Vincent Zurzolo

Since he was 15 years old, Vincent Zurzolo had been buying and selling comics. But he was otherwise still pursuing a normal path through high school and college, eventually building a comic book empire.

“I was the first person to ever sell a comic book for a million dollars.”

Then, he got wrongfully accused of something as an intern, threatening his college career and reputation. He decided he never wanted to be in that position again, and started to sell comic books for a living instead, on the streets of Manhattan.

“I think one of the most important things a person can do in their life is live life with passion and do what they’re passionate about.”

But that is not to say that Vincents path to success was all sunshine and rainbows. His parents got mad at him for not pursuing a more prestigious career with his marketing degree, and the money didn’t come easily either.

There were times when he was traveling the country for conferences that he barely broke even. One time he even got robbed of $40.000 worth of his most valuable inventory, which almost led to him calling it quits.

“I was desperate and I went to see a psychic. Told the psychic ‘You know, I’ve been having doubts about pursuing comic books. I was thinking of pursuing acting.’ And the psychic just said ‘No, no, no, stick with the comic books!'”

So Vincent ended up pushing through, having to figure out a way to compete against people with lots more money, experience, knowledge and network — people who had already been in the business 30 or 40 years.

But he found a weakness in their business models in the form of customer service, which he was convinced he could do better — and he did.

And by delivering more than just the transactional experience, Vincent ended up building an empire.

Related: Career Crashers 50: Vince Martellacci on how passion projects create professional opportunities

Also Related: Career Crashers 46: Lauren Hasson on being your own advocate and asking for opportunity

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Show notes – Building an Empire – Vincent Zurzolo on Building a Comic Book Empire

  • What was the moment that made Vincent realize he wanted to work for himself
  • How did Vincent know he could make money buying and selling comics
  • Selling a comic book for $1 Million
  • Sales as a superpower
  • Why reputation and relationships are what matter in sales in the long-term
  • The importance of being a life long learner
  • Pursuing what interests you as a career choice

Connect with Vincent

Full Transcript: – Building an Empire – Vincent Zurzolo on Building a Comic Book Empire

Isaac
Welcome to Career Crashers, where we tell the stories of those who are not content to wait around following rules and hoping for good things to happen. Great careers aren’t found. They’re forged.

It’s time to crash the party.

All right. I am really excited on this episode of Career Crashers to be joined by a legend in the comic book world, Vincent Zurzolo. He’s the CO owner of Metropolis, which is the world’s largest dealer of vintage comics. He’s also a co owner of comicconnect.com, which is the premier auction site for vintage comics.

Vincent, you have a pretty wild and exciting career story, and you’re in a very interesting and exciting industry. So welcome to Career Crashers.

Vincent
Thanks so much. My pleasure.

Isaac
So I want to start with a question that’s actually kind of in the middle of your story. And then we can sort of hop around to the beginning. And come back. I was reading in an article that had been written about you, I think it was in Forbes or something. There was a particular moment I found really interesting. You were going to college, I think you were studying marketing or something and you were doing an internship at an agency. And you had you had almost gotten fired, and it was over a misunderstanding and it all got cleared out.

But you said something you said that was the moment you realize you didn’t want to be in that position, again, where somebody could fire you, you want it to be your own boss. I thought that was really, really interesting. And I’ve heard that from several kind of entrepreneurs or freelancers that they had an experience that made them realize they didn’t want that kind of arrangement again. So I’d love to hear from that point. When you had that realization, what did you do to start making your way to do your own thing to start building an empire?

Vincent
So it was it was a really interesting moment. For me. There’s nothing worse than being accused of something that you didn’t do. You know, you did the right thing. And yet somebody had power over you that could have caused you a lot of trouble. If she had fired me from an internship, I wouldn’t have graduated on time. And I was a very serious student. So that was mind blowing to me in that moment.

Thankfully, the head of marketing department said, Oh, we’ll give we’ll give him another chance. And he was nice about it. But it was at that moment, I said, I will do not ever want to be in a position again in my life, when somebody has control over my destiny. And after I graduated, I was considering pursuing a job in marketing, which would have entailed me taking about an hour and 15 minute train ride into the city and an hour and 15 minute train ride back to Rockaway Beach, which is where I grew up in Queens in New York City.

Or the other choice was, I could work in my bedroom in my boxers and probably make double what I made my first year out of college at a regular job. The choices were not that difficult to make for me. I’m extremely passionate about what I do. And pursuing comic books became something that I definitely knew I wanted.

