Ep. 79 Miles Through Time Automotive Museum – A Founder’s Story
Miles Through Time Automotive Museum – A Founder’s Story
In 2017, Sean Mathis started Miles Through Time Automotive Museum with one car, his Pop’s 1959 Cadillac Coupe De Ville. Since then he has had a wild ride, from moving locations, changing services, and juggling over a million dollars worth of exhibits.
Sean and I talk about humble beginnings, challenges, successes, and what’s in the future for Sean and Miles Through Time.
Listen or watch the full episode below:
EPISODE TRANSCRIPTION –
(transcription is auto-generated)
Sean: [00:00:00] I just wanted to create a museum that would keep the automotive history alive.
Torie: [00:00:15] Hey, everybody. Welcome to the show. I’m your host, Torie Mathis. And I’m here with the one and only Sean Mathis, Founder of Miles Through Time Automotive Museum.
Sean: [00:00:23] What’s going on?
Torie: [00:00:24] And I thought today I would ask you a couple of questions. About Miles Through Time
Sean a new business owner. How long has Miles Through Time been open
Sean: [00:00:36] Since 2017?
Torie: [00:00:37] It’s 2017. Sean has been running Miles Through Time Automotive Museum all his own idea out of his head opened from nothing. I’ll think from one car, but nothing, but there was nothing to get him started. He didn’t take over from something else. He started with zero, right from scratch.
Sean: [00:01:00] Yeah. No, no budget. And nothing,
Torie: [00:01:03] There was nothing.
Sean: [00:01:03] No, there was not even any pre-planning. There was, I had that concept to, to do it in the 20 years or so into the future. When we had more than one car. And that’s pretty much where I’d left that because there was so many other things going on that it wasn’t top of mind to really dive in and figure out all the tiny pieces that need to be figured out.
So yeah, I had no pre-planning on it whatsoever.
Torie: [00:01:29] Lots of people starting their business go through really difficult times and challenges. It’s all brand new. There are so many different things that you have to learn. When did you know that Miles Through Time is going to be successful?
Sean: [00:01:45] When did I know?
Yes. I’m an optimist, so I pretty much assumed it would be. And that’s not knowing anything about. Any of it really? I didn’t know the museum industry. I’m an automotive enthusiast in all aspects of it, but by no means, was I ever an expert in any of it? And I honestly, I just I didn’t know what I was doing, and yet I was pretty confident it would be successful if I can just do what I thought needed to be done.
Torie: [00:02:18] What was your benchmark for success?
Sean: [00:02:21] Again, really, I didn’t even know what kind of expenses I’d have to operate this kind of a thing. So in my mind, if people came in and found that there was a museum there and found joy and visiting, I take it as a win.
Torie: [00:02:39] When you had to move locations. What made you decide that was good like you, that you did for sure. Cause moving was huge. That was a big ordeal. What made you, once you knew you had to change locations, what gave you the confidence to move forward? To go to another location and start again?
Sean: [00:02:57] So we moved in at the end of 2019. I made the decision at least to move at the end of 2019. So we had a 17 and 18. We had. Almost three years of actually being open to the public. And in that time I watched how popular the museum got both in-person visits and our online presence as a brand. And I, towards the end there I pretty much knew that I was.
Bottleneck. It was like a fish in a fish tank. I just, there was no getting any bigger simply because we didn’t have the space for it. And so I knew that if we could just get bigger, if like it didn’t need to be a whole lot bigger, I just, I needed more space and the ability to do what I thought needed to be done to really hone it in as a museum. And so when the opportunity came to move into the new location, which was larger which also enabled us to be open more often, which was another issue that if the museum was open it before it meant that I was there, so I can only dedicate so much time to it and that, and again, the museum was growing to the point that it required more of me.
And I just, I didn’t necessarily have it anymore to give at that point. And so in moving, we got more space. We were able to open more. It literally checked the box for everything that I felt we needed. To get to the next level. And here we are almost a year into the new location, during a pandemic.
And it was the most successful year we’ve ever had in all the years combined was this last year, wasn’t the most successful year, both in online traffic and building the brand and awareness and physically people coming into the museum to enjoy it, which was awesome.
