How To Turn A Passion Into A Profession
My name is Rebekah Kaufman. Professionally, I am known as Steiffgal. Here I am at work sorting through Steiff purchases for customers after a recent doll and Teddy bear show in London.
Worthpoint: Tell us about yourself and your collection.
Rebekah Kaufman: First, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you and the Worthpoint audience. I really appreciate your interest. My name is Rebekah Kaufman. Professionally, I am known as Steiffgal, as my category specialty includes the breathtaking button-in-ear toys made by Margarete Steiff GmbH of Giengen, Germany. Steiff invented the Teddy bear as we know and love him today at the very beginning of the 20th century. Steiff’s pre-WWII Teddy bears, animals, and dolls are considered the gold standard among vintage toy collectors today.
Personally, I have been collecting and studying Steiff for as long as I have been alive. That’s over five decades. I can’t remember ever NOT loving these marvelous German toys, even as a toddler. My paternal Grandmother was German and she also was a lifelong Steiff collector. So perhaps this passion is genetic? My collection today numbers north of 1,800 Steiff treasures, most of them dating pre-1970. Today, my favorites include the company’s c. 1903-1920 felt dolls, life-sized or “studio” editions, novelties from the 1920s and 1930s, and Teddy bears, of course. I also collect and study prewar Steiff ephemera. That includes vintage company catalogs, advertising, marketing materials, photographs, business correspondence, and other “time capsule” paperwork and images that help to tell the stories behind the company’s product design and development strategies during the first half of the 20th century.
Rebekah’s office on any given day–a fun place to work!
WP: When did you your turn your passion into your profession?
RK: It never really dawned on me that this would be an option until about 15 years ago, and things came about slowly. In 2003, I was hired by Steiff as the company’s full-time club and marketing manager here in the United States. This was a fantastic opportunity, and I really enjoyed learning the ins and outs of this well respected, international company as well as representing the interests of Steiff collectors across America. In 2007, I transitioned to the part-time, consultant position of company archivist, where I identified and valued items, wrote articles for the Steiff Club magazine, and attended collector’s events on behalf of the company.
In early 2008, blogging was becoming really popular. I’ve always loved writing and storytelling, so I decided that I would create a weekly personal blog on a topic that was really integral to me. The two areas of equal interest and weight I came up with were 1. vintage Steiff and 2. my two pugs. I flipped a coin to break the tie, and vintage Steiff won. I started blogging about my own collection and things I saw at shows and online. Very slowly, people started reading and following my column. It was exciting to see the sitemeter counter slowly tick upwards as the hits accumulated with each post.
Rebekah’s home library of Steiff related books, catalogs, and research materials.
A few months after launching the blog, I had the idea of asking readers to email me about their Steiff interests, mysteries, and family heirlooms as a way to generate topics for “user-generated content.” I thought this would be a no-cost, fun way to generate more interest and eyeballs. I posted this request and prayed that someone – anyone – would notice and respond. Within a few hours, I received an email inquiry about a somewhat modern soft plush stuffed dragon. I was over the moon thrilled and featured that item in the following week’s edition. Quickly after, I started to receive many inquiries about Steiff treasures. Some really rare, some not so much. I responded to each question via email and featured the most interesting ones on my blog. Readership just started to skyrocket. These types of posts are still among my most popular ones today.
As a result of the blog, I started to get a lot of Steiff related inquiries that were not related to any specific Steiff toy. These included questions on how and where to buy and sell Steiff rarities, how to deaccession a collection, and requests for appearances and speaking engagements. At first, I had no idea what to do with these sorts of communications. Then it dawned on me: all these things are monetizable and I had a specialty consulting opportunity staring me right in the face. I finally fully transitioned from a traditional 9 to 5 full-time office job to being my own boss in 2012.
Celebrating a beautiful day with a real and a Steiff friend.
WP: How did you know the time was right to go into business for yourself?
RK: Well, things just aligned in terms of technology, opportunity, and logistics. And with a little kick in the pants from my husband. It became clear after publishing the blog weekly over the course of a year that it was a real thing, and that readers from all over the world were interested in my little corner of the world on an ongoing basis. And I was offered a number of Steiff-centric paid writing, consulting, and media opportunities based on the blog. So the “buyers” were there.
Now for what to “sell” in addition to content. Although I never had any intention of becoming a dealer or broker when I started the blog, this seemed like the logical next step. Because of the visibility generated by the blog, I was regularly offered Steiff collections from enthusiasts looking to downsize their hugs or families trying to sell unwanted, inherited collections. I purchased a few of these to seed the inventory for an online shop. I opened up Steiffgal’s Vintage Museum Marketplace on Ruby Lane in 2010. Within an hour of my store going live, I had my first purchase from someone I didn’t know from California. He has since become a dear friend and an ongoing customer.
