How This CEO Turned a Common Hobby Into a Big Business

UPDATED: July 15, 2019
PUBLISHED: July 19, 2019
Brandon Steiner

Brandon Steiner is telling the story about how he invented the everything bagel when he was 14 years old. Well, actually, he’s telling the story about his paper route. He earned 8 cents per copy delivered, and business wasn’t great with just 34 daily customers.

“What else could you do for them?” his mother asked.

That’s when he decided to start bringing each customer a bagel with their morning paper. Within a month he was making his deliveries in a shopping cart because 250 papers were too much for his bike.

That’s what led to the gig at the bagel store, making $1.50 an hour, starting at 3:30 in the morning—pretty good dough for a kid in 1973. One morning, Steiner decided to sprinkle a little of this and a little of that on a bagel and voila. Without even a pause after finishing this story, Steiner adds, “You know, bagels are hard to digest, better off staying away from them.”

It’s a typical conversation with Steiner: invaluable life lessons, a little of this and a little of that, with a somewhat unknowable direction. His mind is seemingly in constant motion.

Steiner is an incredibly successful entrepreneur who revolutionized the sports memorabilia industry, turning a venture that began in 1987 with “$4,000, a Mac computer and an intern” into Steiner Sports, specializing in helping companies use the power of sports to grow their businesses. Steiner Sports has spent over 25 years building relationships with more than 2,000 athletes, as well as the nation’s major sports leagues and teams. Steiner Sports is also the leading producer of authentic hand-signed collectibles from athletic heroes like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Peyton Manning. Steiner has traded countless baseballs and football helmets, signed jerseys, and even the infield dirt from the old Yankee Stadium.

No matter how successful you are in life, there are going to be minor losses. The more success, the more losses.

After identifying a need for professional athletes to have representation for corporate endorsements and appearances, he quickly grew his company to become an industry leader representing the top sports stars in New York.

And as one might guess, there are a million stories to go with Steiner’s success. In his third book, Living On Purpose, which released late in 2018, he opens up about hitting rock bottom after selling Steiner Sports to Omnicom Group for a reported $25 million in 2000. The lowest point came in the aftermath of what should have been the highest point.

“After putting in relentless effort and long hours to build a company and, frankly, an industry, for close to two decades, I was emotionally bankrupt after selling my company,” Steiner says. “To sustain that kind of run, I had to go to some deep, dark places emotionally, and those decisions took a toll on me.

“You need chaos before clarity, though. I went from ‘wow, I have status, I have all that money,’ to ‘what do I really have? Who am I?’ I had to step back, I had to write down goals, listen to my friends, have a self-analysis. And that’s not easy, to have your ego squashed and feel like you suck.”

Despite selling, Steiner has never stopped running the company that bears his name. Having made numerous connections with athletes while working in food service and hospitality, Steiner saw a market for corporate appearances and speaking engagements. Soon after that, the vision came for autographed memorabilia, which was a lucrative game changer.

All the success forced Steiner to change his thinking.

“I’ve always been so competitive,” he says. “If I gave up a few runs in Little League, I felt like the game was over because I didn’t throw a shutout. No matter how successful you are in life, there are going to be minor losses. The more success, the more losses. You have to brace for losing, and learn from the losses to go forward.”

Since his philosophical makeover, which really started after a Harvard Business School senior management seminar in 2002, one of his principal foundations is the knowledge that failure is part of success. It informs course corrections or even when to abandon course. Steiner says that some of the smartest business people he knows are some of the best quitters he’s ever seen.

“A lot of leaders fail at that,” he says. “They think that’s a weakness and not a strength. They think they should keep fighting for that idea when it’s obvious it’s just not working. Bail on that as quickly as possible and move on to the next idea. Ego is the enemy.”

Steiner turns 60 this June, but says he has absolutely zero plans of slowing down, from running his business, to spending more time with his wife and three kids, to supporting his beloved alma mater, Syracuse, through its Falk College Department of Sport Management, which he was instrumental in starting, and its athletic teams. The kid from Brooklyn, who now lives in Scarsdale, N.Y., has come a long way from selling newspapers and inventing bagels.

“This is pretty much where I wanted to be at this point of my life,” Steiner says. “My family is intact, my marriage has worked for 30 years, we have a functional home, my kids like me, I’m healthy. This is a pretty happy place where I am right now. I’d be a fool not to think that.”

Brandon Steiner

Related: 6 Guiding Principles to Simplify Your Entrepreneurial Journey

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by Steiner Ports: New York Sports Legends (from left to right) Mark Messier, Brandon Steiner and Mariano Rivera.

Jeff Sullivan is the editorial director at Panini America and a columnist for Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. He lives in Arlington, Texas.