Brad Wheedleton is a certified member of the bobblehead horde that descends on Nationals Park for a few games every season.
One day, Wheedleton looked around at his fellow collectors standing in line for hours to get a piece of plastic — and he saw a business.
He doesn’t make bobbleheads. He makes display cases that you put your bobbleheads in.
Talk about a niche business.
He launched Bobblehouse Industries nearly four years ago. Wheedleton is reluctant to get into the financial details but acknowledged that his one-man company nets him a profit north of $20,000 a year after expenses.
It’s not a ton. But he is one of the tens of thousands of mini-preneurs who use their skills to run a side business that gives them immense gratification and some extra dollars. Wheedleton is doing something he loves. During the day, the 43-year-old is a counterman at a motorcycle shop. At night and on weekends, he makes mini-replicas of the parts of stadiums in his Ashburn garage.
“I have sold 650 pieces in the last 3½ years. Miniature dugouts, hockey benches, penalty boxes, bullpens,” Wheedleton said. “I also make miniatures for holding baseballs.”
At last count, Wheedleton had made miniatures of least 27 out of the 30 Major League Baseball dugouts.
Who buys these things?
Wheedleton built a dugout replica of the University of Missouri baseball stadium at the request of Erica Scherzer, the wife of Nationals star pitcher Max Scherzer.
“Scherzer was a rush job,” he said. “She ordered it late in the year for a Christmas present. I didn’t make money on it, but it was for them, so it was cool.
“I thought it was local, and I could run it over and drop it off,” he said. “I said, ‘Where can I drop it off?’ They said, Phoenix. I said, ‘Aw, crap.’ ”
So he overnighted it to Arizona.
The owner of the Cincinnati Reds has four different baseball dugouts, courtesy of Bobblehead Industries. They were ordered by one of the owner’s business partners.
“What do you get the owner of the Reds who has everything?”
He has created a replica of the riverboat in the outfield at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park.
He’s even build a mini-announcer’s booth for Reds Hall of Fame radio announcer Marty Brennaman.
Wheedleton said he’s always been good with his hands and has been tinkering since he took an eighth-grade shop class.
His competitive advantage is detail.
“I am very attentive to detail on everything,” he said. He researches the stadiums and ballparks online, trying to get every detail right. “I look at scoreboards, the outfield. I put time and attention into it. If I don’t want to display it for myself, I will throw it out and remake them. I have probably thrown away 10 to 15.”
The Nationals ownership and executive staff have a bunch. He donated one to the Ryan Zimmerman Foundation.
Wheedleton charges $140 for a dugout, and $300 and up for a customized scoreboard or outfield.
His most difficult and “coolest” job was building a miniature replica of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, including scoreboard, bleachers, stands and warehouse. He charged $500.
He has built replicas of the Nationals Red Porch beer stand in center field at least four times. He built a 2-foot-by-2-foot Kansas City Royals scoreboard for $400.
“I built [the Boston Red Sox] Fenway Park’s Green Monster three or four times. I call it the ‘Bobble Monster.’ ”
One custom job requested the Fenway scoreboard to reflect a playoff win over the New York Yankees. He did his research to put in the appropriate scores, strikes, balls, counts, everything.
Just about all the orders come through his website, but he also works Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and word of mouth.
The big rush comes during holidays, Father’s Day and, of course, Christmas.
Most of his customers are Nationals, Capitals and Dodgers fans, in that order, he said.
More than 70 percent of his audience is women buying them for husbands and children. He ships the products through FedEx, which he pays on his end.
His biggest competition, as far as he knows, is retailer Bed Bath & Beyond.
“Some bobblehead collectors use little racks from Bed Bath & Beyond. They are cheap and easy.”
Wheedleton grew up in Northern Virginia and earned a psychology degree in 1998 from Salisbury University in Maryland.
He decided against a psychology career and instead worked at a succession of jobs, including, for two years, United Parcel Service, where he made about $60,000 a year but hated the pressure.
“You learn to hate Christmas,” he said.
He worked for a while selling tires, a service business that taught him how to interface with the public.
“It’s customer service, which is what I do now at BobbleHouse,” he said.
So how did this get started?
He started the business in late 2014, when he was a bobblehead collector himself.
“I am a Nats fan. I grew up here. They gave away seven or eight bobbleheads that year, and the last was Tyler Clippard,” then a Nationals relief pitcher.
“I’m standing there before the game, telling my friends that I have this collection now, and I am going to go home and build them a dugout.”
He want to the Home Dept the next day and bought some wood, paint and glue. He spent less than $50.
It took him four hours to build a 16-inch dugout, where he placed his collection of eight bobbleheads that were given away that year.
Then he took a photo of it and put it on Twitter.
“By the end of the night, I had 30 people asking how they can get one.”
A business was born. He hired an attorney, who helped him fill out the paperwork to get the company incorporated and file a patent.
The first order came from a friend in April 2015.
He wasn’t sure what to charge, so he started at $15 and hour “because $12 to $15 is a decent wage for most woodworking jobs.”
He added in the supplies, shopping, packaging and arrived at his price that starts around $130 per dugout. Customized outfields run $400 and up.
Wheedleton doesn’t have a licensing agreement with baseball or the National Hockey League, so he cannot use official team logos on his dugouts.
He has seven patents on his designs for dugouts and hockey benches, which he calls his standard products. He has another four or five patents pending.
Painting is the hardest part of the job because it has to be exact and takes a while to dry between coats. “If I could speed that up, that would be good.”
The average dugout reproduction takes less than two hours. Some jobs have taken up to 10 hours because of the detail.
He builds about 10 or 15 a week. He has built as many as 60 or 70 in a month at Christmas.
No one has tried to buy his company, but he has had at least one inquiry from an investor from New York City. The deal fell through because they could not agree on terms.
Wheedleton is thinking big.
His current mission is to figure out a way to expand and mass-produce. He knows the money is in mass production.
“I’m still figuring it out. I’m a guy with an idea who is just trying to make it work.”