Career

How I built a business from Lego

Cambridge mum-of-six Michelle Smith (49) is a Lego collector and trader.

As a child, I loved collecting stamps and ‘swaps’. I used to set up stalls at the end of our drive, selling my things to the neighbourhood children. My dad was in the navy and used to bring me and my two sisters amazing gifts from overseas.

My favourites were the Lego sets. Back in the ’70s, there certainly wasn’t the range we have now, but I still use every piece from back then, alongside all the new stuff.

Although I loved my Lego, I never imagined that one day I would make a living out of it! I never had enough Lego to complete a decent house and I always told myself that when I was older, I would have enough to make a mansion.

When I could build a life-sized, three-bedroom house out of Lego with en suite and garage attached that my entire family could live in, I realised things had reached the next level.

My collection – there’s now enough to fill a three-bedroom house – used to fill every nook and cranny, and every cupboard in every room, plus the garage.

I now rent rooms to keep it in.

Michelle and Murray outside their church with four of their children (from left) Jeremy, Matthew, Rebekah and Aimee.
Michelle and Murray outside their church with four of their children (from left) Jeremy, Matthew, Rebekah and Aimee.

Thankfully, I’ve moved on from selling on the street corner. Online sales are more convenient and allow me to have a life outside a traditional shop environment.

The fact that I can be involved in a broad range of voluntary community work while still generating income without having to deal with a single customer in person is very attractive.

I buy and sell Lego online by running a Trade Me store called John3.16 (the reference of my favourite Bible verse) and it’s my full-time job. How many people wake up every morning super-excited about getting to work and love every minute of their jobs?

I’ve been amazed at the number of adult fans I sell to – there’s no longer a stigma attached to it being ‘just a child’s toy’. In fact, Lego can be a fantastic investment, and has become more profitable than stocks and shares.

I love the Lego mini-figures, especially the Collectable series figures. I also started collecting the Super Heroes mini-figures when they came out, figuring it wouldn’t be too hard to collect them all. How many Super Heroes could there be? Well... Lego currently has more than 500 different Super Heroes mini-figures and it is still releasing new sets!

But, while Lego is still my passion, over the past few years, I’ve realised that material items pale in comparison to people.

My husband Murray is a pastor at Bridges Church in Cambridge. We have six kids – Jeremy (30), Tiffany (27), Sam (26), Rebekah (15), Aimee (13) and Matthew (10), and a wee granddaughter (and yes, all the kids love Lego). I home-schooled a number of our children for years, but the three younger ones are now at a Hamilton school.

Murray and I gave away our beautiful million-dollar home overlooking Lake Karapiro in 2010. We sold six scenic photos of Waipa for $25 per set, and each set bought gave people a chance to win the house. About 48,000 people bought a set of photos, raising about $1.2m. We donated the proceeds to help build a new church and community centre.

Having travelled to Africa, South America, Asia and the Pacific Islands, we’ve seen people who live in such poverty, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

We wanted to raise children to be aware that life in New Zealand is blessed. We felt one way to do that would be to take them to some of the most poverty-stricken places on the planet where we could do volunteer work together.

I took three of the kids to India for a month in 2014. We taught English, told wild stories, sang crazy songs, danced ridiculous dances, cut hair (badly), applied bandages, shared small business skills, and loved and hugged gorgeous babies and children, all the while sleeping on a concrete floor in the endless sticky heat, eating rice and dahl for breakfast, lunch and dinner, scaring off snakes with sticks and a haka, and learning how to live life Indian village-style – without a toilet!

None of the children have been put off by the hardships we experienced. They all plan to learn skills which they can then take back to India or Africa to help the less privileged. We wanted to simplify our lives and invest in others with the time and resources we have left. There have been certain times throughout my life when I have been faced with crossroads moments – when terrible things have happened – and it made me examine what was important.

Within the last two years, I’ve lost my closest friend and my older sister to cancer. It’s made me more convinced that at the end of the day, it’s not how many ‘toys’ you have that matter, but what’s important is relationships.

When I die, I want people to talk about what a good friend I was to them, how loving I was to every person I met, how kind and how generous. I don’t want to be known as that crazy lady with the ship-load of Lego!

As told to Julie Jacobson

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