Strength in Numbers

Stay informed, make connections and get motivated with a little help from your friends in the eBay community.

By Mark Henricks

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When Arlen Fountain met Cindy Sorley at eBay Live! in 2005, he thought he was just making a new acquaintance with a shared interest in selling on eBay. Fountain, 41, didn't realize that their casual networking would evolve into a friendship that before long would become one of his online business's most important assets.

"She'd tell me her eBay stories, and I'd tell her mine," says Fountain (eBay User ID: fountain01), who sells approximately $125,000 worth of autos and auto parts annually on eBay. Sorley (eBay User ID: bubbacandance) had a Layton, Utah-based business selling needlework on eBay, while Fountain lived in D'Iberville, Mississippi. But the two stayed in touch with frequent phone calls.

A few months after eBay Live!, which took place in San Jose, California, in June that year, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Tornadoes and floods tied to the deadly storm killed 238 in Mississippi. Fountain's home was near the center point of Katrina's second landfall on August 29th. "On the street next to me, seven people died," Fountain recalls. "It was a bad area."

When the storm was over, Fountain had escaped injury, but his business on eBay wasn't looking so good. "The day after the hurricane, I had tons of listings that were ending, and we had no water, power or internet," Fountain says. "But my cell phone worked. I contacted Cindy Sorley and said, 'Would you do me a big favor?' She said, 'Sure.'"

Sorley's favor turned into running Fountain's business for nearly a month. Fountain gave her his passwords for eBay, PayPal and e-mail (not recommended in normal circumstances, of course). Sorley contacted all the people who had won items, paid and were waiting to receive them. She told the winners what had happened to Fountain and informed them that there would be an unavoidable delay in shipments.

The winning bidders were understanding, Fountain says. "Some of them even said to keep the money, don't bother sending the item and use that money for whatever," he says. "I did, but I also wound up sending the items to people after I got back on my feet."

Even though Fountain and Sorley were acquainted for only a couple of months before Katrina hit, the common interest they had in eBay allowed them to trust and be trusted. "We had gained such a trust in each other; I had thousands of dollars in my PayPal account and I just turned it over to her," Fountain says. "When everything was said and done, it was done correctly."

Fountain's experience highlights the value of the eBay community. Through face-to-face events such as the annual eBay Live! national gathering and countless local meetings in many communities, plus a wide assortment of online networking and community-building tools that are part of eBay, sellers are introduced to eBay, learn to run their businesses better and, sometimes, make a friend who turns out to be a lifesaver.

And the value of eBay's community isn't limited to regular sellers, or even PowerSellers, such as Fountain and Sorley. Terri Bishop (eBay User ID: learn_to_earn$), an eBay-trained Education Specialist in Austin, Texas, says she frequently taps the discussion boards on eBay for Education Specialists. Says Bishop, "That's how a lot of us keep up with what's going on with eBay and how to teach it."

Got Connections?
Taking advantage of the eBay community starts with being open to the experience of sharing what you know. Bishop, who has more than three years of experience on eBay, says you don't have to do anything to find people interested in talking to you about eBay: "When they find out you do eBay, everyone wants to talk to you about it."

The granddaddy of eBay networking events is, of course, eBay Live!. In 2007, the annual convention will be held in Boston, and eBay members like Fountain, who has attended three eBay Live! meetings, are already planning to attend.

While the classes, seminars, panels and other educational resources at eBay Live! are valuable, Fountain says being inspired by talking to other eBay members is what he's really after. "eBay Live! is more like the annual motivator," Fountain says. "There are all the different group functions, and you just network throughout the day."

Bishop always tells her students about eBay Live! and recommends they attend. But if you can't make it to Boston, odds are there's an opportunity to meet other eBay members face to face in a community near you. eBay groups are tools that help you connect with eBay members who share common interests. These member-led groups meet in online forums or in person. You can learn about groups and all the other eBay community activities discussed below by clicking on "Community" at the top of any eBay page.

Whether you join an online meeting or participate in one of the many local member-organized, face-to-face meetings, groups are a powerful way to tap into the strength of the eBay community. "It is very helpful to have a network of other people participating in eBay just to keep yourself informed and motivated," Bishop says.

You don't have to leave your computer to mine the wisdom on eBay's discussion boards. There are boards with information on eBay-specific topics such as PayPal and Skype and on specific categories, from Animals and Antiques to Vintage Clothing and Watches. Although eBay has hundreds of pages of help information, a discussion board can be the best, quickest or even the only place to find answers to some highly specific or unusual questions. "I encourage people to read and participate in those if they're having dilemmas," Bishop says.

A good relationship starts with a good introduction, and About Me is a great first step in putting a name to your eBay listings. Creating an "About Me" page lets you build trust with potential buyers and sellers similar to how you would in a brick-and-mortar store.

After you've made your introductions, check out eBay chat rooms. These virtual rooms represent another resource for connecting via live online chat. Rooms are arranged by topic, ranging from very broad--"The eBay Cafe"--to very specific--"Elvis."

eBay My World is an online publishing space where you can tell the community about your specific interests and hobbies. This page, which links from your eBay member profile, has spaces for information about what you sell, what you buy, what you collect and more.

