Getting Started on eBay

Behind every eBay success story is a tale of trial and error. We'll help you skip straight ahead to the success part.

By Jacquelyn Lynn • Oct 1, 2004

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You've heard the eBay success stories, and you want to become one of them. Great! eBay has created some of the most incredible entrepreneurial success stories in the history of commerce, and the surface has barely been scratched when it comes to the profit-building potential of this popular online marketplace. There's plenty of room for you.

Whether you're starting a brand-new business or just looking for ways to grow an existing operation, you can do it on eBay. Business experience is helpful but not necessary. You'll learn as you go, and you'll be part of an extremely supportive community where people are eager to help you succeed.

So where do you begin? If you haven't done so already, start by logging on to to explore the site. "You really need to experience it," says Randy Smythe, 44, co-owner of Glacier Bay DVD (eBay User ID: glacierbaydvd) in Anaheim, California. Smythe and his partner, Michael Lehman, 41, sell DVDs exclusively on eBay. Last year, their revenue was $3.6 million; they expect to hit $7 million this year.

Set aside several hours to browse around the site. Click on all the different buttons to access and learn about eBay's various features. Read the news announcements, check out the help pages, surf the discussion boards, take the online guided tours, and study the listings. A great place to begin is with the eBay Learning Center, which offers free audio tours and online courses.

Learn all about eBay University; with sessions held across the country 30 weekends a year, eBay University is likely to come to an area near you soon. (Read more about eBay University in our "Up Front" section on page 6.) eBay is a huge site, but it's well-organized and easy to navigate. Take the time to get familiar with it before you get started, when you're not under any pressure to buy or sell.

You don't need to be registered on eBay if you just want to browse the site, but you do if you're planning to buy or sell. Registration on eBay is free, so go ahead and sign up. The most important part of the registration process is choosing your eBay User ID, which is the name by which you'll be known on eBay.

Jim "Griff" Griffith, dean of eBay Education and author of The Official eBay Bible, advises that because your User ID will be your official "handle" (you may actually become famous by it), it is crucial that you pick one that is perfect for you as well as reflective of your business. (To avoid trademark infringements, don't use eBay in your User ID.)

Time to Shop

Once you've registered, go shopping. There is no faster, easier or better way to learn how to sell on eBay than actually buying things from eBay sellers. Pay attention to everything they do-what you like, what you don't like, what appears to work and what doesn't.

eBay sellers accept a variety of payment methods, including debit and credit cards, electronic checks, money orders and personal checks. The most popular payment method is PayPal, which is an online payment service owned by eBay. There is no charge to open a PayPal Account, to pay for goods with a credit card or to debit your bank account through PayPal. Log on to www.paypal.comfor more information and to open your account.

As you explore eBay, you'll get to know some of the site's helpful features, including:

  • Icons:those little pictures in listings that indicate important things, such as whether the seller is new or a PowerSeller, or that the item would make a good gift, or that the seller accepts PayPal. (eBay icons and their meanings are listed in "Every Picture on eBay Tells a Story".)
  • Feedback:eBay's buyer and seller rating system; your feedback profile is your eBay reputation.
  • Proxy Bidding:an automatic bidding system that allows you to enter the maximum amount you are willing to pay for an item; the system monitors the item and bids on your behalf, increasing your bid by eBay's bid increment schedule until you have won the item or until another bidder places a bid higher than the maximum you set in the system.

Every page has a link to eBay's Help Center, "Policies" page and Security Center so you can get your questions answered quickly and enjoy a safe, secure trading experience.

Get Acquainted With the eBay Community

Sellers are their own bosses on eBay, working out of their homes or storefronts to reach eBay's global audience in 28 international markets including the United States.

Along the way, eBay helps its sellers build not only their businesses, but also a sense of community. Taking place 30 weekends a year, eBay Universityaccommodates 600 to 700 attendees per class, or an average of 1,400 attendees per weekend. The university offers two courses: "Selling Basics,"a day-long educational session for new sellers that teaches the basics of selling on the site, and "Beyond the Basics," a more advanced session that reveals tips and tricks that experienced sellers can use to improve their listings and increase sales. "Everyone comes with dreams of learning to sell, either by starting a new business from scratch or by expanding their existing businesses onto eBay," says Jim "Griff" Griffith, dean of eBay Education. Popular topics discussed during eBay University training sessions range from collecting sales tax to learning how to source inventory.

