American Dream Achieved
IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability. In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories. It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
The Story of Joey Ghioni (Ballard Consignment)
By Nesha Ruther
As a young adult, Joey Ghioni didn’t have a clear sense of direction. “I went to [the University of Washington] as a last resort. I wanted to be a lawyer, so I figured if I went to school, I’d at least have a law degree,” he says.
Joey thrived in pre-law, but not long after another opportunity presented itself. He worked a data entry job for $10 an hour. The job was pretty low maintenance, and they let Joey do his homework or browse the internet when he finished his work. It was in this uninspiring atmosphere that Joey made a discovery that would change the course of his career. This lightning bolt of entrepreneurial insight came in an unassuming form—Star Wars toys being sold on Craigslist.
Craigslist began as an email distribution list that advertised events, but by the time Joey encountered it, the website was used primarily to buy and sell secondhand items. “I was putzing around, I had three hours to kill, and so I was looking at Star Wars toys.” Joey noticed price variations from different users selling the same item. One user might value their prized Millennium Falcon toy at $500, whereas another that was missing parts might cost $50-$75.
“I came across this guy who had a collection [of Star Wars Toys] and wanted $80 for it. I was like, ‘Well compared to what everybody else is charging for it, seems like a pretty good deal,’” Joey recalls. Realizing he could make a significant profit if he sold the collection at market value, Joey bought the set. “I was really hesitant because $80 was like two days’ worth of work. But he brought the box of toys over to my work and I put them under my desk and listed them right back on the internet.”
Before the end of the workday, Joey had a buyer who was willing to pay $150 for the collection of Star Wars toys, giving Joey a $70 profit. That evening, when Joey got home from work, he scoured his room for things he could sell on Craigslist.
“It’s kind of stupid, when I was younger, I had these swords that I had bought anywhere from $13 to $18,” Joey says, slightly embarrassed. “I put those online from $30 to $60.” Joey spent hours photographing his swords and uploading those photos to Craigslist. “I actually had to go to my mom and figure out how to load photos onto the Internet. It was kind of a big deal, it wasn’t like point-and-click,” he says.
Joey’s effort paid off. Most of the people who were interested in his swords were hardcore fantasy enthusiasts and tended to buy as many as six items at a time. As the expression goes, one man’s childhood swords are another man’s treasure. By the end of that weekend, Joey had made $1,500.
For Joey, a college student renting a house with three roommates for $275 a month, $1,500 was nothing short of a miracle.
But it wasn’t long before Joey had run out of swords. Where others might have patted themselves on the back for making some fast cash and moved on, Joey persisted. “I started driving around to garage sales,” he says. “This is where it really kicked off. I bought a baby jogger, a pair of rollerblades, and a telescope. I paid $7 for everything. The next day I sold the baby jogger for $350, the roller blades for $80, and the telescope for $150.”
Joey was completely hooked. In addition to the garage sales, he began going to his friend’s houses offering to sell their old stuff. Eventually, he was making enough consistent income that he could quit his data entry job. While Joey was not unaware of the risk he was taking, he was making so little money that he didn’t have much to lose. “That’s my whole philosophy here. Had I been making $50,000 a year; I probably never would have pursued this. But because I was making so little money, and my goal was to just make $500 a month, I was able to do it. I ended up making $5,000 my first month,” Joey recalls.
He used the funds to rent a dilapidated house for three months, where he stored his findings until they were sold. “I had no income on paper and very little rental history. This house was only available for three months, so the owner didn’t really care who was going to move in.” Three months became five, until the house was to be demolished. Joey moved out and rented a townhouse where he opened his first pop-up shop. “I filled it up with furniture,” he says. “People would come over all day long, I started making $20,000 a month just selling used furniture.”
Joey had picked an ideal moment to go into business, the 2008 Recession meant many people were short on cash, leading them to search for second-hand retailers selling items online. “People were also willing to part with their used items for close to nothing as they downsized or moved, it was the best of both worlds,” Joey says.
