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How Four eBay Stars Got Started

An idea, a need, a passion, a calling--everyone has a reason for starting a business on eBay. Here are 4 entrepreneurs' stories.

Lynn Dralle got her start on eBay the way many people did in the late 1990s--she was searching for Beanie Babies to buy.

For those who are too young to remember, or for those whose pop-culture memories are fuzzy, this was a decade in which tiny, furry stuffed animals created by Ty Inc. were decreed collectible items because of their limited availability and short manufacturing lives. It was an age in which otherwise rational people were suddenly buying the stuffed animals by the dozen and occasionally paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for an individual stuffed Beanie Baby, certain they would recoup their investments tenfold. It was an age of Beanie Baby magazines, books and collectors' cases.

"They will come back again," the Palm Desert, California, entrepreneur says confidently, citing a Beanie Baby she recently saw on eBay with a bid of $1,150.

Whether Beanie Babies will be as good an investment as old coins or comic books remains to be seen, but in that period, they were a profitable venture for entrepreneurs like Dralle, who bought Beanie Babies on eBay to sell as future collectibles in her grandmother's antiques store. The experience went so well, she couldn't help but start shopping on eBay for herself. "My grandmother bought me a vase when I was 13, and I had never found another piece like it," explains Dralle, 42. "Now, I have 13 of those vases, and every time I buy one, it reminds me of my grandmother."

Silly, sublime, sentimental or strange, every entrepreneur has a story about how he or she started on eBay. While the tales are different, one plot element remains the same: eBay improved their quality of life--not to mention their income.

Nomad No More

Six years ago, Tim Siegel, then 30, was going places. Specifically, he was driving from Minnesota to Guatemala, after a friend convinced him that he could make a lot of money selling medical equipment down there. It was worth a shot. Siegel's degree in criminology had led him into a job managing telemarketers, which he considered the worst job he ever had, and then into management at a hospitality company. The upside of his second job was that he got to visit far-flung lands like Guam and Malaysia. So when a friend convinced him of the financial gains to be found selling medical equipment in Guatemala, Siegel figured he would, at the very least, get to do something he loves: travel.

True enough. But while the 3,000-mile trip by truck--and school bus--was at first an adventure, it eventually became exhausting. Siegel's friend had been right. Because Guatemala's infrastructure is so poor, those with money are willing to pay top dollar for what they need to buy. As Siegel says, "If a surgical table is worth $1,000 here, an end user in Guatemala would pay two to three times [that]. That is also true with vehicles or just about anything else. So many people currently export down there, I would guess it's very tough to make a profit now."

But not back then. Siegel would always sell his vehicle after all the goods were sold, then fly home. But it was still a challenging journey.

In 1999, the same friend suggested he try selling his merchandise on eBay, and Siegel leapt at the chance. A fetal monitor bought for $250 sold for $500, and Siegel knew he was never going back to Guatemala. Today, Siegel has an eBay-based company called Matrix Medical that sells mostly medical and dental equipment to buyers around the world, with about 5 percent of sales from other products.

Siegel hopes to eventually have his own warehouse, a bigger truck and employees. In a recent month, he brought in $36,000, and his 2005 gross sales should be just under half a million dollars.

"It's nice not risking my life driving 3,000 miles," says Siegel. "These days, I'll buy anything, because I know I can sell it. My confidence level has risen a lot. When you buy something for $500 and can sell it for $8,000, it really blows your mind. I'm sure without eBay, I'd have been successful, but it's hard to say what would have happened. Would I have kept going to Guatemala and crashed somewhere? Now I can buy something and literally have the money for it today, as opposed to waiting." And driving.

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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.

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