Value Added: A small niche in collectible coins grows into a $5 million mini-empire

By Thomas Heath
Monday, November 2, 2009

Jeffery Morin's memorabilia business in Stafford probably isn't the next Google or eBay, but I love the 27-year-old's story because it's about a regular guy who saw an online opportunity and went for it.

Morin was noodling around on eBay, the auction Web site, seven years ago while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp in the middle of the Red Sea. He stumbled across some people selling old military memorabilia coins, about the size of a silver dollar, called "challenge coins." Challenge coins are collectibles used by the U.S. military to commemorate service in a unit or participation in an exercise.

"Poor man's coin collecting," as Morin puts it.

EBay customers were bidding $15 for coins Morin knew he could buy at a Marine Corps base for $5. So when he got back to Camp Lejeune, N.C., he marched to the base store and bought 30 generic Marine Corps coins for $4.50 each. (He persuaded the store manager to knock 50 cents off the $5 price.)

Morin took a photograph of one coin and posted it on eBay. It sold in three days for $11.50, yielding a $7 profit.

He was on to something. During lunch breaks, Morin would run to his barracks, package the coins into bubble-padded envelopes, address them by hand and walk them to the base post office for mailing; the envelope and postage for each coin cost him $1.05, which came off his profit.

As he moved ahead, he learned how to create demand for his coins.

"The whole point [on eBay] is to create a bidding war between multiple people. So I realized it was better to post only one coin at a time instead of three or four a day. If there was just one, I could sell it for $11. The more coins I stuck out there, the price settled down and sold for $7 or $8."

His mother lent him $500 to buy more coins, and he was quickly earning $300 to $500 a month from the business. Profits went in to buying more coins.

After about six months, he got an e-mail from an Ohio woman that would result in a big expansion for his nascent enterprise: She had seen his coins on eBay, and could he find a coin dedicated to mothers with sons in the Marine Corps?

"No problem," said Morin. He paid a fellow Marine $50 to sketch out a design. Then Morin jumped online, searched for "customer minted coins" on Google and found a Georgia company that would turn the design into a mold from which he could make his Marine Mother coins: $300 for the mold and $3.50 per coin. He ordered 100, and the bill came to $750 with shipping.

Morin looked at blogs to locate more mothers of Marines and found sites like Marine Parents United and Marine Moms Online. He joined the blogs to solicit customers and posted a sketch of the forthcoming coin.

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