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.

By Geoff Williams

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Where do eBay entrepreneurs get the ideas for their businesses?What is it really like to run an eBay business day-to-day? WhileeBay entrepreneurs may follow different routes to success, they allhave one factor in common: eBay has transformed their lives in waysthey wouldn't have dreamed possible when they first launchedtheir businesses. Meet three eBay entrepreneurs who are living theAmerican Dream. Perhaps their stories will inspire you to dreambig, too.

Orchestrating Destiny

Vital Stats: You know Madonna and Cher go by their firstnames only. Now meet Richard. He's 46.
Company: The name of his Long Island, New York-basedbusiness is also his e-mail address: ""(eBay User ID: richietman). Richard sells antique violins, which hepersonally restores.
2004 Projected Sales: $100,000

Richard appreciates anonymity. When he used to sell antiqueviolins, people would come to his New York City house, and while"most of them were nice, some of them made me feeluncomfortable," says Richard. "One guy didn't seem tohave taken a bath. And another was actually drawing flies. That wasa little disconcerting. But eBay keeps you away fromthat."

Richard has requested that his last name not be published, andhe has reasons for wanting his privacy. For one thing, although hecheerfully obliged to be in a photo shoot, he doesn't feel likeshouting 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 andkept his career as an attorney for five years. But when the tumorreturned and he had to undergo radiation treatment, Richard knew hehad to leave the law profession. "If you know anything aboutbrain tumors, the radiation really knocks the crap out ofyou," he says.

For about eight months, Richard was in a self-described La-LaLand, but by 2001 and 2002, he had more energy and focus-despitethe tumor being very much active. His wife has a comfortable careeron Wall Street, so Richard didn't feel forced to start abusiness. But he had been restoring and selling violins for years,and had even sold a few on eBay. So he decided to turn violins intoa full-fledged business.

He typically ships seven or eight violins per month, which cansell for hundreds to thousands of dollars each. The rest of thetime, he's searching for violins that need a little or a lot ofTLC. Some violins Richard gives away if they aren't worthrestoring but are too good for the trash bin. For instance, earlierthis year, he sent one to a school in Beijing.

Restoring violins is a for-profit business, but it's also amission and a lifestyle. Richard's workday usually begins at 9a.m. after dropping his son off at school, and it ends afterpicking him up. His 7-year-old son, Kevin, has autism and needs alot of special attention. "He's really my primaryfocus," says Richard. "My entire day revolves aroundhim."

That's why eBay has been a good fit-it suits a variety oflifestyles. "If you have a particular interest in an area, andif you have an expertise, you can either make money or enjoy the[trade-offs], like spending more time with your son. And you learnnew things and find new interests. It can be veryexciting."

And for as long as he is able, Richard plans to keep learningand enjoying his dual roles as entrepreneur and Mr. Mom.

And . . . Action!

Vital Stats: Crystal Holt, 36, vice president, and StevenHolt, 46, CEO
Company: Movie Magic USA, based in Denison, Iowa (eBay UserID: moviemagicusa). The company sells videos and DVDs, specializingin hard-to-find, obscure favorites.
2004 Projected Sales: more than $700,000

Steven Holt grew up admiring John Wayne so much that he may haveincorporated a little of The Duke into his personality. After all,Steven became a Marine, a tough-guy career that Wayne would haveadmired. Naturally, his favorite film is a John Waynemovie--Sands of Iwo Jima. "It's the greatest Marinemovie ever made," he raves.

After the Marines, Steven fell in love with Crystal, a highschool teacher, and later married her and moved to her hometown,Denison, Iowa. He got a job with a home-warranty company, and theylived on a 180-acre farm. They had a son named Calvin, now 9. Lifewas good.

That would have been that--until Crystal attended eBayUniversity with her mother, who had started a business on eBay.Crystal thought it would be fun to open one, too, to earn extraincome. Because Steven was such a movie buff--he also lovesanything starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and VincentPrice--they decided to try selling films. They found a distributor,and in September 2002, started selling. By November, they realizedone of them had to quit his or her day job, or they would have toscale back the business.

Steven left the home-warranty industry. He says becoming anentrepreneur was "scary at first." But the way he seesit, "Your fate is in your own hands. I had never stepped outlike that. When I quit my job, we had only been doing this companyfor two months."

But he has no regrets. "I love it," says Steven, whoseoffice has been overtaken by movie memorabilia. "My biggestissue is balance. I could work on this business 24 hours a day. Ihave to fight the urge to [not] close the door."

The Holts, who first started by offering John Wayne movies, havesince gained an edge by selling relatively difficult-to-find films.At their eBay site, you'll easily find the 1980 Volkswagenclassic Herbie Goes Bananas, but not many recent films. When theystocked the three-disc Indiana Jones trilogy, it sold terribly,Steven surmises, because anybody could find it at virtually anystore in the country. The Holts buy their inventory upfront so theycan ship within 24 hours and not be dependent on theirdistributor.

Now the couple sells 3,500 to 6,000 movies a month. That's alot of movies, but then eBay is "a global marketplace,"says Steven, who has two part-time employees to help ship moviesfrom the office building behind their farmhouse. "It'sincredible. There are a kazillion people who shop oneBay."

