Breaking even: sustaining your LEGO-building hobby through selling on Bricklink [Essay]

LEGO is expensive; we all know it. For us builders, we always need more bricks to complete that big project sitting on our desk or in the back of our minds. More bricks cost more money, and that’s where the problem comes in. Luckily, we builders have an extremely valuable asset that only a few have begun to exploit. For the first time in the building community, I will show you the benefits of opening your own Bricklink store, turning that once cash-consumptive marketplace on its head to bring you a dependable supply of money and free bricks.

So what’s the trick? Sell minifigs. What if I told you that since December of just a month ago I’ve a grossed a revenue of $1,500? Would that be enough for you to buy every set on your holiday wish list and finally get the parts to complete those half-finished creations growing cobwebs on your desk? I would think so. I have operated a Bricklink store for a bit over a year now, and I have acquired the experience to confidently say to you that “yes, you could maintain your LEGO hobby at zero cost.”

Let’s get started. First and foremost, you are a builder who is interested in the noble effort of funding for your expensive hobby. If you’re not the aforementioned type, things could go very differently for you at suboptimal outcomes. Now that we’ve established our common grounds, you will need to let go of your sentiments for minifigures. See them as the livestock you must consume to fight off starvation. You can choose to remain a peaceful vegetarian, or you can start eating meat.

Why minifigs? Because they sell high and are easy and cheap to ship. Plus, you don’t need them to build a castle wall or the hull of a spaceship. Here are two enticing examples from my recent sales. 1). I purchased about 40 new 2009 Star Wars Battle Packs at $10 each, sold nearly all of the minifigures, made a $200 profit and kept all the bricks and accessories for free. 2). I also bought Count Dooku’s Solar Sailer for $50 (after coupons), had fun writing a review, and then sold the Count for $37 and put up the Magna Droids for sale at $10 each. In the end, you can see that I’m easily making a profit while keeping all the parts from sets for free.

At first, it’s hard to believe why minifigs fetch such high values, but if you think about it, it makes sense. In addition to the builders, there are also collectors – people who want to own their favorite minifigs but don’t want the building blocks. Thus, why should they buy whole sets when they can get the figs individually? Plus, LEGO costs a whole lot more outside the States as most of us know; thus buying minifigs makes perfect sense to collectors.

To start your Bricklink store, dig up your pre-existing minifigs and find their market values on Bricklink through the price guide for each fig. It is highly worthwhile to sell Star Wars figs and almost useless to sell your non-franchised Exo-Force or Power Miner dudes (Indiana Jones falls in between).

Next, and this is important, list your minifigs at the lowest prices! There is no shortage of competition on Bricklink from large scale sellers. If you don’t beat their prices, why should anyone buy from a small store like yours or mine? But do not despair, even at the lowest prices, your Darth Vader will still make you over ten bucks richer and Yoda can buy you a medium sized set. So how low should you go? Here’s what I learned from over the months: note the lowest sale price in the US (provided you live in the States), then note the quantity available and the store’s feedback count. If both are low, then you can price your minifig at near that price, but if both are high, you should start by pricing your fig at 50 cents cheaper. At the same time, you need to take concern the popularity of the minifig. Check the number of times the fig was sold recently; the lower the quantity sold, the cheaper you must go to tempt buyers to buy your unpopular figure.

Shipping – it’s not as hard as you think and definitely cheaper than you’d imagine. Minifigs ship in tiny bubble mailers, which cost you a little over $1 to ship in the US and around $2 to ship internationally. You can buy the smallest bubble envelopes from Walmart at $4.44 per 10-pack. However, I recommend buying 100 from Amazon for $16. When it comes to charging your customer, you will not receive complaints if you start your shipping rates at $2 for domestic and $3 for international orders. Find that balance and you’ll end up actually making a profit on shipping that will compensate for your 3% Paypal and 3% Bricklink fees.

Fortunately, time is not an issue. As a minifig seller, it takes no time to package an order of just a few figs in contrast to an order of hundreds of parts. And since you’re already sorting your pieces as a builder, taking out the minifigs from sets should be no problem. However, the largest time consuming factor is shipping; you must be willing to make trips to the post office unless you are adept with shipping from home.

