When Henry Brown was in his 20s and living in Chicago, he followed his dream of becoming a rock star and didn't bother with a back up plan.
When the recession hit in 2008 and even jobs waiting tables between gigs were hard to come by, reality set in. So he took his prized possession — an old 1969 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe Gold Top guitar he had bought for $1300 — and listed it on eBay.
It sold for $2500.
"That was a revelation to me because I didn't have that kind of scratch around," he tells CNBC Make It, reflecting on the $1200 profit. "I liked the taste of that, so I did that more and more."
What started as just a quick way to raise some much needed cash has now blossomed into a business that nets Brown over $150,000 a year. He works a total of just five hours a day, scouting and selling instruments and other gear, yet his vintage e-commerce store, The Bonfires Vintage, brings in over $500,000 in annual sales. His success has allowed him to open his own 1,000-square-foot recording studio in Portland, Oregon, where he now lives. He plays, uses and records with the equipment he buys before flipping it.
In a way, being his own boss and running his own music operation has become a new dream for Brown. As he describes it, he gets paid to play with some of the nicest vintage instruments, all on his own schedule.
"That kind of control of your economic destiny is very empowering," the 36-year-old says. He does admit, though, in the beginning, it was also fairly terrifying. "Restaurants were closing every day. Everyone was out of work," he explains.
Luckily for Brown, he was able to give up waiting tables when he realized he was making more money occasionally selling equipment online.
"I just decided to hang it up and do my own thing and make my own economy if the if the broader economy wasn't working for me," he says.
Things accelerated when he shifted from buying offline and selling online to doing both through Reverb, an online marketplace dedicated to used and new musical equipment, in 2013. Sales quadrupled when Brown was able to more easily find the perfect products to flip.
"I learned that, due to my experience being a musician for so many years, I had accumulated this sort of nerd storehouse of information about instruments, and that I knew something that somebody didn't," he laughs. "What I'm essentially monetizing in my business is my knowledge."
Brown scoops up vintage amps, guitars, pedals, drums and other equipment, which he can fix if necessary, and then sells it for a profit. After receiving the gear, he takes a few photos and writes a description for the site. Once someone purchases a piece, all he has to do is ship it. To maximize his efforts, Brown focuses on gear he believes he can flip for at least twice as much as he paid.
In his most successful deal so far, Brown bought a 1958 vintage Sony tube condenser microphone for $1,200 and sold it for nearly $5,000. With a single sale, he pocketed more money than he would have made in a month waiting tables.
But it's not all about the money.
"Certainly the best part of being involved in e-commerce is the flexibility," Brown says, adding that he's able to spend more time at home with his family. "I make my own hours to a certain extent I make my own salary depending on how much I wish to work and I'm my own boss."
And as a musician who started with dreams of making music, it doesn't hurt that Brown essentially pays himself to find a reason to play with some of the gear he'd most likely be buying anyway.
"It has enabled me to stay in music and that's what's been really important to me," he says.
— Video by Zack Guzman
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