From 2012 onward, as the economy began to improve, the behavior of Joey’s clientele changed. “What would happen before is people would come over and say ‘Oh, this looks nice,’ give you the money, and take it. As things got better, you would have people hemming and hawing,” he says. Rather than being more willing to pay because their financial situation was more secure, fewer people were interested in buying from untraditional sellers such as those on Craigslist.
“One day I was at home waiting for someone on Craigslist when I got a call from a consignment store I’d done business with. The place at the end of their block had been abandoned. They didn’t like that it was ruining the block. They wanted to know if I would start a business there,” Joey says.
Joey turned them down, but the seed had been planted. Times were changing, and if people were less comfortable buying online, Joey needed a brick-and-mortar establishment to keep his business alive. “I don’t know anything about payroll, software, computers, or how to keep track of inventory. I don’t know any of this stuff. Just getting a sign on a building was a major challenge,” Joey says. But at the encouragement of his then fiancé, now wife Yvonne, he decided to do it.”
The pair leased their first official storefront, a 2,400-square-foot space on 125th and Greenwood in Seattle. “It was leased as cold storage because it wasn’t weather-proof,” Joey says. “The birds could literally fly in from the outside through the holes in the wall.” While Joey never began from a place of luxury and security, his resourcefulness allowed for him to succeed with what he had.
They ran around to garage sales stocking up on enough merchandise to fill the store. “I will never forget, when we filled the place up, it was stupid, it did not look good,” Joey recalls. “I was just like, ‘Why did I just spend all this money? This place looks terrible. It has ugly floors and ugly furniture!’”
Luckily for Joey, Yvonne has a knack for design and interior decorating. She was able to reorganize the store so that it looked cohesive and elegant. She also had an innate sense of how much people were willing to spend on an item. “We started labeling the garage sale stuff. We had paid a dollar for this vase, and she was labeling it for $22. I thought that was crazy, but it turns out people like that kind of stuff. She knew a vase like that cost $80 other places and she was right,” Joey says proudly.
Almost immediately, the store was a success. “It was amazing from day one,” Joey says with a degree of shock. “People were buying stuff left and right, we’re like ‘This is incredible!’” Yvonne worked at the store, while Joey acquired more items to sell.
One day, Joey was driving when he passed a space that was up for lease. “I was like, ‘Wow that seems like a pretty great space,’ so I called the number and the guy just said, ‘Yeah I’ll be right out.’ It was an 8,000-square-foot space in the heart of Ballard. It was immensely risky. I think he wanted $8,400 a month, an incredible amount of money, I just couldn’t even fathom something like that,” Joey recalls.
While the space was appealing, Joey had his reservations. Not only was the cost exorbitant but he had no idea if selling used furniture would be profitable in this neighborhood. “He said, ‘You know what? If you take it and you don’t like it, then patch the holes in the wall and we’ll shake hands on it,’” Joey says. He agreed.
Within a month they had opened their second store in that space, which they called Ballard Consignment. Again, it was an immediate success, so much so that Joey and Yvonne were able to hire their first employees.
A year later, the high-end furniture store next to Ballard went under. That space was even larger, 24,000 square feet. “[The owner] wanted six months’ rent upfront if I wanted the space. I had to beat out all these larger companies,” Joey says. “[The owner] didn’t think it was going to work, he said ‘You already have a good thing going, why mess it up by taking on this huge project? If it fails, I’m going to have to come after you for the money.’ I just remember this nice old man who I absolutely loved saying, ‘I don’t want to fight with you in court.’ I almost didn’t take it; I was too scared.”
In the end, the fear of competition spurred Joey and Yvonne to action. “I thought, what if another furniture store moves in next door to us? That would end the party. My wife said, ‘This will work.’ She knew.” As per usual, Yvonne was right. On their first day open, they made $24,000 in sales. “I called my dad, and I was like, ‘Dad, I’m going to be rich!’” Joey says laughing.
