How Three Entrepreneurs Triumphed on eBay
There's no one way to make it on eBay. Meet three biz owners who took very different paths to achieve eBay success.
Where do eBay entrepreneurs get the ideas for their businesses? What is it really like to run an eBay business day-to-day? While eBay entrepreneurs may follow different routes to success, they all have one factor in common: eBay has transformed their lives in ways they wouldn't have dreamed possible when they first launched their businesses. Meet three eBay entrepreneurs who are living the American Dream. Perhaps their stories will inspire you to dream big, too.
Vital Stats: You know Madonna and Cher go by their first
names only. Now meet Richard. He's 46.
Company: The name of his Long Island, New York-based business is also his e-mail address: "email@example.com" (eBay User ID: richietman). Richard sells antique violins, which he personally restores.
2004 Projected Sales: $100,000
Richard appreciates anonymity. When he used to sell antique violins, people would come to his New York City house, and while "most of them were nice, some of them made me feel uncomfortable," says Richard. "One guy didn't seem to have taken a bath. And another was actually drawing flies. That was a little disconcerting. But eBay keeps you away from that."
Richard has requested that his last name not be published, and he has reasons for wanting his privacy. For one thing, although he cheerfully obliged to be in a photo shoot, he doesn't feel like shouting from the rooftops to the entire literate world that, hey, Richard So-and-So has an incurable brain tumor.
After his diagnosis in 1995, Richard went under the knife and kept his career as an attorney for five years. But when the tumor returned and he had to undergo radiation treatment, Richard knew he had to leave the law profession. "If you know anything about brain tumors, the radiation really knocks the crap out of you," he says.
For about eight months, Richard was in a self-described La-La Land, but by 2001 and 2002, he had more energy and focus-despite the tumor being very much active. His wife has a comfortable career on Wall Street, so Richard didn't feel forced to start a business. But he had been restoring and selling violins for years, and had even sold a few on eBay. So he decided to turn violins into a full-fledged business.
He typically ships seven or eight violins per month, which can sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars each. The rest of the time, he's searching for violins that need a little or a lot of TLC. Some violins Richard gives away if they aren't worth restoring but are too good for the trash bin. For instance, earlier this year, he sent one to a school in Beijing.
Restoring violins is a for-profit business, but it's also a mission and a lifestyle. Richard's workday usually begins at 9 a.m. after dropping his son off at school, and it ends after picking him up. His 7-year-old son, Kevin, has autism and needs a lot of special attention. "He's really my primary focus," says Richard. "My entire day revolves around him."
That's why eBay has been a good fit-it suits a variety of lifestyles. "If you have a particular interest in an area, and if you have an expertise, you can either make money or enjoy the [trade-offs], like spending more time with your son. And you learn new things and find new interests. It can be very exciting."
And for as long as he is able, Richard plans to keep learning and enjoying his dual roles as entrepreneur and Mr. Mom.
And . . . Action!
Vital Stats: Crystal Holt, 36, vice president, and Steven
Holt, 46, CEO
Company: Movie Magic USA, based in Denison, Iowa (eBay User ID: moviemagicusa). The company sells videos and DVDs, specializing in hard-to-find, obscure favorites.
2004 Projected Sales: more than $700,000
Steven Holt grew up admiring John Wayne so much that he may have incorporated a little of The Duke into his personality. After all, Steven became a Marine, a tough-guy career that Wayne would have admired. Naturally, his favorite film is a John Wayne movie--Sands of Iwo Jima. "It's the greatest Marine movie ever made," he raves.
After the Marines, Steven fell in love with Crystal, a high school teacher, and later married her and moved to her hometown, Denison, Iowa. He got a job with a home-warranty company, and they lived on a 180-acre farm. They had a son named Calvin, now 9. Life was good.
That would have been that--until Crystal attended eBay University with her mother, who had started a business on eBay. Crystal thought it would be fun to open one, too, to earn extra income. Because Steven was such a movie buff--he also loves anything starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price--they decided to try selling films. They found a distributor, and in September 2002, started selling. By November, they realized one of them had to quit his or her day job, or they would have to scale back the business.
Steven left the home-warranty industry. He says becoming an entrepreneur was "scary at first." But the way he sees it, "Your fate is in your own hands. I had never stepped out like that. When I quit my job, we had only been doing this company for two months."
But he has no regrets. "I love it," says Steven, whose office has been overtaken by movie memorabilia. "My biggest issue is balance. I could work on this business 24 hours a day. I have to fight the urge to [not] close the door."
The Holts, who first started by offering John Wayne movies, have since gained an edge by selling relatively difficult-to-find films. At their eBay site, you'll easily find the 1980 Volkswagen classic Herbie Goes Bananas, but not many recent films. When they stocked the three-disc Indiana Jones trilogy, it sold terribly, Steven surmises, because anybody could find it at virtually any store in the country. The Holts buy their inventory upfront so they can ship within 24 hours and not be dependent on their distributor.