And it wasn’t always easy. I experienced a lot of rough moments, and a lot of times where I said to myself, you know, is this worth it? I mean, I can I recollections of traveling cross country to do conventions in Oakland, California. And at the end of the show, I’d look at it, look at my expenses, look at my cost of my comic books. Look at my time, and I was breaking even, and sometimes not even. Ah, and it was it was disheartening.

But I kept at it, and had a really strange situation happened to me. I think it was 1996. I was 25 years old. And I was at a convention in Manhattan. It was April 2, I went to close down my booth and I was borrowing a friend’s van at the time that didn’t have any locks on it. And I thought it would be safer to leave my best books in the convention room over the watch of a another dealer I knew instead of leaving them in an unlocked van in the middle of Manhattan.

And when I came back after my first trip, my four best boxes of comic books disappeared. They’re completely gone. And I thought somebody’s playing a late April Fool’s joke on me. I asked the guy who was supposed to be watching my stuff, who had his back to my stuff, which I still it still irks me to this day. And he said, he said, I’ve watched them, I said How could you watch them with your back to them? And they’re gone. He had no clue and nobody was playing a joke.

Isaac
What are we talking about value-wise in those four boxes?

Vincent
Probably at that time, somewhere around $40,000 worth of comic books.

Isaac
And what did that mean to you, then?

Vincent
It was pretty much my best inventory. And some of the comic books I had bought the night before, hadn’t even paid for them yet. I wrote the check out, but it wasn’t mailed yet. Some of them were on consignment. So I had to pay people that who could sign them to me because that was the right thing to do. But what I’m getting at is really interesting part of the story, and this is kind of strange, but I was seeing this girl at the time who used to see a psychic.

And I’m not into psychics in any way, shape, or form. But I was kind of desperate, I went to see the psychic. And the psychic actually told me the name of the person who I believe did steal my comic books, but I didn’t was never able to prove it. But at the end of the the meeting with the psychic, I said to the psychics, you know, I’ve been having doubts about pursuing comic books. It’s not been the easiest road, obviously, you can see what happened here. mostly about pursuing acting.

And the psychic was like, No, no, stick with the comic books. Do you want to know what I see. And I got, I get goosebumps just just mentioning this right now. And I said, Don’t tell me, don’t tell me anything. I wish I had could go back in time and have the person write on a letter, like in an envelope and put it open this in 20 years, and you’ll know what I mean, or something like that.

But as it turned out, I did stick with comic books. When I got ripped off, it taught me that the first month I was really depressed about it, I had no insurance, like I said. But it taught me after 30 days of being in agony, I woke up one morning, I said, if I continue acting like this, then this person really stole something from me. And instead, what I’m going to do is I am going to work 10 times smarter, 10 times faster, 10 times harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, to make my business work, and to get back to where I was and move forward.

And I did just that. Things I didn’t think I was capable of I was doing .I was closing deals much more than I had been, I was working longer hours, I was finding every different angle I could to make my business work. And that was 1996. In 1999 I merged companies with my partner, Steven, and we’ve been partners this July will be 21 years, which is longer than my first marriage and his marriage put together.

Isaac
So that’s so incredible. The I love that moment, you know, and whether it’s a psychic or a stranger or someone else is, there are some times where like, you just need somebody other than yourself to tell you no, keep going and to have that little bit of a you know, that is a great, that’s a great story.

I want to go back to and this will help us kind of fill in from the earlier part of your your life. When you said, you know the choice before you you could make twice as much work in from you know, your basement in your shorts to even know that you could make twice as much.

To have confidence in that I’m assuming you must have already been doing a lot of selling, buying and selling comic books to know that that was possible. I mean, that’s a lot of confidence to have to start building an empire. So how did you get to that point, so that by the time you graduated college, you even knew that this was an option for you?

Vincent
So there are a few things that go into that moment. I had been buying and selling comics since I was about 15 years old doing it mostly part time through high school, college. And I did all right, you know, I was making some money and it was cool. One of the things I learned in St. John’s University, which is where I went to school in Queens. There was a building called Sullivan Hall. And my business teacher was Professor Solomon. This guy donated money to make this building.

And he started off in the as the the mail guy, a guy brought everybody their mail. The word is escaping me right now. But in the Borden company, board and food company, and he worked his way all the way up to the CEO. And one of his pieces of advice. One of his pieces of advice was to maintain your integrity. The other piece of advice was to write down your goals. And so when I when I decided I said I can make double. I wrote down what my goal was for that year. And I literally hit it on the Mark 12 months later.

