By Antoinette Rahn
What do technology, design, and California pottery have in common? Each is a contributing factor in Tom Johnson developing his idea for an online platform to help people find and sell antiques and vintage objects.
That platform, Ruby Lane, is celebrating 20 years of business this August. Recently, Antique Trader caught up with founder Tom Johnson to learn about the past, present, and future of Ruby Lane.
Vision Grows From Collecting Interest
Antique Trader: We understand it was an appreciation for 1950s California pottery that sparked your vision for Ruby Lane. Can you tell us more about how that evolution took shape?
Tom Johnson: Ruby Lane's humble beginning is simple: My background is mainly in technology, coming off a career at IBM, but I had a strong passion for collecting and design.
In 1998, I was collecting 1950's dishes and found it cumbersome to complete a set. Searching shops online was difficult and often proved fruitless, especially since the Internet was in its infancy. With a desire to help others find antiques and vintage collectibles via the Internet with ease, I worked together with my co-founder to launch Ruby Lane. We began at my kitchen table with nothing more than a single server and couple of computers.
The idea was to create an easy to use online community of shops that showcased only the highest quality antiques and collectibles, and made us the one-stop shopping destination for them. Starting with just one shop, Ruby Lane has steadily grown to host more than 2,000 shops today with an extensive selection of over half million vintage and antique items.
Ruby Lane Hails From Mom Ruby
AT: What type of pottery catches your eye and how did you come to enjoy this collecting interest?
TJ: Most anything from the 50's and 60's with an interesting design, pattern or form. I grew up dining on Franciscan Starburst and Red Rooster Metlox Popppytrail. My mom, Ruby, had very good taste! My grandmother had Holt Howard Roosters, which I inherited, and I was always fascinated with her spaghetti poodle collections tool; so much so our home in Florida has a poodle themed guest room.
AT: What are some of the highlights the Ruby Lane team has encountered over the past 20 years of doing business?
TJ: Working together as a collective team riding the wave of technology and ecommerce changes and advances, teaching new generations the beauty, nostalgia and quality of vintage and antique pieces. We've survived the dot com bubble of 2000, and held our place with multiple competitors coming and going the past 20 years. And wining #1 in customer service many years over our competition.
AT: Which categories offered by sellers on your site are most popular and why do you think that is the case?
TJ: Well, vintage and estate jewelry is extremely popular. Fashion statements using interesting and unique pieces is always a good seller, and in almost all cases shipping logistics is rather simple. We also have a huge vintage and antique dolls and bears following, so much that the Doll Lane has its own tagline "The Doll World's Home", and is why doll enthusiasts flock to Ruby Lane.
AT: If you were to identify five pivotal moments to occur in the antiques and collectibles marketplace during the past 20 years, what would they be and what makes them memorable?
TJ: 1. The personal computer and the Internet moving into homes.
What makes it memorable: A more level playing field now between buyers and sellers is what makes this memorable. Sellers are able to reach a larger market of buyers, but those same buyers can now quickly and easily research antiques and collectibles items, and present values.
Platforms, Population, Popularity
2. The arrival of online selling platforms like Ruby Lane.
What makes it memorable: Small shops in Kansas can sell and ship their antique or collectible goods to Japan or Australia. Or an antique dealer in New Zealand can ship to Texas. Twenty years ago many who do that through Ruby Lane now with regularity would never have guessed they would be, or how easy it would be to do.
3. Downsizing of an aging population.
What makes it memorable: The influx into the market all at once of the contents of the homes of a lot of passionate collectors has often impacted prices in everything from porcelain dinnerware to furniture.
4. Changing tastes in interior design.
What makes it memorable: Well made furniture pieces of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries considered components in investment portfolios lost value, while prices for Mid-Century modern and newer furniture with designer names have skyrocketed.
5. The Supreme Court's recent ruling that will make it easier for states to require collection of sales taxes by online retailers.
What makes it memorable: Many Mom and Pop antiques and collectibles online sellers are worried the complexity of compliance will eventually chase them out of the business they've come to love. Ruby Lane is committed to helping our dealers through this major change.
AT: What sets Ruby Lane sellers apart from those on other platforms?
TJ: Our sellers are extremely knowledgeable, well respected in their fields, with sophisticated and savvy knowledge of the vintage and antique marketplace. Since Ruby Lane is a vetted site, our sellers only sell authentic pieces so they easily stand out from most other platforms that have no guidelines nor vetting. Our sellers also know that since the company has no outside investors or stockholders, we have their best interests in mind all the time.
AT: Looking ahead to the next five years, what are a few goals you'd like to achieve through Ruby Lane?
TJ: I'd want to increase the depth of our inventory by adding more quality dealers, to give our buyers more choices and a richer buying experience. We also strive to be the #1 marketplace in all categories for selling online.
AT: How would you finish this sentence: One thing that makes the field of antiques and collectibles exciting is......
TJ: The neverending unique, interesting and fascinating discoveries you can make, especially those finds that relate directly to your childhood memories.
AT: What's one piece of advice you'd share with your 10-year-old self?
TJ: Find something you are passionate about and work hard to form that passion into a successful business.
Tom Johnson's Three Keys to Great Business
- Listen to your customers.
- Trust your gut and avoid outside distractions that could take you off course.
- Use technology to your advantage.