Now the couple sells 3,500 to 6,000 movies a month. That's a lot of movies, but then eBay is "a global marketplace," says Steven, who has two part-time employees to help ship movies from the office building behind their farmhouse. "It's incredible. There are a kazillion people who shop on eBay."
The Holts see a lot of future growth in their company and plan to soon transition their two part-time employees into full-time positions. Last year, the couple tried taking a two-week vacation and admit it was almost a disaster; they were backlogged with orders when they returned. But by training their employees to fill in, the Holts will be able to take sick and vacation days.
They're also grateful for the assistance they receive in the eBay community. Not only does eBay send them tips through e-mail on how they can market themselves better and bring in more sales, but they also receive advice from other sellers and customers on eBay. "That's the difference between eBay and other types of online auction sites," says Crystal. "It's like a traditional community, even if you may not ever see the people you're doing business with. But people here just seem so much friendlier than they do in other parts of the Internet. Whatever your questions and concerns are, the people on eBay are nice, fun people who genuinely want to help, and we all give each other advice."
Whatever business you go into, sell what you love, urges Crystal, who, when she isn't teaching, focuses on the customer service end of the business-writing or calling people who have questions. "That's what makes it rewarding. Having a business isn't like you see it on infomercials, where you're sitting on the beach sipping a mai tai. That's unrealistic," Crystal says. "You're not going to have to work, work, work, but you're going to have to work. But the nice thing is that you can take off to have lunch with your kid and not worry about exactly when you're getting back, and you make your own hours."
Then there are the intangibles. "Everybody has a favorite movie," says Crystal, who favors Rock Hudson and Doris Day films. "We've received e-mails from people who tell us they bought a movie from us because it was the last film they watched with their father or grandmother, or because they want their child to see a movie they loved as a kid. It makes you feel good that you're making a difference in somebody's life."
A New Start
Vital Stats: Diane Bingham, 40, CEO, and Michael Bingham,
53, vice president
Company: FromGlobalToYou.com (eBay User ID: from globaltoyou) is the Web site storefront name; the company is KDM Sales & Design, based in Provo, Utah. KDM stands for "kids," "Diane" and "Mike," and sells high-end antiques--much of it furniture--from around the world.
2004 Projected Sales: more than $4 million
It wasn't their last $20, but it felt like it. In 1998, then 34, Diane Bingham had recently exited an alcohol rehab center. She recalls that she was about 18 when she first had a drink, and for a long time, she was simply a social drinker. But in her late 20s, it became a problem.
"I didn't know how to stop," says Diane. She and Michael spent their life savings "to save [my] life," she says. They didn't have health insurance. "We spent every penny we had," Diane adds. "I had a lot of guilt over that." It didn't help when Michael had his own health crisis and needed an emergency triple-bypass operation. His life was saved, and so was Diane's, but with their financial situation in tatters, their future looked grim.
Diane wanted to bring some income into the family, yet stay at home with their five children. Her father was an antiques dealer, and Diane liked to search flea markets and auctions for rare antiques and sell them to the general public. When she told this to Michael, who earned $10 an hour at a local hardware store, he gave her $20.
"Hey, see what you can do," he said.
"I'm serious," said Diane. "Never challenge a woman."
That made Diane more determined. She drove around in a beat-up truck, started making purchases, and then used the proceeds from her sales to buy more items to sell to antique dealers. As she became more immersed in the world of antiques, she learned about eBay, and, as she puts it, "I found heaven. That's when I said, 'Why not sell on eBay?'"
She borrowed $3,000 from her father so she could buy a computer. She says her father and her husband thought she was "nuttier than a fruitcake," but one year later, as Michael headed to work, he observed his wife in the backyard. She was struggling to pack a lime-green vinyl chair into a box.
"That's it," Michael sighed. "I'm going to quit my job and help you."
"That's when things really started going, having both of us working on the business," beams Diane, who offers an aside about packing that lime-green chair: "And don't think I wasn't making it look a little harder than it was."
Today, Diane and Michael have a company that made $2.2 million in 2003 and is poised to double that in 2004. "We double every year," says Diane, who has approximately 60 employees and contractors, some who work in England, France and Italy.
Her secret? "I know it's a cliché, but it really does boil down to passion," she says. "If you're passionate about selling something, you will be successful." But she adds that it's also crucial to set up systems. For instance, the entire process of shipping has to be a system, explains Diane. "You send it to point A, you wrap it, it goes to point B, it's put on a plane, it goes to point C." That system has to run smoothly and be virtually the same in quality every time.
And you have to get over your intimidation about starting a business. "That was huge for me," says Diane, who also acknowledges, "I had no choice. I needed food money, I needed rent money."
Now through her work, Diane says she has sold antiques to several famous actors, actresses and at least one big-name director; but she can't divulge names, because she respects her customers' privacy. Still, it's another example of how far Diane has come from her former life.
Even selling antiques must feel like a quantum leap from her high school days, a time when she was a cheerleader who was embarrassed that her father sold antiques for a living. "The last thing I wanted were ugly, gross, dusty antiques in my house," she says.
Those feelings are long gone.
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.