Torie: [00:05:00] So in moving to the new location, you actually had to raise the price of admission. Raising prices is a huge issue for so many entrepreneurs. Like it, I think is one of those things that just people get stuck at. So you had to raise your prices. What gave you the confidence to do that? And what advice could you give other business owners that, that think maybe it’s time to raise their prices?
Sean: [00:05:28] So I think it came down to value. Initially, the museum for what it was from the beginning was $5 to come in. It was so low that if you were into seeing anything that was in the museum, you’d be willing to pay $5. And so in taking that same kind of concept to the new location, I felt we provide more of a museum experience.
There’s more to see there’s more to read that, increasing the price $2 is more than justifiable. And honestly, I think we could increase it even more. But we’re not going to do that just yet because we have plans to expand even larger. And that’s where the price increase will come in. And I can already tell there’s going to be a preset we’re not going to get to where some of these like big museums, they’ve got it. It costs you $20 to get in. And then the whole family, you’re looking at a hundred bucks just to go. That’s not what miles to time will ever be. It’s still, As affordable as possible, but then at the same time, it is still a business that, although it’s a non-profit, we still need money to be able to operate.
There are display cases that need to be built. We’re constantly getting offers to purchase collections and various items if the museum had a larger budget. I’d love to be able to then get those special items that somebody who, they’re not in a position to donate to the museum.
And so their only option is to sell it, but they’d like it to be in a location like the museums that people can enjoy it. So I’d really like to be able to get to the point where we can make those things happen. And the only way to do that is by admission. And so the way to do it increasingly amounts of people that come in and increasing the admission price itself without going crazy.
So with predetermined, Phasing of the museum, knowing that I plan on making it go from, 10,000 square feet to 30,000 square feet in that transition, we’re going to offer more value, more things to see more things to read that I can then justify another small incremental increase in price, which in turn will also increase the number of people that go in. And it’ll all just balance itself out.
Torie: [00:07:46] What advice would you give to business owners that are thinking of raising their own prices?
Sean: [00:07:52] I would look at what it costs to operate their business. You want to make things as affordable as possible for your clients or customers or in my case, visitors, but at the same time you undercharge for how expensive it is to operate, you’re killing yourself slowly. And I almost experienced that in Toccoa which was where the original location of the museum was. We just, it was, $5, and the amount of people that are coming in it wasn’t adding up real quick and electricity was draining the accounts. I just paid that electricity bill.
You gotta be really aware of those kinds of things before it’s too late. So you don’t have to necessarily double prices or anything like that, and maybe you’ve got to just get more people to be aware of your business and sell more products or do something like that.
And. I mean it’s okay. Especially with inflation being an average of 3% every year like prices will go up. It’s fine. And in creating the automotive museum guide that we have automotivemuseumguide.com, which shows all the museums, automotive museums across all of North America. That was something we created to help, not only museums like Miles Through Time, which is a small museum, but other automotive museums that may be smaller than some of the larger ones like Peterson, so that visitors could find him. I saw firsthand that if somebody was willing to come into Miles Through Time, they were also going to be willing to go into another museum. And these museums only survive. If people are visiting them, it’s expensive, heat, lectures, electricity, gas, sometimes their marketing expense, whatever it is, like they have to pay for that somehow in a lot of times, it’s by people coming in there and seeing it. Some of them have, very wealthy benefactors and it’s not necessarily as important. But it’s not the mass majority of them. And recently I sent out an email to a lot of automotive museum people they’re either the founders or owners or employees of it, whatever the case may be.
And when did we start the automotive museum guide?
Torie: [00:10:11] It was started two years ago now.
Sean: [00:10:14] So it’s been a few years since we initially started it. And so going back, I’ve seen museums close, museums open. And just recently I’ve seen an increase in their admission prices. And then there was one I updated that was $4 to get in that’s now $8 to get in that I’m in across the board. A lot of them they’re raising their prices because if they don’t, their other option is closing the doors. And that’s not what you want to have to happen
Torie: [00:10:43] When you raised your prices. Did you find that there was any pushback, zero pushback, even from people that had come in because you have people that knew about you in Toccoa and then have come in again quite a few times, maybe at the new location any pushback,
Sean: [00:10:56] The only thing I got was some random ass review on Google. I think it was where they just weren’t happy with the entire experience. And so I, if it was a dollar, they wouldn’t have been happy so you think
Torie: [00:11:11] That was just somebody that was just going to complain anyway.