Last and most importantly: be aggressive in buying sets to supply your inventory. Once you target a set with minifigs that sell well; don’t hesitate to get it. The worst that can happen is you end up selling the minifigs but still fall $20 short to fully pay off your 1000-piece set (for example the Republic Gunship around the time of its release). But “oh my god,” $20 for 1000 pieces, what a bummer!

There is one major caution to be on the lookout for. Minifig prices dip fast and then rise fast once the set is out of production. Thus, you should strive to be among the first to sell a minifig from a new set (that’s when no one in the world has it and everyone wants it). Once people have gotten their hands on new sets, prices for new minifigs drop significantly by up to 50%. If you have not sold your figs yet, you may consider holding onto them until the set goes out of production in a year or two (and that’s risking re-releases of the same minifig). Unless you’re very patient, your biggest bet is to sell fast, or you’ll send up selling low.

These should be the basics. It is now up to you to spend a few hours to open your store and get acquainted to the procedures of selling. At first, things may start low (especially when you have a feedback count of less than 30 and not much in your inventory), but be patient and invest when the next wave of Star Wars and Indy sets come out (yea Taun-Tauns!). Wait for it like your birthday, and then go all out on the party.

Here’s a list of do’s and don’t’s to wrap things up.

Do
• Sell low – or you’ll be driven into oblivion by large scale competitors.
• Sell minifigs – especially Star Wars and franchised ones.
• Sell fast – you have a small time frame when new minifigs are released until their prices drop.
• Sell internationally – approximately half of your buyers will come from outside the US.
• Sell new – new minifigs are more likely to be sold and fetch higher values. Displayed minifigs can pass as new, but played-with minifigs should be marked used.
• Become best friends with the price guide – although it’s not possible to actually do so, nevertheless you’ll be relying on the price guide for every minifig you plan on selling.
• Frequently adjust prices – market prices are dynamic, and you should keep up.
• Be kind to your customers – and grant their requests for small discounts if they ever contact you before ordering. A small bit of pocket change is worth an order and a satisfied customer.
• Buy now, think later – I have abided by this simple axiom on purchasing sets and it has paid off. I suggest you do the same because LEGO does not depreciate in value.

Don’t
• Don’t sell parts – there are plenty of large Bricklink stores that do that, and besides, you’re a builder, you need the parts.
• Don’t sell sets – they’re a hassle to ship and are also costly and space consuming. Shipping a large set outside the US will cost you nearly $50. Selling minifigs give you cheap or free leftover parts. Selling sets don’t.
• Don’t offer free shipping – buyer’s aren’t much more tempted to buy from you if you offer free shipping. I have done this for several months without increases in sales.
• Don’t sell if you’re underage – Bricklink requires you to be at least 18 years old to be a seller.
• Don’t worry – it takes time to build the experience from selling and gain the confidence to invest. I am just experiencing both after a whole year. Nevertheless, any income at all is better than no income.

With these tips and advices, you’re off to start a new adventure, one that will someday break even the income and expenditures on your LEGO hobby. I have almost reached that point, having sold $290 in the past week and $350 the week before. It is then that you truly appreciate your capability to buy bulk parts without damaging your wallet, to build large scale creations as a student or without upsetting your wife, and perhaps to have some leftover cash to go partying with friends.

See it like this: when you spend Paypal cash like Monopoly money and see Bricklink as just a board game, you have found your way to a self-sustaining hobby limited only by the breadth of your imagination.

Questions? You can contact me via Bricklink.

36 comments on “Breaking even: sustaining your LEGO-building hobby through selling on Bricklink [Essay]

  1. nuhrahjah

    Good idea, but you need to mention one important factor: time.
    Analyzing, purchasing, sorting, storing, entering inventory, invoicing, packing, daily post visits, resupplying, etc. And repeat. Build? Ha.

  2. EJ Nichols

    I suspect the minifigs are a large reason why SW sets are so expensive. Nannan’s spot-on about outside Lego collecters buying minifigs at high prices. Remember those minifig blisters in the Episode II SW sets? You remember, the ones sitting on store shelves with all the minifigs ripped out. I was working at Target at the time and all the Clone Turbo Tanks on the shelf had been relieved of their Mace Windus.

