February 28th, 2008
Following are excerpts from my latest “How’d you land that great job?” column for the Seattle Times and NWjobs.com, the paper’s online career center. I love Laura’s job and wanted to share with the class. Plus, we couldn’t run the photo at the left in the paper, and I didn’t want to let it go to waste…
The job: Between 1994 and 2005, Laura Michalek owned and operated four vintage furniture shops in Seattle, most notably Standard Home on Capitol Hill, which she opened in 2000. A self-professed “junker,” she’d put 60,000 miles on her car every year just trolling for antique treasure at estate sales and auctions. Somewhere along the way, she became sold on the idea of grabbing a microphone and working as a full-time auctioneer herself. Today she takes the stage at dozens of local fund-raising auctions each year, helping community and arts organizations such as Home Alive and the Center on Contemporary Art drum up hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A. I went to the Missouri Auction School in 2001 because I was inspired by auctioneers who I had seen while buying furniture for my vintage furniture shops.
Within a few months of finishing school, I was asked to help out at an antique auction house in Edmonds, which turned into a once- or twice-a-month gig, without pay. I did that for two years and developed my chant. That experience was priceless, because it’s not easy to get the actual “calling” experience that you need to develop as an auctioneer.
From there, I built my business on the side, until I decided to go full-tilt boogie — full time — in 2005. Thus, the closing of Standard Home.
Q. What exactly did auctioneer school teach you?
A. The school is actually only nine days long. It teaches you business skills, selling, chanting and ethics. Your instructors are world champions. The school I went to has a particularly strong focus on the chant, and you spend half your time there developing your chant through various exercises.
During the week, they sent us out to small auction houses in rural Missouri, in the evening, to sell. The whole town would come and watch and cheer us on. It was like free theater for the locals.
Q. What types of auctions do you do?
A. Contrary to popular belief, most auctions in this town are not black-tie galas. The average auction I do is a $100,000 fundraiser. But I do everything from a $2,000 auction to a $500,000 auction — from public schools, private schools, nonprofits, art organizations and environmental groups to big galas at downtown hotels. All of my clients have a financial need that a successful fund-raising auction alleviates. There is no posturing or fancy money sitting in the room.
Q. What advice can you give budding auctioneers?
A. Start working or volunteering at any kind of auction, just to be around them. Work the ring at an antique auction, or volunteer to check guests in at a fund-raiser. Sitting on an auction event committee, reading business books, learning how to speak in public via Toastmasters — these are all very helpful.
Learning how to ask for money is also important. Working retail is a great way to get a glimpse into the mind of the buyer. Getting nonprofit experience and understanding how the fund-raising world works is helpful too.
I also believe a formal education in auctioneering is essential. I recommend attending the Missouri Auction School and reading books such as Growing a Business by Paul Hawken and To Be of Use: The Seven Seeds of Meaningful Work by Dave Smith.
Q. What skills are essential for making a living as an auctioneer?
A. Being able to handle a tremendous amount of pressure and decision-making in a small amount of time and having a reservoir of patience are great virtues, and of course being able to shoot from the hip. I went to auction school with a small business background, a comfort speaking in front of people and a suitable personality, but it’s all for naught if you can’t actually auctioneer and sell.
Once you get the schooling, practice all the time and start selling anywhere you can, even for free. You really have to create your own opportunities. Early on in my auction career, I not only had to convince folks to have an auctioneer but an auction. At the first auction I called, each item was worth $2, but at least I was selling something.
There is no auction too big or small. I still stand in backyards selling baked goods today. And I still go and watch other auctioneers to see what I can learn from them.