Sean: [00:11:14] Yeah. Yeah. That’s what I’m chalking it up to. For the most part, I get still it’s super cheap and not only is it cheap like that if somebody was able to visit frequently.
Local or semi-local or whatever the case may be, it’s designed to then get a season pass, which I think the individual season pass is $36. I, no, I have no intention of nickel and diming people all the time. So if they really want to frequent the place, that is the route they would go and then they could come seven days a week, all year long.
And totally get their money’s worth out of it. But in, in the museum world, there’s also a level of security. Like I only want certain people to go into the museum and that’s just because I want people that are actually into what they’re seeing to go in there that are going to have more respect because it’s all a minute.
It’s expensive stuff in there that belongs to people that, I’ve been to car shows where I would never go back to any of my cars. And it’s just because there are people out there that aren’t car people. And a lot of times they just, they don’t know, if you’re not a car person and you’re like, what are you talking about?
I can’t lean on against the car. Why not? If you’re a car person you’ll know, there are, buttons and belt buckles and watches and rings and oils in your fingers. Like you don’t, we don’t want those on the cars. But if you’re not a car person, you don’t even think about that kind of stuff.
So not only is now that the museums, a nonprofit admission is like our main source of generating revenue, but it also is a deterrent to just prevent just random people off the street from kinda what is this, I don’t need any of that either
Torie: [00:12:56] In the years that you’ve been open, what has been the biggest challenge?
Sean: [00:13:03] The biggest challenge hands down is just getting people to know what’s even there. That is definitely the struggle, even from a local standpoint. It seems like no matter what you do, there are still people that just, they’re not going to know it’s there. You can run ads in paper. You can. We were on a good day, Atlanta twice.
You can have the billboard. You can do all kinds of things and it’s still just people. Aren’t going to know you’re there. We have large events. It’s going to get more people, but it’s a constant, almost daily basis where someone’s I didn’t know you were here. So then it just comes down to time.
You got to keep being out there in front of people and letting people know you’re there and then give it enough time. For more and more people to know, and then have obviously a good experience in there that they wanted and tell their friends and family, Hey, this is a place you’d want to go. And even in this last year in the museum, I’ve had multiple people go in there multiple times that. Came in initially. And then they’re like, Oh my dad, or, whatever would love this place. And then they wind up coming back with their loved one or friend or whatever the case may be and seeing it all again. And, I change it. So usually when they come back, it looks different than they even saw it in the first place, which then. Puts it in their mind that Holy cow, this place changes that they’ll come back again and again, and if they got friends or family that comes into town again, that is a place to go. And it’s open every day, all year long, which was a huge drawback in Tacoma when it was at the old location. I was closed by October completely and not even open until April and that’s a lot of months.
Nothing. And that came from the amount of people that came in didn’t justify being open. I would have had to charge, a hundred bucks a person to come in, and obviously that’s not going to happen. I mean that hands down, and I know that across the board for all of the museums, probably most businesses, you just think you got to know that they’re
Torie: [00:15:06] So in starting automotive museum guide, and then in a lot of visiting automotive museums.
And I think this goes with probably a lot of small businesses, just in general, what do you see across the board for the mostly the smaller museums, some of the biggest mistakes that you see that they’re making. Changes that they could make maybe to be a little bit more successful or are there changes that they could make that would maybe get them out there a little bit more?
Sean: [00:15:32] I have seen all kinds of stuff. I’ve seen mistakes I’ve made like not being open as often as they should. And that comes from, maybe it’s. It’s the guy that’s there when he can be, call see if you can catch him, and they might be in a different situation than what I was. And that doesn’t really matter.
It’s like their collection there. But most of them, if they’re not, the Gilmore Peterson or Brumos or in one of those massive museums, they’re just, they’re not marketing their museum. They, they may or may not have a website. It may or may not be accurate. They may or may not have a Facebook page.
