with you where you were saying where the person interviewing you was complimenting on a feature called fair market value measure something, something. Can you tell a little bit about what that

[00:31:44] Gene Miguel: is? Yeah, yeah. So, so fair market value. It is pretty self-explanatory, right?

It's just. What is someone willing to pay for for a comic book? But, you know, first, some, some context, it's a how comic books are valued. It's simply supply and demand. But a comic book published in, you know, let's say 1944 that has a sticker price of 10 cents, obviously is not worth 10 cents today. You know, a lot of factors determine the value of of that book, you know, and these factors include things like rarity.

How old is it? Right? Obviously, there are far less copies of a book printed in 1944 than there were in 2010. Also. Importance of the book, you know, does this book have a significant thing attached to it? So an example here would be, is it the first appearance of, you know, spider-Man or Batman? Is it the first appearance of a major character the first time that they showed up in a comic book ever?

Is it, you know, the first time. A character died is is another thing. You know, is it a classic cover from, you know, an artist that, that's no longer with us. Uh, so a lot of these things contribute to the demand of a book and also the popularity of a book. So there's a lot of outside factors that, that affect the value of a comic book.

Also, and I mentioned earlier, black Panther, two wa kind of forever just came out. You know, there's been a big spike in sales for that book. And just because that character is being thrust into the mainstream, it has more attention, more people want. That book then drives up the. And, and so that, that's sort of just the, the general idea of, of, of how comic books are value right now.

But, you know, millions of comic books are bought and sold every year across multiple platforms like eBay, auction houses, comic shops, from dealers at, at conventions, and on short box of course. And a lot of these sales are displayed publicly on the internet. So we, as a platform, we collect millions of sales data points to determine, you know, a fair market value range, which is heavily weighted towards recent.

that more accurately reflect what so is willing to pay for a particular book. So if, you know, uh, let's just say, you know, amazing Spiderman, you know, number one, if there were five sales in the past month at $10,000, then it's a pretty safe bet to say that's that's the fair market value. I'm oversimplifying it, of course, but you know, we, of course we do collect in a way, you know, these different data points.

But the important thing is that we're expos. all of this data to all of our users because we're just getting this information, you know, from various sources on the internet. And what this does is it creates an even playing field, you know, for buyers and sellers, since they all have access to the same information.

You know, it makes it easier for both sides because sellers can now see how much they could realistically sell their book for at that time of submitting it. And buyers can see how much other copies have sold for recently. And, you know, between both sides, it allows them to, to make that transaction all within the app.

You know, and the reason why I say within the app is because before we launched, you know, you know, our fair market value, you know, indicators, if you're a buyer and you saw a book listed for sound short box, which you had to do before was you see the book, it's listed for a hundred dollars. You leave the app, you go into other websites, you do your own manual research.

And you may not come back to the app and complete the sale because you may see it listed somewhere else on a different website or on eBay. Um, so we're keeping everyone in app and just providing all that information to, to everyone. It just, uh, it makes just from much. Easier experience for, for both sides.

Yeah. And that

[00:34:58] Sjoerd Handgraaf: reminds me like coming back to, you know, the record collecting thing. Like is is short box idea to be sort of become like the, the disc cogs of, uh, of comic books? Like, so for, for the listener at home who doesn't know about disc cogs, like disc cogs is the. Online, like used to be an online catalog, like cataloging all of the music that's been released, all the different editions of records, et cetera, and now I think later on slapped on a marketplace.

Yeah. But it's like a, so is the plan for short box to do something

[00:35:25] Gene Miguel: similar. Yeah. Yeah. Very similar. You know, one, I love discs as a platform. I think they, they've executed brilliantly ever since it launched, know many years ago. But, you know, you, you made a reference that I think they did a little bit opposite from us where discs originally started.

Just as you know, correct me if I'm wrong, but as an open source database for record collecting enthusiast. To submit records and information about them to collect this amazing complete database, and it became very robust. And then they turned that into a marketplace. But again, they were building that community of people submitting information about records, and then they built, they built the marketplace.

We sort of went the other way where we built our community, but we launched the marketplace and now we are gather. Data as a result of building, you know, a very robust market list because now we're collecting data from people that are submitting their own books for sale. And it's building up our own internal database as well.

And so, you know, we have a huge, huge internal initiative to really build the most complete database for, you know, every common book ever published in, in the history of, of the medium, uh, which we're well on our way to do. And again, that opens up a lot of other really cool things and features that we can build in the.