Blogging has become an increasingly important way for businesses of all varieties to connect to customers and colleagues, and eBay blogs bring that opportunity to all eBay sellers. You don't even have to leave the eBay site to create your own eBay blog, personalize it with your name and other details and post entries with your thoughts, photos and links to other information.

Finding Your Way to eBay
Before you can take advantage of the eBay community to refine and build your business, you have to find eBay to start with. Friends and family have led countless eBay sellers to their new businesses, and one of the beneficiaries of that phenomenon is Robin Jensen (eBay User ID: robinsnest04), who sells handbags and jewelry. Jensen, 49, had tried many ventures since leaving a career in casino management to raise her daughter. They included selling through her own website, but nothing worked very well until she got a suggestion one day.

"A friend of mine in town sells on eBay," says Jensen, who lives in Las Vegas. "We've known each other for years, and a couple of ventures she'd been involved with I got involved with. My husband said, 'Liz is doing really well on eBay. Why don't you give her a call?'" Jensen decided to follow her spouse's advice and wound up accompanying her friend to a giftware buyer's show in Las Vegas. Jensen scouted the four-day show from top to bottom, and she eventually bought a small quantity of goods to try to sell on eBay. The handbags she chose didn't sell particularly well, but Jensen was hooked. She began looking for wholesalers to help her stock her eBay listings and had some success selling the products she'd sourced.

By February 2006, she'd established herself as a buyer well enough to gain entry to a large gift industry trade show in Las Vegas. Using her hard-won knowledge, she purchased a sizable quantity of goods and began listing them. "I went from selling probably 20 items a month to about 150," says Jensen, who estimates she'll do $25,000 or more her first full year on eBay.

Throughout, her friend has helped her blaze a path, and Jensen is considering following her mentor into a new area: selling clothing. Says Jensen, "I never would have done it if I hadn't called her."

A Boost for Your Business
In addition to helping start a business on eBay and sustaining it through disaster, the eBay community is a powerful way to inject growth into existing businesses. Fountain says word-of-mouth is providing him with a steady stream of high-value cars to sell as a Trading Assistant.

"I've helped enough people in my area that word has spread that I sell hard-to-sell cars on eBay," Fountain says. "In the past few months, I've sold a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, a Ferrari 308 and a $70,000 fishing boat." Fountain has gotten calls from as far away as New Orleans from people who want him to sell their cars on eBay.

Community is helping Jensen source products as well. A 16-year career working for casinos left her with numerous contacts in the industry, which have been invaluable in helping her obtain supplies of the screen-printed green felt layouts casinos use to top their gaming tables. "People love those, especially if they have 'MGM Grand' on them," says Jensen, who reports selling some specialty layouts for several hundred dollars.

Continuing to Give
Community is a two-way street, and eBay members who have traveled it one way are returning the favor to others. Jensen's friends, after noticing her success on eBay, are asking her for advice on starting a business. "I have one friend who has 250 Barbie dolls that have never been opened, including the second one that was ever made," she says. "She's starting to sell her Barbies now, and I'm helping her research the ones she wants to sell."

By now, studying what other Barbies sold for, Reserve Prices, best listing practices and other details of the doll business come as second nature to Jensen. She's more than happy to make a contribution to someone else's success on eBay--and by giving back, she's ensuring that the community on eBay will continue to grow and prosper.

For eBay sellers who have benefited from their connections as Fountain has, the eBay community is central to their businesses and their daily activities. "eBay has become more of a way of life than just a hobby or a business," Fountain says. "The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check eBay and my e-mail. And it's the same thing before I go to bed at night and throughout the day."

Related Topics

Editor's Pick

Everyone Wants to Get Close to Their Favorite Artist. Here's the Technology Making It a Reality — But Better.
The Highest-Paid, Highest-Profile People in Every Field Know This Communication Strategy
After Early Rejection From Publishers, This Author Self-Published Her Book and Sold More Than 500,000 Copies. Here's How She Did It.
Having Trouble Speaking Up in Meetings? Try This Strategy.
He Names Brands for Amazon, Meta and Forever 21, and Says This Is the Big Blank Space in the Naming Game
Business News

These Are the Most and Least Affordable Places to Retire in The U.S.

The Northeast and West Coast are the least affordable, while areas in the Mountain State region tend to be ideal for retirees on a budget.

Business News

Collapsed Silicon Valley Bank Finds a Buyer

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation announced on Sunday that First Citizens Bank had purchased all deposits and loans of the collapsed SVB that helped set off a global crisis.

Business Solutions

This Comprehensive Microsoft Excel Course Can Turn You into a Whiz for $10

Master Microsoft Excel for less than the cost of your lunch with this top-rated course.

Starting a Business

A Founder Who Bootstrapped Her Jewelry Business with Just $1,000 Now Sees 7-Figure Revenue Because She Knew Something About Her Customers Nobody Else Did

Meg Strachan, founder and CEO of lab-grown jewelry company Dorsey, personally packed and shipped every order until she hit $1 million in sales.