Isaac
Wow. That’s incredible. That’s incredible. So you know as a as a young person kind of through high school this is like a fun thing you’re doing you like comics you’re you’re buying and selling them with your friends and going into college. Did you go in thinking I want to go, you know, learn the business side of this so I can turn it into a business and start building an empire or were you thinking, this is just a side hobby, you’re gonna go get a sort of a normal job?

Vincent
I wasn’t not 100% sure. I knew I really enjoyed marketing. And that’s what I majored in. I was also fortunate enough to go to school overseas for a semester, in Hungary, which was an incredibly valuable experience beyond what I learned in school, just it growing up in a small town and then seeing Europe. Especially Eastern Europe at that time, was really amazing.

So I don’t know if I knew I was gonna pursue comic books. But I do remember when I got when I graduated, and I told my father, who both my parents were immigrants from Italy, came here with nothing and lived the American dream. And I told my father, that I was going to pursue comic books. He said to me, I send to you to four f***ing years of college, and this is what you’re gonna do?

And I said, Dad, Dad, I, promise, I’ll use everything I learned in school to be successful in comic books and building an empire. And I did I consciously did. I’m one of the things that I noticed in my in the business was that I had to be able to figure out how to compete against people who had tons more money, experience, knowledge, and network customers than I did. So how am I going to compete against these guys who have been already in the business 25, 30, 40 years.

And one of the areas I saw with it was a weakness in the business was customer service. I grew up watching my mother, an amazing hostess, whenever family friends came over, and my father who owned a restaurant became a chef, and how he cared for customers in the restaurant. And I use those same types of techniques and what I saw and to to grow my business and to build a brand.

That was one area where I could blow these guys away, because they just didn’t have quite that polished touch that I think I have, when it comes to treating people. Right? It goes with the golden rule, rule, right? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So you treat people nicely. And hope that comes back to that type of thing. I saw my business grow. And once again, there were lean years, but it taught me to appreciate my success. It also taught me not to take it for granted.

Isaac
That’s a really interesting, I love that differentiator that you point out with building your empire. First, just an aside observation. I’ve found disproportionately people who become entrepreneurs, so many of them had someone in their life who was a small business owner, they grew up with a parent or an uncle or a friend or something. And they and they kind of saw that the way that was done how that’s possible is I think it’s interesting with your parents, you’re having a restaurant but but I love that insight, we had interviewed a guest earlier on this show, who said, you know, he thinks that you need three things to really excel in your career, you need to identify what your superpower is something that you’re really good at that other people aren’t? What’s the industry or area that you want to, you know, to focus on?

And, and so I think you’ve got this, you know, the third one was a place, where do you want to both physically and sort of more broader, like, what’s the culture you want to be a part of in building an empire? So it seems like you’ve got this identification, you know, the industry in the game, and you kind of know the place you’re in New York City, you know, the industry, the comic book industry.

What’s that differentiator? What’s your sort of unique skill? I love that you identified in a business that’s kind of could be commoditized, right? You buy low, you sell high, you’re buying comics from people, you’re finding people who value them more. And turning that saying no, my my differentiator is customer service. I know how I deliver something more than just a transactional experience to people. I guess it’s a really cool insight.

Vincent
I think I’m really good at customer service, but I don’t think that’s my superpower.

Isaac
What’s your superpower?

Vincent
My superpower is I’m a great salesman. And I think it has to do with natural ability, but also being able to hone certain skills. One of the easiest, one of the things that makes my job very easy as a salesman is that I do believe in the product that I’m selling. But having said that, I think that that definitely you know, having that ability to be able to sell and being able to sell is also being able to buy because when you’re buying you’re not only making an assessment of collection, or you’re selling yourself in terms of your ability to pay a fare.

Price and to gain the person’s trust and confidence. So they feel comfortable to part with their prized possessions. The other thing I should mention a couple of other things real quick, um, one of one of my, one of my greatest accomplishments in building my empire is I’m the first person who ever sold a comic book for a million dollars.

Isaac
I was gonna ask you, like, tell me one of your greatest story sales success stories, and then sales tell your story. So there you go.

Vincent
That was Action Comics Number one. It was Superman and from 1938. So it was an 8.0 condition. And I sold it to a young entrepreneur who was in online marketing. And guy must have been a genius because he was pretty young at the time and forked over a million bucks for a comic book. Yeah, and so that was really cool.

Um, the other thing I wanted to mention is, again, I didn’t start building an empire at the top. I was selling at Comic Book conventions when I was a kid. And when I got out of college, one of the first things I did is I actually would set up on the streets of Manhattan. I had a friend who from Rockaway, who was also a comic dealer, and he would set up in Manhattan, he told me, I should come with him. And I did and the first day I went out there and made 50 bucks. I looked at him like Dude, just more in gas and tolls and parking. What am I doing here?

