Meet the Entrepreneur Who Makes a Living Selling Rare Pokémon Toys

08/07/2017 10:00 am ET Updated Aug 14, 2017

Pokémon is, without question, the most enduring video game franchise of the 1990s. This globe-spanning brand had produced 24 billion USD by 2009, and in 2016, the release of Pokémon Go doubled Nintendo’s stock prices. Since its Japanese launch in 1997, the fanbase hasn’t faded away – instead, it’s become more active, vibrant, and recruited a new generation of trainers. But with all that success, is anyone really cataloging the merchandise Nintendo releases?

That’s where Brian Grabow comes in. He started Pokevault.com in 2010, and has since curated a massive collection of rare, officially-licensed merchandise that is without rival in the online marketplace. Now living in Fukuoka, Japan, he is one of the few fans who turned their passion for Pocket Monsters into a career. Since 2000, his business Pokevault.com has completed over 60,000 orders from 35,000 customers in 60 countries. I interviewed this entrepreneur to understand more about his business model and what it’s like being one of the most famous collectors in franchise history.

Brian Grabow at an official "Pokémon Center" in Japan.

Can you tell me a little about your background?

I was born in Minnesota, USA. I graduated from Arizona State University with a business degree. I speak English, Japanese and have been studying Chinese for 3 years. I arrived in Japan on July 31, 1997.

When did you first hear about Pokémon?

Pokémon had just started in late 1996, so when I came to Japan in 1997, I hadn’t ever heard of it. Back then, I had just gotten a job teaching English to children. Some of my students showed me their Pokémon cards, figures and toys, so I eventually learned all the characters’ names. To make learning English more fun, I used the characters in my lessons and gave away small merch prizes to the winners of classroom games. Eventually, I started to buy stuff for myself, too.

When did you start Pokevault.com?

Before Pokévault, I actually had another small website and sold on eBay. I started the official website in 2010, and back then, I had no idea it would become as popular as it is today.

Why is it important for a big franchise like Pokémon to have a large vault of official merchandise?

I think its important because fans never seen to get bored of collecting. There is always something new coming out to look forward to, since that keeps people engaged. With there being so many different characters and new generations being released every few years, there is an endless amount of items to collect.

Has becoming a professional merchandise vendor changed your relationship with the franchise?

It’s made me more aware of all the products that are available. I had no idea there was so much merch until I started this business! The biggest order I have ever had was about 300 Pokémon plush toys for a retail store. I also had someone purchase about 100 different trading cards for a personal collection.

The front page of Pokevault.com

As a collector based in South Korea, I’ve seen a huge surge in knock-off merchandise, especially with plushies. How does it affect Pokevault.com?

Knock-off merchandise really hurts my business. Back in 1997, before I had a website, I sold only on eBay. But eventually there became so many knockoffs on eBay that I couldn’t sell anything anymore, so that’s the reason that I decided to start my own website with authentic items. Losing sales to knock-off merchandise hurts, but it’s also the reason that Pokévault has so many repeat customers. They know they’ll get a legitimate product.

Do knock-offs seriously hurt the industry?

Yes, they definitely do. When someone buys a knock-off, it hurts the Pokémon Center and Nintendo's sales, so they end up raising prices to make up for lost revenue. Due to the increased number of imitations, they’ve also raised prices. Some items have more than doubled in price. Because of that, I have to pay more to buy Pokémon items, so I have to increase my prices, too. It’s a lose-lose situation for everybody.

How can dedicated collectors make sure they’re not giving money to bootleggers?

I have a few videos on how to detect fakes, but its getting harder and harder to tell these days. The bootleggers are getting smarter and much better at making copies. The best way is to know they are real is to buy from someone you know. If you buy on eBay, avoid all sellers from China and Hong Kong, since 99% of the fakes originate from those places. Japanese Pokémon dolls are made in China, but not sold in China; therefore, a China-based seller would have to purchase stock in Japan, and then haul everything back home to sell. Obviously, when they are selling them for less than they cost in Japan, they are buying the factory rejects that didn’t pass through standard quality control procedures.

What challenges have you encountered running such a huge website?

There have been a few challenges along the way. There are always language barriers when dealing with customers from so many different countries. Another issue has been where to store all my inventory. As everyone knows, Japan is a country with limited space, so storage costs are very high, and there seems to never be a unit big enough to store all the items. On top of that, I have so many products in stock...remembering where I stashed everything is sometimes an intimidating task.

Inside a Pokevault.com storage room

What’s your favorite piece of merch?

This is a tough question because I have so many favorites, but I would probably have to say the Pokémon Illustrator card that I used to have. (Interviewer’s note: In 2016, this card sold for nearly $55,000 USD at Heritage Auctions.) It’s also the rarest thing I’ve ever gotten. My absolute favorite monster is Mew, though!

Have you ever met the creators? Maybe Satoshi Tajiri?

Unfortunately, I have never met any of the creators, but some of my friends have. I would love to meet them.

What makes the franchise so timeless?

It’s because the characters are so cute! And there are so many different monsters, so everybody can have a favorite Pokémon. No other animation has nearly as many iconic characters. Another factor is that Millennials grew up with the video games and cartoons; it’s been part of their life for many years. When they have children, their kids are also drawn to the franchise, which brings back childhood memories for Millennials. That’s how the fandom is being passed down. I think Pokémon teaches children a lot of valuable lessons, like the value of friendship, respecting other people, and being kind to animals. It teaches them how bad actions hurt people around us.

What’s your best memory involving the Pokémon fan community?

And I think my best memory involving the Pokémon community is how well everyone comes together in time of need. As everyone knows Japan, had the 2011 Sendai earthquake/tsunami, and then another earthquake in Kumamoto last year. With the support of the fandom, Pokévault raised over $5,500 USD for the recovery effort. We received donations from several hundred people in over fifteen countries. It was amazing to see how much kindness that people have in the Pokémon community.

Do you think the franchise will continue to succeed, even after its 21st anniversary?

Yes, I think Pokémon will be around for a long, long time. There are so many people around the world that love it. I think that even when this generation of fans gets older and stops buying merch, they will give their old collections to their kids, and so on. In Japanese Pokémon Centers, you can already see parents who are long-time fans coming into the store with their children, who are new. Pokemon will continue to be a global franchise, even after the 21st century.

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