Explore Your Auctions

Once the domain of small sellers, eBay has become a valued resource for entrepreneurs.

Fifty million registered users can't all be wrong. EBay is an empire that was built on a foundation of individual sellers and raised up on the back of collectibles and antiques. But if that's all you think eBay is, then you probably haven't entered the terms "pocket PC," "printing labels" or "small business" through its search engine lately. Even the word "yak" reveals over 200 listings.

EBay isn't a cure-all for lagging business sales, and it can be a very involved and time-consuming operation. It's had its share of complaints from small businesses unhappy about fee increases and the site's policies. But eBay is still a valuable tool for many entrepreneurs, offering opportunities, such as a venue for selling excess inventory, that can help your business grow to new heights.

"We are like an e-commerce operating system for the American entrepreneur today," says John Herr, eBay's vice president and general manager. Those are big cybershoes to fill. Join us as we take a stroll around one of the most successful Web sites ever and look at how entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes can benefit from jumping aboard. Here's a chance to look before you leap.

Bidding On It

Selling on eBay is not for everyone, but the system has proved itself flexible enough to accommodate a variety of entrepreneurs. This is where we meet two very different eBayers: Judy Dunlop and Andrew P. Hortatsos.

Dunlop, 41, is a classic eBayer. The owner of Days Gone By, an antique and collectibles store in Gravenhurst, Ontario, she's used eBay to sell her goods since a friend suggested she try it out in 1998. Gravenhurst is a small bedroom community with a population of 10,000 and a slow summer season. The $30,000 her business reaps from eBay sales annually helps her through the down times--and that amount is growing steadily. "If something doesn't sell on eBay, you throw it in the store" is her philosophy.

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Find out how to discover your eBay niche and other important rules of selling in our eBay Startup Centerfor more information on running your own eBay business.

Hortatsos, 37, president of the CyberMarketing Group, which runs sunglasses retailer ShadeSaver.com, is a modern eBayer. He co-founded the company with his wife, Tracy, 36, in 1998, and they now handle 50 percent of their business on eBay. "It was probably the single most important thing we stumbled upon as far as allowing our business to grow," says Hortatsos. He buys name-brand overstock wares for the sole purpose of selling them on eBay while his online store at ShadeSaver.com is geared toward all the latest styles.

One thing Dunlop and Hortatsos have in common: They both deal in tangible goods. The services arena has never taken off in the auction marketplace. Online auction expert Dennis L. Prince, author of Online Auctions at eBay(Premier Press), has a theory: "It's one thing to inspect goods, but you can't inspect the convolutions of a brain to see if they really know what they're talking about," he says. Tiffany lamps, loose diamonds, real estate and bubble wrap sell. Landscape design or Web site building don't fare so well.

While 50 million registered users is a sea of potential customers, competition for this vast market is intense. Just as you wouldn't open up a comic book store next to an existing comic book store in the real world, you shouldn't place items up for auction if the site is already saturated with similar offerings that aren't selling well. Don't waste your time. Dunlop uses a basic rule when placing her coats, quilts or collectibles up for bid on eBay. "If I [don't think I can] sell it for my opening bid," she says, "then I don't put it on."

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This article was originally published in the January 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Explore Your Auctions.

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