    Its a great idea, especialy for those of us who build but dont “play.” I’ll go you even one further- if you have no desire to start your own Bricklink business, look for sets with the minifigs already parted out. I got most of the first-run Ep. 3 sets (2 V-wings) for a quarter of their wholesale price. I nearly didn’t open my Magnagaurd Starfighter when I saw I could buy it without the figs & box for $17.99, instead of the $48 I paid at TRU. I still have the $10 a piece Magnaguards, sitting there collecting dust. I wish I had the time and energy to fund my habit, uh hobby. Maybe someday I’ll get off my ass and do it. Great tutorial Nannan.

    EJ

  3. EJ Nichols

    Just was browsing through what these babies are going for these days. That Jango Fett is looking mighty tempting.

  4. dshaddix

    Nannan – thanks for all of the wonderful advice here, and via e-mail. I have been picking Nannan’s brain for a week or so about fine-tuning my own BrickLink store.

    I started my store in early/mid-December with a similar notion. I have noticed that EVERYTHING Nannan has said in this editorial holds true. I am working on a much smaller scale (and budget) than Nannan is, but the model holds water regardless of the size of your store or your budget.

    Though my sales and my inventory are quite modest compared to Nannan’s (and everyone elses), I noticed immediately that not only would my sales pay for most if not all of the sets I purchased, I would most likely come out ahead.

    All and all, its a great way to use a hobby to fund itself!

  5. worker201

    I wonder how much of a feedback loop this post will create.

    Positive feedback loop:
    - more AFOLs sell minifigs
    - prices for minifigs remain steady or drop slightly
    - Lego increases the costs of sets because of the added value of cool minifigs
    - minifigs become more expensive, and harder to get
    - more AFOLs sell minifigs because market is so hi-value

    Negative feedback loop:
    - more AFOLs sell minifigs
    - price for minfigs drops because the market is flooded
    - Lego decreases the costs of sets because demand is lower in a saturated market
    - minifigs become cheaper and easier to find
    - more AFOLs sell minfigs because the market is so easy to enter

    I don’t think either situation is good for the plastic brick trade as an industry.

  6. snailsnail

    I sat silent through the blathering that has been TBB recently, in terms of ‘We must’ be more mature!’, I may disagree, but whatever – it’s your site folks, but now the site has become a Get Rich Quick self help advice site?!

    “I have acquired the experience to confidently say to you that ‘yes, you could maintain your LEGO hobby at zero cost.’”

    Any further editorial plumbing of the depths and I think I shall scarper.

  7. David4

    I need to look into doing this as I have zero money to spend on LEGOs right now and missed out on all the wonder sales around Christmas (Like all the big town sets for around $100).

    I have been finishing up my organizing my LEGO, and I have a ton of interesting pinks and purples I have no use for that someone I’m sure would love.

  8. Bram

    Woow, I really like the idea and I guess there’s lots of money to earn on this market.

    only 2 problems;
    I’m underaged and don’t live in the USA..
    a pitty..

    Hope you guys earn lots of money with it !
    Greets, Bram

  9. RichardAM

    Nice write up- i’ve been selling since Autumn and i’ve made quite a bit of money, but i’m hoping to expand a lot.

    You do reaslise though now that you’ve written this you’ve made the market even more competitive for both you and everyone else? ;)

  10. lucakabe

    But the question is..can the european AFOL do this? Probably we ‘ll have to come to live in USA..

  11. Bram

    Richard, you’re right..
    If someone had told me about this I would start buying starwars straight away..

    But because it’s on this site it’s risky !

    Lucakabe,
    As he allready said, “you need to live in in the usa”

  12. Dr. X

    After seeing Nannan’s few pictures of his Bricklink store’s gains on Flickr in the last week or so, I set up my own store. I’ve made about $190 so far, selling my old collection of SW figs and a few battle pack figs. Unfortunately I ordered my battle packs after the big rush, so I barely even made back the money it cost to buy them. Now I’m just waiting for the next wave of sets.

    All in all, it was a really great idea. Thanks, Nannan!