He’s like, No, no, trust me, when you got to come back again. It just got to get to know you, even though the next day made 60 bucks. And I’m looking at him like, Dude, what am I doing here? Trust me, trust me. So the third day I went, I did 200 bucks. And that was really cool. Then it kept growing from there. And for that summer, I basically worked in Manhattan, about 10 to three. Come home, unpack, and walk down to the beach and play volleyball with my buddies.

Then you know, just relax and get ready for building an empire the next day. It was a lot of fun. That was a summer I’ll never forget. And it also again, I think being face to face with people on a regular basis every day and trying to hustle on the streets of Manhattan. That’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. And it was fun, it was something I miss and something that I always will cherish. And again, that type of thing teaches you to appreciate where you come from. Where you’re and where you’re at, and also how to hone your skills.

Isaac
So yeah, on that, you know, sort of the honing of skills in sales. I know as an art form that you’ve got to you’ve got to just try and get in repetitions to learn and get better while building an empire. I’d love to hear whether it’s you’re attempting to buy a comic from someone, or sell a comic to someone, if you have a story where you you fail that making the sale. And that helped you have an insight about how to improve in the future. Do you have any examples of sort of, you know, sales errors that you made in the past that helped you learn how to do it differently?

Vincent
I’m not sure about that. But one thing I do know is that there have been times I have talked to customers out of buying something. And because for a couple of either I didn’t think the comic book was worth it, even if so because sometimes I’m brokering and comic book seller gives me a price and I bring it to the buyer. They’ll ask me for my opinion, should I buy this book? And I could have made the sale very easily.

And instead I said, No, I think it’s overvalued, and I don’t think you should buy it. I’m bringing it to you because you told me that you wanted this book and the only one I can find at this time. And what that has done for me. And I’ve done that time and time again. what it has done for me is it established a relationship and trust with a client where they feel comfortable if I do tell them to pull the trigger, that I’m saying that in earnest and not just to line my pockets.

There’s something to be said for that. And I think people can see through that. I think that people you might fool somebody once you know the old adage, but you just don’t and you don’t want to build a reputation on that. For me the best thing in the world is where I see everybody make money if it’s if it’s I’m brokering something the seller makes money, the buyers happy with it. Eventually when they go to sell it, they make money. I’ve made my cut.

Or if I’m just buying and selling something I there’s nothing better than seeing a guy customer just with a big smile on their face when they’re happy about making a purchase. And oftentimes I’ll joke around people that say what do you do for a living? They’ll say I’m a happiness dealer. Like what do you mean is it well, I make people happy. Do you do you drug dealer? I said, No, I’m not a drug dealer. But in a sense, comic books can be an addiction. I sell comic books, I sell recycled paper. Or I’m recycling paper, old paper. So you see this, this kind of interesting way of developing a rapport relationship with people. And last I’ve got clients for over 30 years.

Isaac
Wow, that’s incredible. Yeah, that’s a it’s such a great insight that you know, the the deal, the sale, may get you a step ahead in the near term, but like, your reputation, will live with you for your entire career for your entire life. And optimizing for that reputation while building an empire is really powerful.

I want to I want to bring it home with a, with a final question for you. And something that I think is relevant to, you know, all of our listeners and everybody, everybody who’s trying to pursue a career or be building an empire that is meaningful and enjoyable to them, at some point is going to come to a moment, like a moment that you experienced. Where you decide, I think this is the path that’s right for me. And somebody in your life, and usually people that love and care and you know, you respect and they love and want the best for you. They give you some shit about it. Right?

And so in this case, when you’re when your parents were like, what, no, earlier you said about your dad, telling you, you know, I didn’t pay for you to go to college for you to do this. What do you tell people for those moments when, you know, people look at you and say, you just went and got a college degree, you know, you’re gonna go sell comics and be building an empire? You know, even if you can make more money, there’s maybe less immediate prestige, and you’re gonna you’re gonna catch some blowback. How do you resist getting into that kind of pressure and really stick with what you know, you want to do?

Vincent
First of all, there was no no prestige in selling comic books at the time, every person, I would tell that I’d meet at a party or something. So what do you really do? That put a little chip on your shoulder. And so now, you know, you make a million dollar sale and are building an empire or you see all these superhero movies, you feel a little bit better about it. And people as soon as they know what you do they want they asked a million questions. It’s very different now.

