For Graeme Gordon, a life-changing career move was in the cards – literally.
The co-owner of a Calgary company building card-sorting machines describes how a random attempt to organize his personal card collection sparked a remarkable business venture.
It was early in 2015 while Gordon--a mechanical engineer--was working at an oilfield drilling company in Calgary.
"It was a real bad time for the oil and gas market. The market was trending downwards," said Gordon, who started to sort his collection of several thousand Magic cards to see if there were any gems.
"It took me three days of back-to-back eight-hour days to sort my cards," said Gordon of the 'light bulb moment'.
"I said to myself; ‘If I have this problem with a small personal collection there must be businesses that are having this problem on a much larger scale.’"
Gordon contacted 200 stores in eight provinces and 30 states to see if a card-sorting machine could become a legitimate business. "There was almost universal approval,” he said.
"The writing was on the wall for our company," said Gordon, who quit the drilling company job a few months later and launched TCG Machines out of his basement. He received a $10,000 grant through Alberta Innovates (https://albertainnovates.ca/) to hire his roommate--an electrical engineer--to design the circuit board for the card-sorting machine.
By the fall of 2018 the budding entrepreneur took a functional prototype to Calgary's Phoenix Comics.
"We had a lot of trial and error, but we ran that prototype machine for two years from 2018 to 2020 and it sorted one million cards for Phoenix Comics."
Gordon said based on that success, TCG Machines received another, much larger $100,000 grant from Alberta Innovates to build eight more prototype machines that were shipped to stores across Alberta for further testing.
By 2021, the company was able to launch its final commercial version of PhyzBatch-9000. (Phyz is a variation of the word physical; Batch is a term used for sorting cards and 9000 is "a nerdy number we came up with.")
Since the launch, TCG Machines has delivered about 150 machines and sorted more than 100 million cards across the U.S. and Canada.
"We have a very healthy backlog. We have quite the wait list," said Gordon, who went from a single employee in 2021 to 17 full-time staff working inside a 2,000-sq-ft facility in southeast Calgary. Gordon, who owns the company with his former boss Dan Kusler, says there are now only three other card-sorting machines worldwide--all with different types of technology--and all are about ten times slower than PhyzBatch-9000.
"We are producing between 10 and 20 machines per month," said Gordon, adding the machines are distributed via a lease agreement with each store.
The owner of Red Claw Gaming in Edmonton recently switched out a prototype machine for the final production model.
"It's like having another staff member who I don't have to give a break to," said Dave Bibby, adding the PhyzBatch-9000 in his store runs four to five days a week for about six hours per day.
While the machine currently sorts only two types of trading cards--Magic; The Gathering and Pokémon--Gordon said plans are to expand to sports cards by next year.
"Both types of cards are a massive worldwide industry," said Gordon, adding about 2 billion new cards are produced each year by the owners of Pokémon and Magic. He said the global trading card business is worth at least $12 billion annually.
"There are billions of new cards being introduced plus the cyclical nature of old cards means they are always getting mixed up. It's important to pull out the valuable to the less valuable cards."
Still an avid Magic player, Gordon says he has no plans to put his own cards through the PhyzBatch-9000.
“My own collection is in a state of disarray in the basement,” he quips.