There’s all kinds of in adding these museums, I searched on Facebook and I searched by state on Google defined automotive museums. That is how I collected all of them. And I didn’t find all of them. I found most of them, but then some people would contact me and be like, Oh, what about this one? And this one, or I. found it some other way, because maybe they did have a Facebook page and it like, auto-populated when I was tagging another one, I’m like, Oh, what is this one? But it was not obvious to find them. And that is a major issue. And there’s some that, you could get the date on the bottom of the web, the webpage that shows when it’s updated, some of them were 10 years ago. It’s and then, and that’s the other thing is automotive museum guide is not a new concept. There are all kinds of webpages out there that list automotive museums, they’re all out of date, all completely inaccurate. Cause I scrubbed those as well to see, who else has already collected a list of museums?
That day. There it’s up and down. It’s just, then they go out of business, do one comes they close up shop and nobody knows they did. There’s all kinds of stuff out there that if you just looked at their website or their Facebook page, and didn’t like really dive into when the last post was or when the website was open, you’d think that shit was still open.
It had been closed for two years. And it’s crazy, especially in the museum world, like TripAdvisor and some of these other ones, like they’re just, they’re not there. And that, that if they would just complete everything that there was to complete, it would be so much easier to find them. So I was, I hope that the automotive museum guide at least helps a little bit because now no matter what, I forced a listing forum.
But even that I’ll do my best to keep it as updated as possible, but it’s got to take a little bit of effort from these people.
Torie: [00:18:17] If people were thinking of starting their own automotive museum, what advice would you give them?
Sean: [00:18:24] Don’t do it.
It’s down to why they would want to do it. So there’s another museum that’s near Miles Through Time and it is just the guy’s collection of cars. And when he dies, the museum’s gone, all the cars will go off to auction. So it’s cool while he’s there, but there’s no lasting effect for it. So as long as that’s which, the route you wanted to do or there’s guys that is there Muscle Car City in Florida, impressive collection, like a massive collection of muscle cars.
He got tired of it this last year and sold it all off at auction gone. So it just like why would you do it? Cause I’ve also been to some private collections where they could be museums. They’re not even though they might call them their museums. They’re just, there are their collections.
But nobody can really enjoy those. What would you want? Is there, is it because you want to say, Hey, look at all my stuff, or do you want to create something that would just be there? For me, We created Miles Through Time to outlast us. We wanted to create a legacy that hopefully Miles Through Time will always be there.
It’ll be one of those, in 20, 30 years you will refer to Miles Through Time, the same way you would, the Petersen Museum in LA that’s. That’s what I wanted. I don’t care that it’s, my collection or my, this or my that, or any of that kind of stuff. It’s, we didn’t have all this stuff. Like I said, at the beginning to just go out there and create a museum and we literally had just one car and nothing else.
But what we did have was Torie’s ability to create business digitally, whether, from the name to the logo, to the website and all of our printed materials and all that, and then it just the brick and mortar part, which is collecting cars and the time and doing all that kind of stuff.
That’s figuring it out along the road. But we created it to just keep going. There’s no, there’s really no end in sight. There’s no when I get tired of this, I’ll just sell it all. Like it’s not even mine to sell. It’s just, I just want to create a museum that would keep the automotive history alive and other people’s family heirlooms, appreciated.
And it means a lot to me with my grandpa’s car being the founding car of it. And so that, that’s why I want it to be the way Miles Through Time is that it’s there, but that’s not for everybody. So it, it depends. Do you want to create a museum or you just want to a cool place to hang out for cars?
And I will say it is a shit ton of work. It’s hard, even if you had a collection. Going back on the amount of work it takes to even get people to know you’re there. And it’s a ton of work. And it’s really not easy to do it by yourself either. So now you’ve got to get people either to volunteer and help or you’re, you’re, you gotta pay some people to help you to really get it to where it needs to be.
So I mean it’s, and I get it all the time where people are like, Oh, he’s a bunch of cool cars in there. You have no idea how much work this has taken to even get it this far. And yes, I’d love to have it even more and bigger and more stuff and more impressive, but it’s going to take time. So I would just say, make sure you realize how much work is involved and is that really what you want to do
Torie: [00:22:13] With Miles Through time? What are you most proud of?
Sean: [00:22:16] I’m proud of the whole thing really. I’ve got a guy named Troy Phillips who came into the museum when it was in Tacoma at the original location. He had nothing to do with the museum. Officially. And yet he brought in a couple cars almost from the very beginning and over the course of months of him actually being in there and enjoying the entire concept of the whole thing.
