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.

By Geoff Williams

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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

For those who are too young to remember, or for those whosepop-culture memories are fuzzy, this was a decade in which tiny,furry stuffed animals created by Ty Inc. were decreed collectibleitems because of their limited availability and short manufacturinglives. It was an age in which otherwise rational people weresuddenly buying the stuffed animals by the dozen and occasionallypaying hundreds or thousands of dollars for an individual stuffedBeanie 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 sherecently saw on eBay with a bid of $1,150.

Whether Beanie Babies will be as good an investment as old coinsor comic books remains to be seen, but in that period, they were aprofitable venture for entrepreneurs like Dralle, who bought BeanieBabies on eBay to sell as future collectibles in hergrandmother's antiques store. The experience went so well, shecouldn't help but start shopping on eBay for herself. "Mygrandmother bought me a vase when I was 13, and I had never foundanother piece like it," explains Dralle, 42. "Now, I have13 of those vases, and every time I buy one, it reminds me of mygrandmother."

Silly, sublime, sentimental or strange, every entrepreneur has astory about how he or she started on eBay. While the tales aredifferent, one plot element remains the same: eBay improved theirquality 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 afriend convinced him that he could make a lot of money sellingmedical equipment down there. It was worth a shot. Siegel'sdegree in criminology had led him into a job managingtelemarketers, which he considered the worst job he ever had, andthen into management at a hospitality company. The upside of hissecond job was that he got to visit far-flung lands like Guam andMalaysia. So when a friend convinced him of the financial gains tobe found selling medical equipment in Guatemala, Siegel figured hewould, at the very least, get to do something he loves: travel.

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

But not back then. Siegel would always sell his vehicle afterall the goods were sold, then fly home. But it was still achallenging journey.

In 1999, the same friend suggested he try selling hismerchandise on eBay, and Siegel leapt at the chance. A fetalmonitor bought for $250 sold for $500, and Siegel knew he was nevergoing back to Guatemala. Today, Siegel has an eBay-based companycalled Matrix Medical that sells mostly medical anddental equipment to buyers around the world, with about 5 percentof sales from other products.

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

"It's nice not risking my life driving 3,000miles," 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, itreally blows your mind. I'm sure without eBay, I'd havebeen successful, but it's hard to say what would have happened.Would I have kept going to Guatemala and crashed somewhere? Now Ican buy something and literally have the money for it today, asopposed to waiting." And driving.

In the Beginning

Freedom to Create

In early 2003, Hae Yoon was ridingher 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 tryingto race it. My family shouldn't worry, Yoon thought, giddy.Riding a dirt bike is perfectly safe, as long as you know whatyou'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 anevent-planning company in November 2002. She was planning to starther own business in the yoga industry, when she discovered dirtbiking isn't really perfectly safe. After a successful backsurgery, Yoon moved in with her brothers, recovering and living offthe money she had saved for her business. By the time she felt upto striking out on her own, it was spring 2004. She moved back toLos Angeles and attempted to reignite the business she had almoststarted.

She planned to produce yoga-mat bags, among other yoga-relatedaccessories, but after spending several thousand dollars on someprototypes, she realized it was too expensive a venture toattempt--and besides, her savings were almost depleted. WithChristmas coming and no career to speak of, she was beginning tofeel a bit demoralized.

About that time, she found some cashmere sweaters at a greatdiscount 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 greatmerchandise for outrageous prices. I put [the sweaters] on eBay tosee what would happen, and I sold out in 48 hours."

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

Brick, Mortar and Morale

The 21st century had arrived, but nobody at MachineryValues felt like celebrating. In 2001, founder and CEO GeneValitt, now 64, was afraid he would be putting up agoing-out-of-business sign instead of celebrating the company's30th anniversary. The industrial machine dealer in Harrison, NewJersey, had gone from 70 employees to 35, from making $20 millionannually to less than $10 million. The way it looked, the futurepartners--Valitt's sons Andrew and David, 39 and 36,respectively, and Rick Lazarus, 37, who all work in variouscapacities at Machinery Values--had little future to looktoward.

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

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

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

It's Good to be Home

Dralle believes eBay has saved her quality of life. And whyshouldn't she? After her grandmother passed away in 2000 at theage of 88, Dralle kept the antiques store running for a while, buthad to close up shop two years later. The overhead was too high,and a lifetime of memories lingered. Running the business withouther grandmother around just wasn't the same. Meanwhile, Drallehad visions of working out of her house so she could be with herkids.

Today, Dralle's website links to her eBay Store, which bringsin approximately $250,000 a year selling antiques. That's noteven counting her earnings from her series of eBay books withtitles like The 100 Best Things I've Sold on eBay.And just as she hoped, she sees her children a lot more than sheever did when she put in 50 hours a week at the store.

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


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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