An Opportunity

Admin note: Thanks for those who have enquired about the pens I have for sale. Some have sold, a couple are left, and I’ve discounted the Hemingway. Let me know if you’re interested if anything that’s listed.


A pen friend got in touch after last week’s sales posts. He’s a Montblanc enthusiast too and, after we caught up about our collections and our changing preferences, he reminded me about a Montblanc-themed opportunity I was going to pursue last year. My new job got in the way, and I’ve subsequently pivoted away from Montblancs, but I think the opportunity is still there. This post is going to lay it out, in case somebody else feels like giving it a shot.

Two-sided markets

I’ll start with some theoretical background.

You might think of a traditional business as buying from one party and selling to another, generally with some value-enhancing activity in the middle. A two-sided market is a business that sells to both sides of the market. It’s not just selling into two different markets, like a business which has physical and digital storefronts, because the business is dependent on both sides.

A good example of this is a newspaper: one side of the business was selling news stories to the public and the other side was selling advertising to businesses. If you didn’t have news stories, a newspaper would struggle to attract enough readers to make advertising profitable. And if you didn’t have the advertising, you might struggle to produce the newspaper cheap enough to attract lots of readers. (Of course, that’s all quite obvious now that the internet has come and mostly severed the link between news and advertising.)

More modern examples are digital platforms like Facebook and Google, both of which provide one product to their consumers (social networking or internet search) and advertising to corporate customers. The more users for their consumer service, the more valuable the advertising is to the corporate customers, and so we see these services offered for free. The two sides of the market are dependent on one another: despite their immense scale, both Facebook and Google would struggle to survive if the link between their product and advertising was severed.

The opportunity

Those digital Goliaths are battling it out with each other — and with traditional media — for the mass market and that’s not a space that I have much interest in. But I think there are niche markets which are poorly served: potential advertisers who are very keen to reach an audience which has niche interests, are willing to spend big on products, and are hard to reach. In other words: the kinds of people who might be willing to drop a few thousand (or tens of thousands) on a Montblanc pen. Google advertising just isn’t going to cut it for retailers looking to focus on those consumers, they need something more targeted.

If you think about the digital fountain pen world, there are plenty of blogs and social platforms which cater to the entry-level and mid-market (let’s call that the $50-1000 range). But when it comes to Montblanc enthusiasts, there’s almost nothing: a forum on FPN, some Facebook groups, and the odd Instagram account. None of these are particularly satisfying for enthusiasts: FPN remains the poorly-run retirement home of the online pen world, the Facebook groups are filled with dodgy sales posts and even dodgier pens, and Instagram isn’t a great foundation for a community. If you want to learn or if you want to interact with others, there’s not much for you.

So there we have the two sides to the markets: there are prospective advertisers who want to reach a niche audience and there’s a niche audience poorly served by what’s currently available. That strikes me as an opportunity which is just waiting for someone to push ahead with the right product.

The product

There’s no definite answer to what product will work in this space but I’ll explain the options which I worked through.

Blog

The obvious starting point is a blog which regularly publish genuinely informative posts. Not just posts which regurgitate the press releases but something interesting and funny. There’s plenty of potential content out there: Montblanc release new pens once or twice each quarter, there’s plenty of history to draw on, plenty of historical models to discuss, collectors to interview, and debates to explore.

(On this blog, I used to have a list of all Montblanc LEs. To my knowledge, it was the only compilation online and one which drew plenty of traffic. You don’t need to set the world on fire with deeply insightful critiques: you can start by organising general information/pictures and making it easily accessible. That will be more than enough to start.)

A good example of this is The Pelikan’s Perch, which covers new releases, provides historical context, and discusses news. For more inspiration, you could also look to some of the blogs which cover Apple or Hermes products — they have way more to discuss but there are plenty of parallels which can be adapted.

It might take time but a well-made, specialist MB blog will draw in the kind of readers that MB retailers — and others — will want to reach, and that’s how to make the opportunity work.

Discussion forum

This was a nut that I never got around to cracking. While a blog is probably going to be at the core of this endeavour, it’s going to be more effective if you can build a community rather than just an audience. And a community means interaction, not just with the author but with other readers. There are tools for this: you could set up a Facebook group, a dedicated subreddit, a Slack channel, or something else: I’m not sure which is the best fit for the audience. Ideally, it’s something where people can post their pictures and expertise while remaining anonymous (or pseudonymous). Lots of collectors want to participate in a community but (understandably) don’t want their neighbourhoods knowing about that high-value collection in the study.

It will take longer to grow a discussion forum than a blog audience (though the latter will help the former) but you want to plan in advance for how it’s going to work. And one thing to plan is how you will handle sales, as they will inevitably become part of the forum. If it’s done right, a busy sales channel will help to keep up visitor numbers and that’ll help to drive up the value of your digital real estate for advertisers.

Podcast

I kicked around this idea for months but I just couldn’t find a way to make it work. Maybe someone smarter than me can do it, but there doesn’t seem to be any MB content which suits a regular audio discussion.

Price tracking

Eventually, this was going to be the special sauce of the site, though it would require some considerable resourcing. The idea was that, if you could track secondary market prices — through eBay, the sales channel on the site, or whatever other sites you want to scrape — you could start to produce regular reports on typical market values. Imagine a quarterly or annual report which said used Montblanc 149s sold for (say) an average $350, with broad nibs worth a $30 premium, and rose gold trim worth a $60 premium. And maybe the price was up $20 on last quarter. That’s interesting and fairly novel information: the kind of stuff that’s valuable to readers and will keep drawing them back.

Now imagine that applied to a bunch of high-value limited editions (and you might need to scrape auction results for a good picture of this). Suddenly, the secondary market is a lot less opaque. You can give collectors (and insurers) a much better idea about the value of their collection; potential collectors have a clearer impression of what they might be paying; and those who come across LEs in the wild have a good gauge of their value.

I’ll admit that this isn’t an original idea. There’s a company called StockX which does this for sneakers. You can see real-time prices for sneakers or you can estimate the value of sneaker portfolios. It’s amazing. Would the same thing be viable for LE MBs? I don’t know (and suspect not) but I’m sure there’s plenty of collectors who would derive a lot of value from a service that helped them value their collection and estimate what additions will cost them, even if it doesn’t go to the same extent as something like StockX.  

There must be plenty of other ideas that a motivated blogger/entrepreneur could do with a specialist MB site, to provide more and more value to their community while simultaneously boosting the value of advertising to that audience. These are just a few that I’d considered.

The Challenge

So I think an opportunity exists and I hope someone will decide to give it a crack. It’s not going to be a quick process: establishing credibility and learning to deliver good content takes time. Unless you are already established in the FP world, it will take time before any advertisers will be willing to invest in your product. But I think the long-term rewards are there.

But a quick note on that: don’t do this if it’s just about the money. If you don’t care about the products, this probably isn’t going to work out. It seems like readers desire authenticity and they can sense when someone is just going through the motions.

Also be aware that this is going to be more like a job than a hobby. It might pay for you to get some high-end pens and provide some other perks but it’s going to require a fair bit of work too. And that might lead you to lose the simple joys a hobby can bring — that’s always the risk with making money from a hobby.

If you’re read this far and you’re interested, my advice is to go ahead and do it. Right now. Don’t worry about a domain, start thinking about what you want to build and how. Start writing some draft posts. If you’re still at it after a month, buy yourself a domain and make it public.

I’m happy to have conversations and provide some guidance. Just get in touch.