Joey and Yvonne tried marketing their stores, but it was never a real factor in their success. When they opened Ballard Consignment, Joey took out a whole page in the newspaper to advertise, including a coupon that customers could bring into the store. They only ever got one back. The factor that aided their success the most was the location and having the right products for that specific population. “Ballard just loves a deal,” Joey says.
During the day, there was a farmers’ market out front of Ballard Consignment. There is a significant overlap between the kind of people interested in buying organic produce and those who would buy recycled furniture: young, hip, and environmentally conscientious. “Ballard started becoming really popular,” Joey says. “The shops next door to us, one was a mechanic’s garage, and it closed and became a really nice bar. Condos started going from $150,000 to $300,000 to $500,000.”
Joey and Yvonne were the owners of the biggest consignment store in Seattle, in one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods.
With two stores and a combined 34,400 square feet to fill prior to opening, it was not feasible to get their merchandise from garage sales. “The problem that we faced was how to fill that much space with used furniture, it’s not like we could just order it,” Joey says. “So, I went to other consignment stores, and I bought all their inventory at a 50% discount. They were thrilled. I had big trucks grab all their inventory and bring it over to my place.”
Not only did Joey buy from other stores, but from individuals looking to make money selling their used items. Anyone can bring their items to a consignment store and get a percentage of the profits when they are sold. “I get about 100 emails a day from people asking to give me anywhere from one to 12 items,” Joey says. Ballard Consignment remains unique in its mixture of items from big-box stores, mom-and-pop shops, and individuals looking to sell their belongings.
No shortage of inventory meant Joey had to be selective in what he did and did not accept. “I think the trick is knowing what not to look for,” Joey explains. “The biggest mistake that almost all consignment stores make is that they take gate leg tables or floral couches. They basically go, ‘Okay we can sell this armoire or a tv that only takes VCR.’ We just started getting really picky with what we take. It has to be normal stuff: a bookshelf, a couch, a semi-modern coffee table that’s not super dated. And it snowballs because people start seeing the nice stuff and think, ‘Oh they’ll probably take my nice stuff too,’ And they remember you. Because it’s not just retail, it’s a service.”
If you live in the Seattle area, chances are, even if you don’t buy from Joey and Yvonne, at some point you will end up consigning through them.
When it comes to the overall aesthetic sensibilities of the stores, Ballard Consignment boasts diverse tastes. “In a perfect world, we’d have all inexpensive great mid-century furniture,” Joey says. “But no one ever consigns that. It used to be easier to find, but now it’s very difficult. So, we have Asian décor, some mid-century modern, and a splash of antiques just to give it a vibe. It’s like a modern furniture store with a vintage store vibe. It works.”
Similar to how Joey’s business first began thriving during the Recession, Ballard Consignment experienced a surge in sales during the COVID-19 Pandemic. “You would have thought it would be totally destructive to the business,” Joey says. “But it just supercharged. It was a boom.”
Another benefit to the business was the chronic supply chain blockages in 2020. “You’re the only person with furniture! Those supply chain things actually work really well for you. In 2020 we were the only game in town,” Joey says.
It can be easy to mistake Ballard Consignment’s success for a lack of challenges. Joey began his business as just a boy and his swords. “With no real retail experience, the learning curve was steep,” Joey says. “Everything was awful! Having to deal with employees, paying the state, worrying about taxes, just simply running a business was a massive obstacle for me.”
One particular challenge for Joey was assuming the confidence and leadership to tell employees what to do. “You ask somebody to do something, and if you haven’t done it before you’re like, ‘Hey could you do this please?’ very questioning. It’s so awkward in the beginning, having employees.”
One way Joey built strong relationships with his employees was by doing the work with them. “Every day I did all the work with everybody,” he says. “I worked seven days a week for the last ten years. It’s hard to complain when you see the boss lifting up and carrying just as much stuff as you.”
