Building My eBay Side Hustle in 2017

How can you resolve to grow a business that doesn’t scale?

Photo credit: Alan Levine, CC BY 2.0.

To survive working for a non-profit (in my case, a library) one has to concede that the raise or promotion that’ll make your financial life easier won’t be coming for years. Maybe never. Jobs turn over slowly, and when a senior position does vacate it’s as likely to be removed (a “cost-saving measure”) as it is to be filled again.

What’s an enterprising person with middle class aspirations to do?

I’ve had plenty of coworkers roam the stacks by day only to teach yoga or deliver pizza at night—and so it was that lo, these eight months ago, I too joined the gig economy. My side hustle of choice? Selling on eBay.

It started as a way to clear out some collectable books that were too valuable to donate to the library—and would have ended up in a book sale and then on a reseller’s Amazon or eBay account anyway—but it got a little . . . excessive after that.

I went on Ebay and listed every trinket and doodad I owned that 1) I didn’t need anymore, and 2) held any value. They sold—often faster than I expected them to.

The immediacy of everything, the way a stranger on the internet could see some item I once owned and then give me real money for said item, was alluring. I am nothing if not a simple creature, and hearing my phone cha-ching with every sale was downright intoxicating.

(If any budding scientists out there want to make a name for themselves, perhaps you could look into this phenomenon. Maybe recreate it in a lab using, I don’t know, some dogs and a bell? I bet that would get your name out there.)

After seeing what a few sales did for my PayPal balance, the thoughts of running my own reselling operation didn’t seem so far-fetched. After I ran out of stuff to sell, I moved on to trawling thrift stores. A few tentative purchases — some gaudily ornate vintage light switch covers — also turned a profit.

Look at me — doing business like a . . . boss? I guess I was, for the first time ever, an entrepreneur.

As the saying goes, the problem with being your own boss is having to take orders from an idiot, and I certainly wasn’t immune to that adage. A degree in English Literature and a career at a non-profit are not generally known as great ways to hone business acumen (they’re not! It’s true!), so I fumbled my way into the classic pitfall of “not accounting for how much it was going to actually cost me to sell junk on the internet.”

Turns out my slowly fattening PayPal account was largely an illusion. Even when I managed to calculate how much it’d cost me to pack and ship something correctly—I didn’t always, and I also didn’t figure out that time is money, so the 1.5 hours I spent wrapping hand-painted china dishes so they wouldn’t break in the mail was hurting my bottom line—there were other expenses that were more substantial than I first thought. At the end of the month eBay would want their cut, and if I was running my account to turn a profit (I was) at the end of the year the government would want theirs.

But I was learning, so that was something. Experience of the first-hand variety! That’s valuable, right? Thankfully my good buddy the internet was there to help fill in the gaps. At least finding information for a living prepared me for that.

As I stumbled along, building out a new vocabulary of acronyms like COGS and ROI and B2B, I found more things to sell and then I sold them. Some I made a little money on, others a lot. Some none at all. Wash, rinse, repeat.

As it turns out, all my side hustling last year amounted to the equivalent of a 20 percent raise at the day job. Not bad — but not stellar — for 10 hours of work per week. But what now? How can I improve my business for 2017?

Here’s the thing about trying to scale a one-person operation like this: it can be done, but only to a point. If I want to grow my business (I do) then that means putting in more hours. After all, it won’t sell if I don’t find it, purchase it, and put it out there.

There are problems with this, though. The more time I spend in thrift stores, the more I see other resellers. The bar of entry has never been lower. I was able to jump in there and make an impact, and I’m definitely nobody special. To make money as a reseller used to mean carrying around a huge storehouse of knowledge so that you could tell the difference between a vintage Hermes necktie (🔥🔥🔥) and a Eton of Sweden tie (💩💩💩). Now all you need is a phone to look up prices.

Not to mention Gary Vaynerchuk is out there rallying the troops and increasing my competition:

America, even at our economic lowest, is still a nation of abundance. There is a veritable river of goods out there flowing past, and while there’s more people fishing for the good stuff, with persistence it’s still possible to catch something valuable.

One way I’ve seen a lot of other resellers up their game is by leaving the $5 and $10 stuff to the n00bs and focusing exclusively on things that command higher prices. In my efforts to scale this year I’m going to investigate this approach—but it’s not like there’s suddenly going to be more high-end collectables or antiques floating through Goodwill. I’ll have to take the extra steps (and extra time) of going to auctions or trying to contact potential sources other people haven’t tapped yet.

I’ll hit a wall eventually. By that point will I be making enough to hire someone to pack and ship or list items for me? I honestly don’t know. What I do know for sure is that this business model won’t see that longed-for hockey-stick growth pattern spoken about so much by angel investors in the tech world. Reselling stuff online will never grow that way. Really, the best I can hope for is what I’ve discovered is called a “Lifestyle Business:” something that will pay the bills, but no one is under any delusions it’ll grow into the next Facebook or Target.

(You already knew what a Lifestyle Business was, didn’t you? I only just learned it. Shows how far behind I am in all this . . .)

The one thing that worries me the most about the coming year of (potential) growth is that, ultimately, I’m at the mercy of eBay. If you’ve ever spent any time reading up on the experiences of online sellers, it’s pretty obvious that a lot of not-so-nice people do their best to scam everyone in sight and eBay, for the most part, doesn’t care.

A couple of scams getting worked on the reg right now involve either trying to trick sellers with a fake message from PayPal saying an item has been paid for, then dropping the line, “I purchased this laptop for my daughter studying in Nigeria. Please ship it there.” If the seller ships to an address outside of the verified one PayPal gives them, they lose their seller protection, so they’re officially SOL. (Ha! I already knew that acronym.)

Not that the aforementioned seller protecting means much. Another scam involves exploiting this weak “protection” by ordering something and, after receiving the item, filing a false INAD (Item Not As Described) claim saying the seller is trying to scam you by sending a box of rocks instead of the iPhone 6 you ordered. (Or something like that. Like all scams there is a fair amount of variation.)

By most accounts eBay has been trying to offer a more Amazon-like customer service approach, and that means the seller, who knows full well they sent a perfectly fine iPhone, is forced to take the return, knowing a box of rocks is coming back to them. When the rocks arrive the case will get escalated within eBay’s resolution center, which, with rare exception, always sides with the buyer.

Sell enough stuff and I’ll have to deal with something similar eventually. Or I’ll have my seller’s fees raised. Or they’ll change an algorithm and no one will be able to find my listings. There are dozens of business-killing things that could be coming, and since it’s eBay’s sandbox I’m playing in I’ll either have to make nice or move along. It’s not much to inspire confidence, knowing I’m trying to build a business atop shifting sand.

Even will all that, things are still pretty good. I’m not going to — nor will I probably ever — leave my job. I have those sweet, sweet heath benefits that are so hard to come by these days. Plus a retirement account. And paid vacation time!

So I’ll keep hustling along with everyone else I see at every Goodwill in town. The only thing I know with certainty is that 2017 is going to keep rolling on, and I’ll have to roll along with it, INAD scams or not.

I’m still, at least for now, intoxicated by that cha-ching.

Jesse Knifley is a librarian from Kentucky. When he’s not supporting literacy efforts or roaming thrift stores he’s probably rearranging his book collection.

This story is part of The Billfold’s “Resolve” series.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.