And I really got to know him. And he was on the same page as me, as far as, what our vision was for the, what the museum was. He volunteered all kinds of time and money to do things. We wound up building a service center in the original location, around a couple of pumps that were already there.
And it was actually him that with his son connected me to the new location of the museum that otherwise, I wouldn’t have even known it was going to be an option. So in transitioning, I actually brought him on board and made him an executive director of the museum, which made him, official.
And he can embrace the entire concept. And it’s because of him that we have the built-in exhibits in the museum. And I told him last week, I’m like, I can collect and play Tetris with the cars. Like I have no I can talk to people and get people to, to come on board and be a part of it. And I can play Tetris with the cars so we can make them fit.
I can not build a replica town. I can not build a fountain shop. I can’t build a replica of a Phillips 66 station. It’s not in my wheelhouse. And honestly, if it was, I don’t have time for that. So to have him be an official part of the museum and be able to bring that value to it and have those things on display.
It’s awesome. And we have, an entire town in there. There’s a general store decked out with, candy and all the stuff that you would see in a general store. Like I would have never done that. I focus on the cars and stuff that I know I can accomplish. So being, having him on there and be a part of all this and being able to create those things and then the vision that the two of us share.
To expand on what Miles Through Time is to add stuff like a movie theater, marquee, and more things. Just, there are all kinds of ideas that we have. I need him for that kind of stuff. So having him on board is that’s. That’s the best part of it.
Torie: [00:25:01] So last year you did a world record attempt where you were able to raise over $10,000 for OUR you have decided to bring raising money into the entire plan for Miles Through Time. Tell me a little bit about that.
Sean: [00:25:18] With the Dennis part specifically now with the plans that you have coming up. Oh, the plans. I’ve had a firetruck before for the museum. We no longer have the firetruck when we transitioned and from one location to another long story, not getting into it here.
But if still wanted to get another firetruck, because I think it’s really cool to have this interactive exhibit that obviously all kids love, firetrucks. Most adults love firetrucks. Like I love firetrucks it’s cool. And in the new location, we have an original fire call box and hydrant and all that stuff.
That’s right there where the fire truck will go which is outside of the museum. So which it also acts as a yeah, billboards or, Hey, go where the fire truck is like a big, shiny red truck. You can see it. So as many purposes to it. So I’m constantly looking for a firetruck. I have no budget for a fire truck, but I’m constantly looking for one.
And so I recently I found one and it was better than what most of the fire trucks I find are in the fact that it’s got brand new tires, it runs and drives, and it’s a fully functional firetruck. It’s all there shiny and pretty 1984 LA France. And so in thinking that I’m like that’s not just a firetruck that sits there on display.
We could actually use this, then we can take it to events and do things and all kinds of stuff. Like my mind starts going crazy on it. And so I was like, going back to the Guinness record like the museum didn’t make any money. Like we raised all the funds for charity. It all went to Operation Underground Railroad, although the museum and we did it.
The museum didn’t financially benefit from it directly from any of that. And that’s simply because not everybody cares to donate money to an automotive museum and I get it. But in saying that the firetruck could generate money but I like the museum doesn’t necessarily need. Like we need donations obviously, but we could do so much more with it.
So I had the idea to take this firetruck and use it to raise funds for another charity. So Miles Through Time gets the benefit of, we’ve got this cool exhibit on display and we can go to events as Miles Through Time. But the firetruck itself actually will be used to raise funds for a charity. And in this case it would be Caleb’s Cause and all this, all the money goes 100% of it goes to Caleb’s Cause.
And that the Caleb’s Cause what it does is they help families that have had sick kids. Sick kids really that, and now they’re medical bills because of that puts them in some pretty hardship situations as a Caleb’s Cause helps alleviate that financial hardship for those families that have the sick kids that may or may not have made it through.
And Torie and I were both like it’s kids, animals and veterans. Kids is at the top of the list there. And I can only imagine if we personally had to go through something like that and I found Caleb’s Cause because I go to car shows and local events and connecting to all kinds of people.
And I, I know of this charity specifically and Torie and I, we were both at a car show in Gainesville last year, where they were raising money specifically for a little girl that was sick and, Sadly as of a couple months ago, she, she didn’t make it. But they were able to raise so much funds and they do it just through car shows.