Joey and Yvonne also made an effort to hire employees with a drive, work ethic, and skillset similar to their own. “When it came to employees, I wanted to see if they could move quickly and anticipate things,” Joey says. “You can’t really judge that in an interview, you can only tell when you’re actually working with people. Some people would walk in, take over, and were amazing. Others would stop working every time they say something. [Employees] were always really good or really bad right from the beginning.” In particular, Joey found amazing employees from the restaurant industry, who were skilled at moving quickly and thinking on their feet. “There is no such thing as a lazy waiter,” Joey says. “Lazy waiters don’t stick around long.”
As the stores grew, so too did Joey’s confidence. With that growth, however, came new challenges and responsibilities. “We just got busier and busier. We went from $50,000 in sales to nearly $700,000 in one month. And we started attracting bigger box stores and vendors. They don’t drop off furniture ready to go, they drop off 50 boxes that contain lamps that come in three different parts. So, all of a sudden, we have garbage and cardboard to recycle, and we have to get a truck to take that away. We have to get a warehouse to store the overflow because somebody wants to give us 200 free leather sofas. Scaling was a big challenge,” Joey says.
Another hurdle was customer service. The age-old mantra of the customer is always right takes on new meaning when the customer is not only buying but selling. “Customer service was an issue because you’re dealing with people’s stuff, so every person becomes a vendor,” Joey says. To make matters worse, people tend to consign in extremely stressful moments of transition: moving, divorce, or death in the family. In such difficult moments, it can be easy to lash out at the closest person, which, unfortunately, tended to be Joey. “It’s very rarely like, ‘Hey I have this couch that I want to give you because I want to get a different couch.’” Joey says.
One simple but effective thing Joey did to eliminate complaints was to add an exclamation mark at the end of his emails. “Adding an exclamation mark eliminated 99% of complaints,” Joey says. “People kept interpreting the email differently, if you say, ‘We’ll pass, but thank you,’ period, you sound like a jerk. But if you say, ‘We will pass but thank you for thinking of us!’ it adds emotion, which is interpreted as positive. It was a small solution, but it made a big difference.”
In 2020, Joey began looking into brokers to sell his business. “I called several [brokers]. I went to the guy who I’d want to buy something from, that’s how I met Gregory, he’s very charismatic.”
A private equity firm set its sights on Joey and Yvonne’s business and reached out to Gregory. In 2021, Joey and Yvonne sold their two existing businesses, as well as Everett Consignment, a third store they are in the process of opening now.
Joey continues to work with his buyers, and still owns 30% of the company. “[The relationship] is appealing because I don’t want to be retired retired,” he says. His partners now have aspirations to take the company to a national level. “It has a lot of potential, and I get something to work on,” Joey adds.
While Joey was happy to sell his business, he is grateful to still be involved because of the purpose it brings to his life. “I would get up, go to work, see what needs to be done, work really hard until about 3 o’clock trying to make it happen, and then I would get off work and go have a drink or go to the gym, get home and complain about my day, have dinner, visit friends, and go to sleep. That was my life, and it was very purposeful. When you wake up in the morning and you don’t have anything you have to do, there’s an incredible void there. It’s very shocking,” he explains. “You think you have all day to do whatever you want, but what you really want is to create purpose again.”
By selling the business while still having partial ownership, Joey is able to relax and indulge in his hobbies, while still maintaining that critical purpose. Since the sale of the business, he has begun learning how to play the piano and likes to spend his time cooking and being with his wife and friends.
For Joey, who as a young man didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to do, the American Dream is embodied through the success of the business he was able to build from nothing. “I had no real skill sets,” he says. “No fantastic advantage over anybody else. I was just resourceful, and I managed to create a business and sell it, which gave me the freedom not to worry.”
“When I hear [the American Dream] I think of starting from nothing, climbing the ladder, and using your smarts to make things happen.”
Needless to say, Joey meets that definition. Where some people might have just seen a pile of old swords and some Star Wars toys, Joey Ghioni saw a business.
Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.