But to get back to your question, I think one of the most important things that a person can do in their life is live life with passion, and pursue what they’re passionate about. And this doesn’t always mean Oh, you have to go to do something to make the most money. I didn’t think I was gonna, I never, I didn’t really have a idea of I’m gonna make X number of dollars.

I remember a few years into my partnership, I was very happy with the money I was making. And it grew from there. And I was happy when I wasn’t making as much money. I just I love being around comic books. The art form, I think, is the greatest American art form that there is. Um, I have an art gallery here in Manhattan, Metropolis gallery, NYC.com. And we, we do art shows, with famous comic book artists. And it’s just a beautiful thing for me to be a part of.

I would say for people, more important than the money in your pocket is to be happy. I can’t stress enough and it’s not something that we’re taught in this society. Everything is about making money in America. Not everything, but a lot of what drives people. Isn’t it a shame that we have to get an education to get a job, we need to be great, just get an adequate education to learn. I mean, if I had just thought about, I just want to learn stuff and not worried about a job afterwards. I would have studied philosophy, theology, sociology, I love that stuff.

But I majored in business, because I thought that this would lead me somewhere. I was also I was also passionate about marketing, but not as much as these other things. I find theology, philosophy, sociology, I find those really amazing subjects. Um, but and then one other thing I would say to people out there is don’t stop your education with college or master’s. Keep learning every day. There’s always something to learn, great book to pick up something read a seminar read, to to go to, I used to go to Tony Robbins seminars, incredibly helpful, fantastic stuff.

So there’s always something and if you meet somebody that you think you can learn something from, yep, pursue it and talk to that person and pick their brains. It’s the term is called modeling, real role modeling, find a role model and model yourself after that person. So those are all great things to do. Live life with passion, go after your dreams. And have fun, really have fun.

And also one other thing I would say one other thing that I learned. Try to learn as your business grows while your building an empire, it’s very easy to have to wear a bunch of different hats. Try your best to focus on what brought you to that success level and not get caught up with all the other jobs. Now that might be difficult at certain points because you might not have the money to pay somebody to do every single thing you need them to do.

But as much as you possibly can stick with what brought you to that level, and your strengths, stick with your strengths, um, if you’re not a good bookkeeper, hire somebody to do your bookkeeping, you should not be spending your entire day to doing bookkeeping. And that sounds funny, but that get if you’re a one man operation, like I was, for a number of years, I was doing that I was doing everything myself.

A funny thing is during the pandemic, I had to kind of go back to that because nobody was allowed to work. So I was running the whole show, I had my entire staff working from home, I was the only one able to make the deposits in the bank and do everything that needed to get done. I was having stuff mailed to my home. And, and it was, it was humbling, but it was also very invigorating, because it taught me or reminded me, I should say, of what I’m capable of.

Isaac
I love it. I love it. All right, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you one last question.

Vincent
Sure.

Isaac
Which movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is your favorite?

Vincent
Alright, so I’m gonna I’m gonna give you two answers. So the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I would probably say Captain America Winter Soldier, because I just think it’s such a sensational movie. If you took out the superhero aspects of that movie, it reads like a 1970s sci fi thriller.

But my favorite Marvel movie would be the what I consider the beginning of Marvel before it became the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was Blade. I could watch that movie 100 times. That’s that the opening scene of blade is is phenomenal. It’s just get it get the goosebumps. It’s just an amazing movie. I’m excited to see what they’re gonna do with the reboot in a year or two. They’re doing one so…

Isaac
Oh my gosh, I forgot that was even Marvel. Now I gotta go back. I remember watching that when I was young. I loved Blade, I thought it was so cool. So glad you brought that up. I’m gonna have to re watch that. That’s incredible.

Vincent, thank you so much for taking the time. Man. This is absolutely awesome. Where’s the best place for people to check out what you’re up to?

Vincent
So we got MetropolisComics.com and comicconnect.com. Those are the two websites. MetropolisGalleryNYC.com is our gallery website. Right now. We don’t have an active live show yet. But we have one in the making. Hopefully that’ll be coming down the pipe soon. And we’re also on Instagram, and Facebook and Twitter. Not Tick Tock yet, but maybe soon.

Isaac
Awesome. We’ll link to all that stuff. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, man.

Vincent
My pleasure. Thanks for the great interview. I really appreciate it.

Isaac
Like what you hear? Go to crash.co and join the career revolution. Do you want to share your own career crash story? Send it directly to me at isaac@crash.co.


If you’ve got a story you’d like to share, don’t hesitate! Email Isaac at Isaac [at] Crash [dot] co.


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