The Trials And Tribulations Of The Pinball Entrepreneur
David Silverman is unlike most Americans—he has 900 antique pinball machines. At least they were his, until he transformed his collection into The National Pinball Museum in Washington, DC. It's the product of a childhood dream; but at the moment his non-profit venture is in danger of closing down (more on that later). We caught up with Silverman, 63, just long enough to learn how he combined two American pastimes: pinball gaming and entrepreneurship.
Q: How did you end up with a pinball museum?
A: My passion and hobby is collecting pinball machines. I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old. After 15 years of collecting, I very seriously decided to take those pinball machines and build a museum where people could appreciate the art and craftsmanship, the history of these pieces of American culture. I first built the museum in my own backyard for the public. After we got a lot of publicity, people helped find me a space in Georgetown Park mall.
Q: Why did you choose to make it a non-profit vs. for-profit business?
A: I didn’t want to rely on having to make money in order for it to succeed. I made sure the museum isn’t an arcade; it’s a museum. You can play and have fun, but it’s a teaching tool, too. There are classes on the history of pinball and courses on how to repair a pinball machine.
My feeling has always been to try to put pinball at a higher level of awareness than just playing the game. It’s an American icon and pastime. The first pinball machine was in France, but they were all built here after. Pop art is part of our American culture and I don’t want it to disappear.
Q: What was the process for making your hobby into a business for the public?
A: It actually progressed in a fairly orderly manner even though I hadn’t planned for it to. First, I created a website. That put us on the map. I didn’t have the museum yet, but I made it clear I was building the National Pinball Museum and posted updates. I was commissioned to install nine pinball machines related to music at the Merriweather Post Pavilion (an outdoor music venue). That created an identity for us. It was the Music Pinball Hall of Fame presented by the National Pinball Museum. That got people asking where the museum was and brought us more press. Then the Smithsonian asked me to do a lecture on the history of pinball and I curated a few pinball machines for an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. We opened first in a space I built in my backyard. People could visit every Saturday for about six hours. I had 50 games set up they could play and learn the history of pinball from me. It was a $25 donation. All that publicity led to us being offered a 14,000-square foot space in the Georgetown Park mall. We were given a two-year, rent-free lease last April. Unfortunately, we had no idea the landlord was foreclosing on the space. All of us have to leave the mall by September 15. Now we’re anxiously looking for a new location.
Q: What have you learned about turning something you love so much into a viable business?
A: I had to learn how to read a lease extremely carefully. I was really unaware of the terms of release agreement and about the loopholes. I learned how much I need a doable and reasonable business plan in terms of the costs involved. Cost is everything and there are so many hidden costs. Now I know how important it is to have a very knowledgeable lawyer who understands the leasing process. I probably wouldn’t sign a lease for less than five years again. Location is so important too, not just the interior space. You want a place that is great for walk-in traffic; that has parking and subway access, which has an identity from street level. You have to be able to determine how much space you need and then be familiar with all the restrictions. Talking to other business owners who have gone through it helped. They have so much insight into the possibilities and problems.
Q: Does passion get in the way of methodically starting a business?
A: I think passion might skew the view of what really is necessary and involved in doing things. I was offered the space so I put the cart before the horse. The financing wasn’t completely there in terms of getting grants. We started off backwards. Getting a space for nothing before we really had the way to maintain had a lot to do with passion getting in the way. Now I have people who are very talented in terms of the business end of it. I handle my expertise where I design the vision and put shows together.
Q: So what is the future of The National Pinball Museum?
A: Right now it is questionable. I’m a fairly resilient person and determined to make sure we find another place. I might not get exactly what I want. I might have to put my museum in hibernation for a while. We’ve been open seven months in this space. We didn’t predict how long it would take for it to work...We are just going to continue for now, supplementing money by having corporate parties and kids parties to keep the museum running. I’d say to really be known in the community and get fully-established we’d need two to three years.
Image credit: Justgrimes