Marsha Collier put her daughter through college using eBay.
"When money was due I stepped on the gas and started selling more," she says.
Collier isn't an average eBay seller, but she talks to them all the time and helps them become "PowerSellers" — an eBay designation for the best, most reliable, most praised and most successful people who offer things for sale on the site. She is the author of more than 30 books in the "For Dummies" series on eBay and e-commerce.
As people look for ways to make money in a weak economy, many are turning to the Internet. eBay reports it has 108.3 million active users — the people who are actually buying and selling on the popular auction and commerce website.
Revenue from eBay's marketplace (the buying and selling portion of the company) was $3.4 billion for the third quarter of 2012. That is 15 percent higher than the same time period last year. Generating that revenue for eBay came in part from fees it charges sellers for the $16.3 billion in items closed on the site worldwide during that period (excluding vehicles).
About 36 percent of the amount of U.S. sales on eBay comes from "top-rated sellers" — people who have set up successful online stores on eBay. Those stores have seen a 24 percent growth year over year.
Collier is the first to say, however, that people do not have to go all out and open an official eBay store online. They can just use the normal selling functionality to sell things.
"Anybody can sell and be a success," she says. "It doesn't have to be a big deal."
All it takes is hard work
Easy and difficult
eBay isn't the only way to sell online, of course. Amazon.com is an outlet for many online sellers. There are specialty websites, such as Etsy.com, which help artists market their goods. Craigslist.com takes a classifieds approach nationally. KSL.com classifieds and its new artist market andRuby.com in Salt Lake City are also part of the mix.
Kristy Braby runs two businesses out of her home in Salt Lake City. One is a home cleaning business. No need for a web store for that. The other is a two-decades-long passion for making colorful and creative jewelry.
Normally she sells her jewelry at art shows (such as the Utah Art Market on Feb. 1 and 2 at the Sugar House Garden Center in Salt Lake City), but she also wanted a place to sell online. eBay didn't quite seem to be a match for her, but Etsy.com was.
"It was just so easy," she says. "I just needed somewhere I could send people online to see my jewelry."
So KristyBrabyDesign.etsy.com was born in 2010. So far, Braby says she has had about nine sales.
"I'm kind of frustrated with promotion," she says. "But that is my own doing. Some people on Etsy are really successful. I haven't had the time to market myself. It's not Etsy, it's my doing."
Unlike opening a physical store, opening an online store doesn't take a huge outlay of cash. The risks are small and if things don't work out, the pain is less.
Begin at home
Collier says people should start with what they have in their homes.
"People have about $2,500 worth of stuff they could sell right now on eBay," she says. "You inherited your aunt's ashtray collection? Sell those. Old postcards? Sell those. Learn on the little things on how to craft your words."
Collier also says to not worry about how difficult it is to ship things. The post office has free boxes, for example, to make it easy. The key is to send things out quickly.
The next step is to start selling something familiar.
"Sell something you know about," Collier says. "You will know how to appeal to the customer, how to buy the item on sale and may even know the owner of a business who will give you a deal on the items."
She also recommends getting a state reseller's license. With that license, people can buy things at wholesale prices — like catnip toys.
Collier has two cats who, she says, went "wild," "nuts" and "crazy" over a particular catnip toy. She looked at the tag on the toy, Googled the manufacturer and, as a licensed reseller, purchased some of the toys at wholesale prices.
When she went to sell the toys on eBay, she could show pictures of her cats and tell compelling reasons why it was the best catnip toy in the history of the feline world.
"I posed with the cat," she says, "I sold those for years."
With the resale license, people can also go to gift trade shows and make direct deals.
Again, Collier cautions to start small. She says people will know they have reached a turning point in their businesses "when you and the mailman are on a first-name basis."
It is also important to remember that there are tax consequences and other business requirements to be aware of.
"Especially with how hungry states are right now for money, do not put yourself at risk," Collier says. "If you are buying dozens of items to sell, go legit."
Again, she says being successful online is something that takes time and effort.
"It is a fabulous way to make money," she says.