Forums where sellers talk to each other are constantly added to the site. At, sellers can access hundreds of announcements, join chat groups, and participate in discussion boards and question-and-answer boards where they can exchange ideas and advice with other sellers that could translate into increased sales for everyone. Sellers on eBay "take pride in helping each other," says Rachel Makool, eBay's director of community development. "It's so powerful."

eBay started a mentoring program in March that pairs established sellers with a small group of new sellers. Birgit Conlen, owner of Afternoon Daydreams (eBay User ID: afternoon-daydreams), volunteers as an online mentor teaching workshops in international selling to new sellers around the globe. "We help them with problem areas," she says. "They make you feel how much eBay is a community-run program."

Other programs held throughout the year bring sellers together in person. One such popular program is "Voices of the Community," which brings small groups of buyers and sellers together at company headquarters in San Jose, California, to brainstorm new ideas with eBay employees. "We don't just bring in top sellers. We have groups of people with different backgrounds and experiences," Makool says.

Catherine Allen, owner of Golfing Addict Sales in Bellingham, Washington (eBay User ID: golfingaddict), is a member of the "Power Chicks," an online eBay group that includes 90 women who sell on eBay full time. "Part of my success on eBay is having learned from others," says Allen. "The fun thing about eBay is that it's a real community of users. You can learn a lot just by going to the site and having discussions with other sellers."

Getting plugged into the eBay community certainly hasn't hurt Allen's bottom line: the golfing, school supply and cutlery retailer has seen her sales increase to $70,000 a year. "I can do this for the rest of my life," she says. "It's one of the best things that's ever happened to me."

eBay First Steps

Once you're familiar with ebay, you can start planning your business on eBay. Decide if your goal is a full-time operation or something you can do part time. Do you want to work from your home or set up in a commercial location? Do you want to be a one-person show or have employees? Do you want to be an eBay PowerSeller or a Trading Assistant? And, of course, what will you sell?

What to sell is often the most overwhelming question for new eBay sellers because you can sell just about anything on eBay. (There are some restrictions, such as illegal or dangerous products, weapons, and livestock; see "What You Can't Sell on eBay" for a comprehensive list). Choose a product or industry you know something about and enjoy working with. Consider issues such as how you will acquire the products you sell, where you will store them, and what will be involved in shipping them.

Before you can start selling on eBay, you need to set up a Seller's Account. This is a simple process very similar to the registration process, and includes providing eBay with sufficient information to verify your identity and your preferred method of paying seller fees.

Just as real-world auction companies charge fees and commissions for their services, seller fees are how eBay makes money to provide services to users. Seller fees vary by listing type and are generally nominal, especially compared to the costs involved in maintaining a brick-and-mortar retail store.

It's a good idea to practice selling to gain some confidence and experience with the process. You can sell items you have around the house that you don't need. eBay is a great way to get rid of gifts that just aren't right for you, or those items you thought you couldn't live without but haven't used in ages. The process will also help you figure out what equipment (computer, digital camera, scanner, packing materials, etc.) you're going to need to efficiently operate your business. You'll be able to practice taking pictures, writing headlines and product descriptions, and responding to buyer questions. If you make a mistake with one of your practice listings, it's all a part of your education.

You should also do some testing with the products you're going to sell as part of your business. "There are so many things you have to test," says Smythe. He recommends testing various listing formats, trying out the different eBay requirements and experimenting with your product mix. Before he officially launched his business on eBay, he says, "I took a year to test the concept and see what [listing] formats work best." You may not need to take that long, but build testing into your plan.

You can operate exclusively within auction-style listings, sell at a fixed price, or open an eBay Store. An eBay Store provides a consistent location for your listings and merchandise and is an excellent place to sell add-on merchandise. It's also an inexpensive and simple way to establish an e-commerce presence.

Another important part of getting started is setting up your "About Me" page, which is a free eBay feature that allows you to promote your business. Griff says he is amazed at how many eBay sellers do not take advantage of this valuable marketing tool.

Once you're up and running, don't get complacent. Pay attention to new eBay feature announcements, stay on top of your customer service, and keep an eye on your competition, as eBay is constantly changing, expanding and enhancing its services. For instance, the colorful, user-friendly pages visitors see today bear little or no resemblance to the original eBay site, which, according to Griff, was "as thrilling as a gray paper box" when the online marketplace was launched in 1995. Today's eBay is far better than it was just a year ago, and the eBay of next year will be even more powerful. Entrepreneurs have never had a tool quite like this one, so jump on board for the ride of your life.

Jacquelyn Lynn is a freelance business writer in Orlando, Florida. Chris Penttila is Entrepreneur's "Staff Smarts" columnist.

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