And I like, we have the resources to do so much more than just raise money through car shows. We can go to car shows and be a part of it. But being able to utilize this firetruck to then help generate more funds for this Caleb’s Cause. It’s huge. It’s nothing that we don’t have the time to go out and create some charity and do all this kind of stuff on our own when there’s already something there that exists.
And again, it’s great for Miles Through Time, but it’s even better. To help a completely separate charity from the museum. And it’s, it’s a full circle win-win especially, if the kid is there that they’re raising funds for her and we can get them in the firetruck and do all kinds of cool things and it takes the ability to go offsite from the museum and still, connect everything automotive wise together, which is, I think it’s absolutely fantastic.
Torie: [00:29:59] What are your future plans for the museum you have possible making the museum bigger? You have the firetruck. What else do you have? On your radar for Miles Through Time,
Sean: [00:30:10] We need to get those Tesla chargers installed. I got Tesla chargers that need to be installed at the museum. And then the big thing is getting the additional space.
Once we get that additional space, it takes the museum from 10,000 to 30,000 square feet. It also gives us our own dedicated entrance for vehicles. Right now it is not an ideal situation to bring vehicles in and out, but we make it work. So getting the additional space and being able to freely move vehicles in and out, whenever we need to would be a huge asset to the museum.
Plus it would give us our own dedicated restrooms and a lounge area for people to actually hang out in the museum where right now, like it’s. It’s packed full of stuff to, look at there are chairs here and there, but there isn’t really a dedicated space for it. So getting all that kind of stuff back is huge because we had a lounge area in our own restaurant rooms in the original location, which then shrunk our actual museum down to that much more.
So in the space, we have now, we don’t have any of those things, but then the museum’s larger. So it’s a give and take on all that. But I’d like, again, my vision for increasing the museum is as a pretty elaborate in my head and what it is we have the town and all that kind of stuff in the space we have now.
And the plan is to transition the entire current museum and to a permanent exhibit. So any of the vehicles that have been donated to the museum that will stay in there, long-term, we’ll build specific exhibits with them so that every picture you take is a. Instagrammable photo and then the new space will all be any of the cars that may frequent the museum, come in and out more often and have more of the turnover cars in the newer section.
But obviously, it would all be connected as one. And once I do that, we can there’s specific vintage pedal car exhibit that we have. I on the back burner, there is vintage bicycles. There’s a, there are all kinds of stuff if I just had the room for it. And honestly, if it was a hundred thousand square feet, I could fill that.
But then I think we’d wind up having some financial issues on making sure we can cover the cost and that large of a building. So I’ll be content with the 30. I think that would be an impressive museum.
Torie: [00:32:28] Awesome. So if people wanted to find you find Miles Through Time, where can they find you online and where can they find you?
Sean: [00:32:35] Miles through Time is on every social media, mainstream, social media outlet Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube Motor Society. What else is there?
Torie: [00:32:46] Your website,
Sean: [00:32:47] The website itself is Milesthroughtime.com.
Torie: [00:32:50] And then where are you located
Sean: [00:32:51] In Clarksville, 583 Grant Street, Clarkesville, Georgia.
Torie: [00:32:56] Awesome. If you are into cars, Miles Through Time is an amazing place to go and check out. Not too far from the Atlanta Metro, just about an hour out. So definitely make the trip. And if you have any questions for Sean about automotive museums or how to run an automotive museum, you can probably reach out to him on social media.
He’s always willing to take some. Questions from people. And we hope that you enjoyed this episode and we will see you on the next one.
Sean: [00:33:28] And if you’re not anywhere near Miles Through Time, you’d go to automotivemuseumguide.com and see which ones are near you. Especially if you take a road trip, you can plan around that.
Torie: [00:33:37] Awesome!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: TORIE MATHIS
Torie Mathis helps entrepreneurs get from where they are to where they want to be by working smart. She is a best-selling author, Army veteran, speaker + trainer, and your mentor to creating the business+ life you love. She has cracked the code for creating a lucrative, independent business + an amazing lifestyle. She can help you with your marketing and business growth, your clarity and purpose and help you reach your vision of success. 🙂
Torie hosts SMART AF, a show for non-techy, non-marketers looking to grow their business, with her husband Sean and is the creator of SMART AF Magazine.