The Holts see a lot of future growth in their company and planto soon transition their two part-time employees into full-timepositions. Last year, the couple tried taking a two-week vacationand admit it was almost a disaster; they were backlogged withorders when they returned. But by training their employees to fillin, the Holts will be able to take sick and vacation days.

They're also grateful for the assistance they receive in theeBay community. Not only does eBay send them tips through e-mail onhow they can market themselves better and bring in more sales, butthey also receive advice from other sellers and customers on eBay."That's the difference between eBay and other types ofonline auction sites," says Crystal. "It's like atraditional community, even if you may not ever see the peopleyou're doing business with. But people here just seem so muchfriendlier than they do in other parts of the Internet. Whateveryour questions and concerns are, the people on eBay are nice, funpeople who genuinely want to help, and we all give each otheradvice."

Whatever business you go into, sell what you love, urgesCrystal, who, when she isn't teaching, focuses on the customerservice end of the business-writing or calling people who havequestions. "That's what makes it rewarding. Having abusiness isn't like you see it on infomercials, whereyou're sitting on the beach sipping a mai tai. That'sunrealistic," Crystal says. "You're not going to haveto work, work, work, but you're going to have to work. But thenice thing is that you can take off to have lunch with your kid andnot worry about exactly when you're getting back, and you makeyour own hours."

Then there are the intangibles. "Everybody has a favoritemovie," says Crystal, who favors Rock Hudson and Doris Dayfilms. "We've received e-mails from people who tell usthey bought a movie from us because it was the last film theywatched with their father or grandmother, or because they wanttheir child to see a movie they loved as a kid. It makes you feelgood that you're making a difference in somebody'slife."

A New Start

Vital Stats: Diane Bingham, 40, CEO, and Michael Bingham,53, vice president
Company: (eBay User ID: fromglobaltoyou) is the Web site storefront name; the company is KDMSales & Design, based in Provo, Utah. KDM stands for"kids," "Diane" and "Mike," and sellshigh-end antiques--much of it furniture--from around theworld.
2004 Projected Sales: more than $4 million

It wasn't their last $20, but it felt like it. In 1998, then34, Diane Bingham had recently exited an alcohol rehab center. Sherecalls that she was about 18 when she first had a drink, and for along time, she was simply a social drinker. But in her late 20s, itbecame a problem.

"I didn't know how to stop," says Diane. She andMichael spent their life savings "to save [my] life," shesays. They didn't have health insurance. "We spent everypenny we had," Diane adds. "I had a lot of guilt overthat." It didn't help when Michael had his own healthcrisis and needed an emergency triple-bypass operation. His lifewas saved, and so was Diane's, but with their financialsituation in tatters, their future looked grim.

Diane wanted to bring some income into the family, yet stay athome with their five children. Her father was an antiques dealer,and Diane liked to search flea markets and auctions for rareantiques and sell them to the general public. When she told this toMichael, who earned $10 an hour at a local hardware store, he gaveher $20.

"Hey, see what you can do," he said.

"I'm serious," said Diane. "Never challenge awoman."

Michael laughed.

That made Diane more determined. She drove around in a beat-uptruck, started making purchases, and then used the proceeds fromher sales to buy more items to sell to antique dealers. As shebecame more immersed in the world of antiques, she learned abouteBay, and, as she puts it, "I found heaven. That's when Isaid, '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 "nuttierthan a fruitcake," but one year later, as Michael headed towork, he observed his wife in the backyard. She was struggling topack a lime-green vinyl chair into a box.

"That's it," Michael sighed. "I'm goingto quit my job and help you."

"That's when things really started going, having bothof us working on the business," beams Diane, who offers anaside about packing that lime-green chair: "And don'tthink I wasn't making it look a little harder than itwas."

Today, Diane and Michael have a company that made $2.2 millionin 2003 and is poised to double that in 2004. "We double everyyear," says Diane, who has approximately 60 employees andcontractors, some who work in England, France and Italy.

Her secret? "I know it's a cliché, but it reallydoes boil down to passion," she says. "If you'repassionate about selling something, you will be successful."But she adds that it's also crucial to set up systems. Forinstance, the entire process of shipping has to be a system,explains Diane. "You send it to point A, you wrap it, it goesto point B, it's put on a plane, it goes to point C." Thatsystem has to run smoothly and be virtually the same in qualityevery time.

And you have to get over your intimidation about starting abusiness. "That was huge for me," says Diane, who alsoacknowledges, "I had no choice. I needed food money, I neededrent money."

Now through her work, Diane says she has sold antiques toseveral famous actors, actresses and at least one big-namedirector; but she can't divulge names, because she respects hercustomers' privacy. Still, it's another example of how farDiane has come from her former life.

Even selling antiques must feel like a quantum leap from herhigh school days, a time when she was a cheerleader who wasembarrassed that her father sold antiques for a living. "Thelast thing I wanted were ugly, gross, dusty antiques in myhouse," she says.

Those feelings are long gone.

Geoff Williams is a writer in Loveland, Ohio.

Geoff Williams

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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