[00:36:35] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Yeah. You mentioned, uh, I think, what did you say? Like, amazing, Spiderman number one is obviously not worth 10 cents. Could you give us, you know, like us non comic book readers, like what's, um, maybe what's the most expensive comic book sold on short box, just to give us an idea?

[00:36:50] Gene Miguel: Yeah. Um, you know, without giving away specifics, one, we are very, very, very, very strict about keeping the security and the, and, you know, data privacy of our users.

But there have been many books selling in the five and six figure range. On Trip box. So just to give some users who may not be familiar with comic book collecting, you know, comic books can sell for as little as a dollar up to millions of dollars. You know, the most comic expensive conflict I ever sold and the most valuable comic in the hobby is action Comics number one, which is published in I believe, 1938.

And that's the first appearance of Superman. So that, that's the most expensive, complex. You know, a copy recently sold for over 3 million, which is you. Crazy that, you know, this book that was printed in 1938 for 10 cents, you know, being sold on a, on a newspaper stand is now worth millions of dollars. So it really just runs the gamut from, again, you have, you have books that run that are pennies that are, you know, virtually worthless to books that are worth hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands dollars, and of course, up into the millions of dollars.

[00:37:50] Sjoerd Handgraaf: And do you see, like with the last couple years we've seen like a sort of rise of these sort of like alternative investments, right? Like, uh, I don't remember the name, but I remember there was like a wine marketplace where you sort of like own wine. Mm-hmm. , they're not sending it to you, you just own it, like, right.

Do you see that kind of behavior happening also in comic book world who just see it as sort of like

[00:38:06] Gene Miguel: investments? Oh, absolutely. No. There, there are different types of collectors, but you know, a fast growing segment of collector is, Alternative asset investor. You know, this is not someone who, like myself, grew up collecting, reading comic books.

They see them as investment assets, um, you know, very similar to other collectibles like trading cards, coins, sneakers, you know, and other stuff there. But comic books specifically have proven to be fairly stable across many decades. You know, relative to other collectibles, you know, there isn't much, um, let's call it, uh, They've, they've been growing in value steadily over many decades.

Yeah. Not as volatile as

[00:38:47] Sjoerd Handgraaf: other companies. No volatility. Yeah. Not pretty inflation proof

[00:38:51] Gene Miguel: possibly. Right. You know, but until now, there really hasn't been a truly accessible platform for more casual collectors and investors to buy comic books until. That bar has been really high because, you know, for whatever reasons, you know, antiquated platforms, gatekeeping, you know, what have you, you know, lack of access.

You know, we really just wanna make it as easy as possible for people to do something as simple as buying a collect book and investing in. So, you know, many of the features, products, and services that we're currently building, our specifically for this class of investor, right? But it starts with making sure that we have complete.

Making sure that we have a database of all the books, making sure that we have fair market value, data and values of all the books, making sure that we have tools where people can, can buy and sell and trade and store even these books. And so that, that's going to be a big part of, of our future. Yeah.

[00:39:42] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Awesome. Awesome. All right, well, when did short Book start? When did the app come

[00:39:46] Gene Miguel: out? First? We launched in March, 2020, right when the pandemic hit. We literally launched the app the weekend before everything went into lockdown, at least here in San Francisco. And so that was a huge shock to us because we had so many conventions on the calendar to go to, to promote the app.

Uh, and then we launched it at a convention in Chicago in March, 2020. And, Landed on the plane and got back to San Francisco, that's when everything shut down. So that was, that was a surprise. But it ended up being a massive tailwind for us because without conventions, with, with comic shops closing down, a lot of sellers and dealers and comic book shop owners needed to go online to sell their books.

And a lot of them weren't yet ready, or they didn't have the website set up, or they weren't, you know, power sellers on eBay. And so, We launched at the right moment where they needed a platform to sell books. And again, as a result of of our years of community building and relationship building, we were able to reach out to, you know, some of the top dealers and complex shop owners around the country who knew us personally.

And again, that allowed us to, to have instant supply right off the bat. And because they're also were no conventions or shops, collectors needed somewhere to buy comics. Of course there, there's eBay. Buying directly from peer to peer. But you know, being a new platform that, that people recognized and, and were able to support and watch us build it for the months sitting up to that, it kind of, you know, it ended up working out.

That was the silver lining of of, of that happening. Yeah.

[00:41:15] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Cause what I was gonna ask, like, was there anything, you know, keeping in mind the audience of the podcast, like, is there anything you would've done differently where you would be like, okay, if I would start now, I would recommend doing. Yeah,

[00:41:26] Gene Miguel: that's one.