At first, it seemed inconceivable that dabbling in Steiff could be a full-time job. How would I fill the time? Seven years later, I still put in 8 to 10 hours of Steiff related business every day. These tasks include preparing lectures, helping customers with collection management issues, cataloging, merchandising the store, blogging, special projects, and writing features for several media outlets, among others. On average, it takes me about 2 hours to write a blog post, and I have written about 560 posts since 2009. I have been approached by companies and entities who wish to sponsor my blog. I have always said no to this, as I want the content to be as authentic, transparent, and uncommercial as possible.
This little Steiff bear doll named “Bub” is Rebekah’s loyal travel companion.
WP: How did you launch your business?
RK: I don’t think I ever had a formal launch. It all just happened gradually and organically. Everything just seemed fun and natural at the time, not like work. I suspect that happens when you are doing what you really love, and what you were meant to do career-wise. But looking back now, it was a huge labor overall, and I am so grateful that everything worked out.
WP: How do you grow your business?
RK: That has changed over time. When I first started out, I was in full-blown business development mode and did whatever I could to get my name and the blog out there with credibility. For example, I reached out to online businesses in the antiques and collectibles world, including Worthpoint, to introduce myself and to see if they had content, valuation, or consulting opportunities. I contacted local and specialty auction houses to see if they had any cataloging needs, and just to get myself on their radar for future opportunities. I identified the top antique and collectible publications and offered them feature stories on Steiff rarities. And I called area nonprofits and organizations, offering them Steiff lectures for their members. I would always anchor, reference, and hotlink these outbound business development communications to my blog, so recipients were aware of my niche interests. These efforts paid off, and have led to many longstanding relationships and referrals. This was a great deal of work, and there were tons of “no thank yous.” But as they say, “The harder you work, the luckier you get!”
Rebekah’s work desk on any given day.
Today, I am thankful my business continues to grow, but in different ways. I still work with outside organizations, but given the nature of my specialty, most “conventional” opportunities and collections come to me through referrals. The internet is really powerful that way. These days, if I hear of a new collector or antique event or show, I ask the producer if they need a speaker. If I learn about a writer or media company looking for people with unusual collections or passions, I drop them an email. A few years ago, I was traveling to London to attend a Steiff auction that had been previewed in a high profile, international newspaper. I contacted the writer, telling him that I enjoyed his story and that I would be attending the sale. He immediately emailed back, asking that I phone him as soon as the sale was over so I could share highlights and my impressions of the sale with him in his follow up report. I always ask. Ask. Ask. Ask. The worst that can happen is that someone says no. Then underpromise and overdeliver on every opportunity!
Another way I grow the business these days is to look for new enthusiasts and supporters who are outside of my traditional “mohair” circles. As such, I always have my eye open for new audiences and ways to share the Steiff love. I’ve started making wonderful connections in the doll world, as most doll collectors also love Steiff. In that way, I’ve been able to exponentially increase the reach of my blog and business as there are many more active doll collectors as there are Steiff collectors. This has added a delightful and energizing new angle to my work.
WP: What tools do you use to run your business?
RK: My business is almost entirely conducted online, except for the occasional house call, in-person visit, or offsite meeting. So electronic resources are really, really important. I use Google’s BlogSpot to host my blog MySteiffLife. You can find that here. My store, Steiffgal’s Vintage Museum Marketplace, is located on RubyLane. I really like this platform because it is easy to use, provides actionable data and sales information, and does a solid job with promotions and communications. I send out a monthly Steiff newsletter to my customers and prospects via iContact.com. I recommend iContact for its flexible functionality, responsive help desk, and great reporting. And I promote the blog and my Ruby Lane store via daily Steiff-centric postings on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
This life-sized chimp is an ideal event companion, and also takes great selfies.
WP: And finally, how do you personally define “expert?”
RK: Wow, you saved the hardest question for last. It’s hard to say. I think an expert is someone who has both deep and broad tactical knowledge in any well-defined area. I’m not sure I am an overall Steiff expert, even though I usually end up studying or researching something to do with Steiff for about an hour a day, even to this day. If I’m an expert in anything Steiff, it would definitely be in the area of brand advocacy. I am certain that there are collectors who know more about Steiff items and their details and manufacturing than I do. And yes, there are a few people who routinely contact me and tell me I am wrong about this or that fact or detail. I like to think of myself as a thought leader, or a teacher. I am most interested in sharing the magic of the Steiff brand, getting people engaged in its legacy, and keeping the company’s marvelously designed Teddy bears, dolls, and animals top of mind with collectors across the world.
WP: Thank you, Rebekah, for taking the time to tell us how you turned your passion into a profession! We can all learn from your journey, and you have inspired us to “share the magic” in our own fields.
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