How Four eBay Stars Got Started

In the Beginning

Freedom to Create

In early 2003, Hae Yoon was riding her dirt bike in the hills of Bishop, California, with her friends, enjoying the rush of the wind in her face. Far off was the highway, with a truck barreling down it, and Yoon couldn't resist trying to race it. My family shouldn't worry, Yoon thought, giddy. Riding a dirt bike is perfectly safe, as long as you know what you're doing...

Then she noticed the barbed-wire fence in front of her.

Yoon, now 32, had quit her job as a marketing manager for an event-planning company in November 2002. She was planning to start her own business in the yoga industry, when she discovered dirt biking isn't really perfectly safe. After a successful back surgery, Yoon moved in with her brothers, recovering and living off the money she had saved for her business. By the time she felt up to striking out on her own, it was spring 2004. She moved back to Los Angeles and attempted to reignite the business she had almost started.

She planned to produce yoga-mat bags, among other yoga-related accessories, but after spending several thousand dollars on some prototypes, she realized it was too expensive a venture to attempt--and besides, her savings were almost depleted. With Christmas coming and no career to speak of, she was beginning to feel a bit demoralized.

About that time, she found some cashmere sweaters at a great discount and started selling them on eBay just for the fun of it. "It was just something I stumbled on through a friend," says Yoon. "He mentioned a place where he got all this great merchandise for outrageous prices. I put [the sweaters] on eBay to see what would happen, and I sold out in 48 hours."

Yoon was enlightened. Yoga wasn't the answer; eBay was. She began selling women's apparel full time this January, and already, her business is on track to pull in between $300,000 and $400,000 in 2005. "The benefits have been enormous," says Yoon, whose hallway and dining room are full of inventory, though she eventually hopes to move to an office and have employees. "I want to work 10 times harder than I ever did at my previous jobs. It feels great to know you're creating something and not working on a project for somebody else."

Brick, Mortar and Morale

The 21st century had arrived, but nobody at Machinery Values felt like celebrating. In 2001, founder and CEO Gene Valitt, now 64, was afraid he would be putting up a going-out-of-business sign instead of celebrating the company's 30th anniversary. The industrial machine dealer in Harrison, New Jersey, had gone from 70 employees to 35, from making $20 million annually to less than $10 million. The way it looked, the future partners--Valitt's sons Andrew and David, 39 and 36, respectively, and Rick Lazarus, 37, who all work in various capacities at Machinery Values--had little future to look toward.

COO Art Lazarus, who had become a partner in 1995, kept trying to think of a way to stop the damage. "We went through a very difficult time--the recession, 9/11 and a three-and-a-half year period where business was really lousy in our industry," says Art, 59. "People weren't expanding, prices dropped, and our revenue dropped. We were losing money."

The breakthrough came when Art began to think about their "dead inventory," $250,000 worth of metalworks equipment and odds and ends. It was all perfectly good material, but was inexpensive enough that they could never justify spending advertising money to alert customers it was available. So they just kept collecting a warehouse full of items. "We said, 'Business is lousy, we're sitting around here--we should put people to work clearing this stuff out, cleaning it, photographing it and selling it on eBay,'" Art recalls.

Everything sold, to the point where Machinery Values was bringing in as much as $20,000 a month. Art started scrapping the catalogs they produced two or three times a year--which cost the company about $100,000 each time--and began marketing their products through eBay instead. Now, a few years later, the company brings in over $1 million a year--or about 15 percent of its sales--from eBay. Art says eBay has also introduced many customers to their business, bringing traffic into their warehouse. Counting indirect sales, Art credits eBay for bringing in 30 percent to 40 percent of business--and saving the company.

It's Good to be Home

Dralle believes eBay has saved her quality of life. And why shouldn't she? After her grandmother passed away in 2000 at the age of 88, Dralle kept the antiques store running for a while, but had to close up shop two years later. The overhead was too high, and a lifetime of memories lingered. Running the business without her grandmother around just wasn't the same. Meanwhile, Dralle had visions of working out of her house so she could be with her kids.

Today, Dralle's website links to her eBay Store, which brings in approximately $250,000 a year selling antiques. That's not even counting her earnings from her series of eBay books with titles like The 100 Best Things I've Sold on eBay. And just as she hoped, she sees her children a lot more than she ever did when she put in 50 hours a week at the store.

"Now, I take them to school and pick them up, and they know they can come in [my home office] and do their homework," she says. When they aren't in school, they can ride around with Dralle, who spends much of her time canvassing garage sales and looking for treasures she can sell on eBay. She cites a recent example of a wood carving of a bird, which she recognized as a piece of work by a master carver. She paid $2 for it, but plenty of collectors were quick to recognize its value. The top bid for the carving was $2,052. "Those are the ones that make me jump up and down," says Dralle. "Really, I'm just so happy that I can live wherever I want, and I love what I'm doing." It's one of those intangibles that nobody can put a price on.

Geoff Williams is a writer in Loveland, Ohio.

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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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