That's a really good question. Obviously hindsight is 2020, but if I could do something differently, honestly, it would be to just move even faster. You know, that might not be the answer that people are hoping to find, but again, we are building a startup and we already move a million miles an hour, but for me, I think it would've been to move faster and accelerate the building of new features even faster than we did.

We do obviously spend a lot of time talking to our users, figuring out what do they need to build or what do they want us to build, what other features that they need. But at the end of the day, we know our users so well because we are the user. We're collectors. We built this for ourself, right? Like, like for some, for some context at least, you know, historical context.

You know, let's say when I was at Twilio, when I first worked at Twilio, you know, I did not have a background in telecom. So I had to go and actually talk to our users and, and talk to other developers who were building, you know, you know, communications tools. So I had to learn that. In this case, I am as hardcore com collector as, again, my co-founder is every single employee in the company is a collector.

We instinctively know what we want because we are our user. And so I think within that context, I probably would go back. Accelerate the future development a little bit faster and sort of cut out all the time that we spent going to talk to users to validate our assumptions, what you already knew, which obviously like we, we, we already knew that it was going to work.

And then now looking back, I can look back and say, okay, we know people need this because we need this, we need this to exist, we want this feature, but you know, let's go talk to our users first to, to see if it's true. And, and really we did not need to do that because pretty much we have, I would say we have a hundred percent hit rate on the features that we built in.

The impact to our, to our users. You must have an easy time recruiting, by the way. I'll get to that in a second, but I do have some thoughts there. But I will say, you know, with regards to what we would differently and move faster and sort of, I don't wanna say ignore our customers, but I do not recommend that as a, a product development method.

You should definitely be talking to our users. I just think that we're a little bit, you know, uniquely positioned to where, you know, we are the users that, that we would be talking to. Yeah, yeah. With regards to recruit, Recruiting for startups is really, really, really hard. You know, especially when you're, you know, you know what I consider ourselves still being an early stage startup, it's hard because you're competing against fan companies.

You know, the Facebooks, the Apples, the Googles, the Amazons, you know, we're competing with them and this is probably the biggest challenge for, for smaller stage startups or earlier stage startups. But being a platform for something that many people are very passionate about, it allowed us to. People who wanted to work for us because they're collectors themselves.

It's something that they're super passionate about. You know, for many of us, You know, collecting complex or being involved in the hobby isn't just a casual hobby. It's something that we've been doing our entire lives. It is a lifelong passion. It's something that we've been doing since we were kids and something that we'll probably be doing until the day that we die.

And so for many collectors, you know, it's, it's part of your identity. It's part of your personality, and so to have an opportunity to, to work for a company, no tech could be just like us for a startup just like us and combine it with their passion has allowed us to, to attract some, some just amazing.

From people who really, truly care about what we're building because they're collectors, they really truly care about our customers. I have, I have so much love for our operations team that that talks to our users, that handles all our support, that handles all the fulfillment because. We know how annoying it is if something goes wrong.

We know how annoying it is if the book arrives damaged or it arrives late, you know, and so, so we can empathize with our users because we actually understand, and it allows us to build so much trust with the users because they know. Now, you know, the irony of it is that, , we have a lot of users now. If something goes wrong, they're actually excited to reach out to us because they know we're going to make it right by them and they're probably gonna get, you know, a t-shirt or, you know, promo credit for something else cuz they know we're gonna take care of 'em.

And that's not something that they've been used to. You know, they've just, again, I know I'm being a dead horse, but they've been used to Yeah. Essentially being screwed over for, for many

decades.

[00:45:33] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Yeah. They've been used to comic book guy from The Simpsons. Yeah,

[00:45:36] Gene Miguel: exactly. Exactly. Yeah.

[00:45:39] Sjoerd Handgraaf: Yeah. All right, well that sounds awesome.

Where can people check out? Short box?

[00:45:43] Gene Miguel: Yeah. Like I said, we obviously, you can visit our website. It's just short box.com, but we aren't app. You know, if anyone out there is into comic books or collectibles or alternative investment assets, then you just wanna scroll through and, and, and see some cool superheroes and books just for fun.

Definitely download short box on iOS and Android. Just start for short box. It'll be the first result. If you have any questions, anyone can reach out to me at any time. My inbox is open. It's just gene g e n e short box.com, and I'm happy to chat, especially with other marketplace builders out there. I love talking to other marketplace founders.

All right. Thanks a lot

[00:46:14] Sjoerd Handgraaf: for your time, gene.

[00:46:15] Gene Miguel: Awesome. This is so much fun. Thanks for having me on the show.

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