  13. Puddleglum

    Hey, it turns out my old SW minifigs are worth about $800, and the instructions are another $150. I went on a SW LEGO binge from 99-02, buying just about everything they made. I just did the math on the sets I bought, their total MSRP was $1324. I got a lot of it on sale, so I figure I probably spent $1000 or so. I parted everything into my BL stockroom, it’s ~10,000 parts. Selling most of the figs and instructions, and netting 10,000 parts for a hundred bucks or so is looking pretty tasty!

  14. Andrew

    Minifigs rightly form the core of SYSTEM-scale building. Collector or not, having a wide variety of minifigs enables builders to give the individual characters in one’s LEGO creations personality. Minifigs humanize what could be a fairly sterile medium.

    Fantastic essay, Nannan, but I won’t be divesting my collection of its minifigs anytime soon. :-D

    @snailsnail: Thanks for registering anyway. ;-) As the other comments demonstrate, I’m not alone in thinking this is an excellent, useful post by Nannan, but it’s not necessarily the blog’s official position, so it shouldn’t have been tagged [Editorial]. Fixed. Apologies for our internal mixup.

  15. Fred

    I smell stealth advertising. Now we all know we can buy a fig that was handled by the legendary Nannan! ;)

  16. Magnus

    Nannan,

    I appreciate the tips and helpful suggestions for getting started. For the entrepeneurially minded, there are clearly all sorts of ways to break even or do far better than that with LEGO. And of course, who could resist the temptation to have a self-funding hobby?

    My real concern is the knowledge that this quest to get the best deals drives certain AFOLs and other BrickLink sellers to snap up all the sets they can find that are on sale. I know from personal experience how building and collecting can get addictive. I’m sure the same applies to making a buck.

    Many of us have seen at conventions and elsewhere how a small group of aggressive buyers (often resellers with profit in mind) with a lot of money can literally clear stores out of certain sets, leaving the rest of us empty handed.

    I like to think that the majority of those who buy in order to resell (as well as those of us who buy to simply build) show a little restraint and respect in regards to fellow AFOLs, TFOLs, and KFOLs alike. We all want to get in on cheap brick, rare sets, etc. A community of LEGO builders would ideally strive to share the wealth a little bit and look out for one another.

    I’m not saying that reselling is bad – (I benefit a lot from being able to buy on BL myself. I guess I am asking the AFOLs who fund their hobby through reselling to keep in mind that there is much more to the hobby than simply getting copious amounts of brick at the lowest price.

    But you knew that, right? :)

    Magnus

  17. David4

    I used to buy the older Star Wars sets when they were decent and not overpriced. Boba Fett is $12 for the cheapest when the set was only $20, yellow Slave Leia is $7 when I got the set for $12.

  18. Puddleglum

    Magnus,
    I’m no big-time BL seller by any means, but I’m going to have to disagree with you. Retailers and LEGO are responsible for meeting consumer demand. If the shelves are empty, you should voice your complaints with them. If you’re talking about sales – sorry dude, it’s finders keepers. Nobody owes it to anybody to leave bargan-priced LEGO on the shelf, just in case some hypothetical person comes by and wants to buy it. In fact, if you buy LEGO on sale with the intention to resell, you are essentially guaranteeing that the set will get into the hands of a LEGO fan, at a price they are happy with!

  19. Nannan Post author

    Hi Magnus,
    I know what you mean, and I tried to hint throught my essay that you’re reselling minifigs to support the hobby and that first and foremost you’re a builder. We’ve both seen profit driven resellers raid the stores at conventions, but for our purposes we resell to buy more bricks so we can build more MOCs to share with the community.

  20. Magnus

    Puddleglum,

    Based on your response, I suspect we differ fundamentally on what it means to be part of a building community. I can live with that, I just wanted to give voice to a perspective that I would guess I am not alone in, but that Nannan’s article didn’t seem to take into account.

    Nannan,

    Are you saying that someone hoarding sets on sale in order to make a living is really all that different from someone hoarding sets on sale in order to fund a hobby that results in more MOCs being put up online for the rest of us to enjoy? I’ll grant you there may some minor difference but at the end of the day, in both cases when someone else gets to TRU or their local LEGO store, the shelves will be just as emplty and the prices will be just as high when they come home and take a look on Bricklink.

