It can seem so daunting to read or hear about eBay millionaires and then imagine following in their mouse clicks. You think, "They must have known someone." But actually, what sounds like an exaggeration is the truth: Many eBay entrepreneurs build their empires by selling what they already own, odds and ends that end up translating into dollars and cents. They may have begun with the purpose of starting a big business, but sometimes they start small and work their way up. Meet two such eBay enterprises that began by selling little things here and there, until eventually, they were somewhere.
Taking the First Steps
Amy Mayer and Ellen Navarro (eBay User ID: expressdropchicago) were both in college--Indiana University and Boston College, respectively--when they individually began selling items on eBay.
After graduation in 2002, they met while working at a retail store in Chicago and, for most of 2003, bonded over how much they disliked their jobs and how much they liked eBay. That November, Mayer and Navarro both quit and took the plunge into selling on eBay full time.
Mayer and Navarro, now both 26, had read about entrepreneurs who were selling items on eBay for other people, serving a need for those who didn't want to deal with the hassle of taking photos, writing copy and mailing their items, and were willing to pay someone else a commission to take care of it. Their plan was to go into business as eBay Trading Assistants with a drop-off store--called Express Drop--out of Mayer's home.
But getting to the point of having a functioning business took some time. For three months before starting their Trading Assistant business, the women sold items that they either found around their homes or that they could convince a family member or friend to part with, all in the name of trying to establish themselves on eBay. Their first sale was a rare porcelain figurine made in Spain. It had a broken arm, but it still brought in about $100.
"We spent hours on each description," says Mayer, adding that Navarro in particular spent a lot of time on creative prose. "We would write these long, flowery descriptions about, say, a purse, where we'd try to get people to visualize sitting on a yacht in the Mediterranean." However, they quickly realized that simply presenting the facts--short and concise--was a more honest approach, and one that customers appreciated.
Ultimately, Mayer, Mayer's husband, Navarro and Navarro's fiancé pooled together a little less than $40,000 in savings to open their Trading Assistant business. They sell designer clothing and accessories and have three drop-off locations in Chicago--bringing in more than $1.4 million annually. They primarily sell items for luxury boutiques around the country--items these boutiques are having a hard time selling themselves. The two are doing pretty much what they did when they were rooting around in their dorms, and then homes, looking for potential merchandise to sell. Now they're just selling other people's odds and ends.
Selling Small and Making It Big
Yes, James Morrison (eBay User ID: jimpicks) is frequently asked about his time spent with legendary music band The Doors. In fact, many of his customers greet him over e-mail or on the phone with, "Hey, I thought you were dead." It's fitting that Morrison lives something of a double life. In the 1980s and the first few years of the 1990s, he owned an auction house. Twenty years later, he's selling on eBay.
He says he shut the auction house down in 1993 because he felt "it had run its course," and he kept his income going by selling antiques. He kept hearing about eBay, though, which prompted him to buy a computer in 1997, thinking he might want to visit the site. One day, he was describing a postcard he owned to a friend, who said, "That would be perfect to sell on eBay."
Morrison, now 45, was intrigued. He had a lot of collectibles and random items--like fishing lures and old postcards--around his house and garage that he couldn't bear to throw away, but there seemed to be no market for them. So Morrison followed his friend's advice and put a Christmas card on eBay. It wasn't an ordinary card--it was part of a collection of cards that John F. Kennedy had sent to mayors, "something that you send to your party faithful," explains Morrison. "But it wasn't signed by the president. There was no market for something like this, and I couldn't sell it at a real estate auction." He was planning to throw it away, but instead he put it on eBay, where it sold for $108.
Morrison was stunned. He pulled out a miscellaneous box he had stored and started pulling out items from it to sell: the fishing lures, old pocket watches that were broken, turn-of-the-century postcards. They all sold--"items that nobody around here would have [touched] with a 10-foot pole," says Morrison, still sounding amazed. One photograph of some hunters and a dog, which Morrison figured he normally would have sold for $10 or $20, brought in a few hundred dollars. Thrilled, Morrison realized he could stop selling the antique furniture that he had been moving from an auction to his truck to his home and then to someone else's home--he could sell smaller items on eBay and make more money.
Of course, that was during the 1990s, when, as Morrison says, people had been looking for various collectibles for 20 years and were so grateful to find them on eBay that they'd pay far more for them than they were worth. Nowadays, the antiques and collectibles market is "purer," says Morrison, who has made his income exclusively through eBay since 2000. He seems pleased that the market is pure, and why not? He's making between $175,000 and $200,000 a year and is even considering opening up his own storefront next year. There he can sell for other people, which he sometimes does now from his office. He's creating a brand, no-where near as well-known as The Doors, but it's still impressive, considering it began with a postcard.
Geoff Williams is a writer in Loveland, Ohio
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.