    I mean, if you are a scalping tickets to Redskins games is it somehow any more justifiable if you are a Redskins fan yourself?

    I’m not saying don’t resell LEGO that you don’t need if it is valuable to someone else. I’m just saying think about what you want your role to be in the community aside from being a good builder (we’re all builders, and we all want to be good).

    Do you want to be the person involved in your local lug or in large conventions? Do you want to be active online and maybe champion certain themes or contribute to a kickass blog? Do you want to make contacts with TLG and maybe become an Ambassador? Do you want to make the hobby your full time job? Do you want to be the guy who just cleared out three local TRUs of SW sets on 50% off?

    I just don’t think completely unbridled capitalism is condusive towards community building, that’s all. When you get carried away to a certain level with acquiring stuff cheap at the expense of others I don’t think that’s good for the community. Now most BL sellers I’ve met are respectful of other AFOLs and don’t take things to ridiculous extremes, and I’m grateful for that.

    cheers

    Magnus

  21. notenoughbricks

    Cheers to Nannan on a great essay. Much like any other suggestion, it is up to you to decide if it is something you would consider following. I for one have made nearly $1,000 selling LEGO on ebay. Whether it be minifigs from sets, classic Pirate and Space LEGO or newer sets that were on clearance, I have made money so that I could put it back into my hobby.

    I have spent several thousand dollars since becoming an AFOL 2 and a half years ago. I am an adult with bills that need to be paid just like any other adult. If I can part with LEGO that I don’t think I will miss to help support my hobby so that I can pay my bills so be it. I am not looking to become rich but if I run all over town and find clearance LEGO then I will buy it for myself, my fellow AFOL friend or to make a profit.

    On Black Friday of ’07, 2 men were pushing 2 shopping carts each overflowing with LEGO. Kmart was selling LEGO, Buy 2 get 1 Free. I arrived about 5 minutes after the store opened and these two guys cleared Kmart out completely! I was really annoyed at the time at these 2 guys but it was Kmart’s responsibility to place some sort of limit on what you could buy.

    With all of this in mind though, I do not purchase every single LEGO set on clearance or on sale as I do think of others. I leave these sets behind with the hope that they might find a child who will convince his parents to buy them.

    I can see the validity behind what others are writing but there is no right or wrong here in my opinion.
    notenoughbricks

  22. A Most Serious AFOL

    Also, in the interests of keeping things mature – I hope you’re declaring all that income on your tax return, Nannan. I’m sure you are, but I note you lack mentioning anything about it in your essay.

  23. Puddleglum

    Income on tax returns, really? As long as you’re operating in the red (say, buy $200 of LEGO, sell $180 of LEGO each week) is there really any income to report? Sure your “inventory” is growing, but the last time I checked business aren’t taxed on inventory, right?

  24. Legeaux

    I’m not familiar with the US tax system, but converting income into an asset (“inventory”, right?), would probably be of interest to the IRS.

    By the reasoning above, if you spent all your income on buying, say, a stockpile of gold, you’d “in the red”, so you’d pay no tax?

    I think not. But this is not tax advice, and I encourage you to seek the advice of a taxation professional in your own jurisdiction.

    A word of caution though: if you’re selected for audit, tax investigators will be interested in any large transactions (or large groups of small ones). And it is always, always, better to have disclosed such things up front.

  25. :Bob:

    Having been a seller (and buyer) on BL and ebay, I can safely say that at least for me selling Lego® was not a “get rich quick” scheme. It took time and effort to post and maintain the store and stock, supplies, sorting, packing, shipping, etc. Yes I had some fun but it was still work and took time. So it was more of an offset for my hobby expenses until I liquidated all of my inventory as I entered my Bley Ages. Although I did buy some sets on clearance and then part them out for more than the set cost, but that took even more time and effort of course than just selling sets. It also was much more of a pain in the patootie. Then the money came in but did not go out in the form of more Lego®, instead going for household expenses and the downpayment for a car. So I considered myself mostly a ‘hobbiest’ seller as opposed to a ‘professional for profit’ seller. I believe that the IRS also makes that distinction, BICBW.

  26. menacingvitamin

    Thanks for the write-up, this is exactly what I do on bricklink. Minifigs go a long way to sustain a lego junkie.

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