Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Things I Seriously Considered Doing but Didn’t

Opening an eBay Drop-off Store

From a young age, I’ve been interested in running my own business. As a teen, I studied and dabbled in several business ideas mostly on a half-assed basis, such as various weird little mail-order businesses and selling Mason Shoes to neighbors from a catalog—and believe it or not, about a dozen people actually bought shoes from me. Also, I started a Dungeons & Dragons magazine that actually approached 1,000 in nationwide circulation, but after five issues I ran out of money and mojo. Hey, I was only fifteen.

As an adult, I’ve always worked for corporations because I don’t have any surefire ideas for businesses or much stomach for financial risk. In 2003 or 2004, however, while driving home from a vacation in Denver, I got the idea to sell used books and CDs online for other people and keep a commission, and this set me off on a real toot.

When I started exploring the idea, I found that selling stuff online for people was already an established business model and many people were already doing it. Around this time, I learned that a bunch of franchises were getting underway for a new concept called an eBay drop-off store, where you establish a physical place for people to drop off their items to be auctioned. This innovative idea intrigued me.

For a few months, I seriously looked into it. Not only did I contact the franchise company that I thought looked best, but I thoroughly read their materials and even did a conference call with them. I actually looked around for a suitable storefront to lease, and I talked to some commercial lease agents. And I looked into financing and did lots of hypothetical scenarios and number crunching. For a couple of weeks, I actually thought I was going to go for it, and I felt quite giddy.

However, I found that I couldn't get a commercial storefront lease for fewer than five years, which sounded way too long for an unproven business. Plus, I didn’t feel good about getting a second mortgage on our house. And I worried that it might turn out to be an obnoxious business to run, with old ladies bringing in their thimble collections to sell. I felt disappointed as this ambition sort of crumbled and fell away through my fingers, because I had thought this might be my doorway into a real enterprise, a career path in which I felt fully engaged and invested. But it just didn’t quite add up enough for me to take the plunge.

As it turns out, many of the eBay drop-off franchises have now closed, because it turns out that, indeed, people bring too much low-commission junk to be auctioned, and you just don’t make enough cash flow to pay the lease, labor, fees, etc. Here in Utah, I’ve personally seen three independent eBay shops open and close over the past three or four years. So I’m glad I didn’t expose my family’s finances to what was almost certain to be a business flop.

I sometimes still think that if I ever get laid off and can’t find another corporate teat to latch onto, I might try an eBay business as one of several freelance income streams. However, I would do it out of my home and make house calls, not open a physical location. And I would tell people that I auction only items that meet a certain value threshold. I don’t think I’d want to do this full time, but maybe five to ten hours a week would give me a good change of pace from writing, editing, and teaching.

To this day, while I feel genuine compassion for people whose businesses fail, I also secretly enjoy spotting a recently vacated office or storefront because it reaffirms my decision not to try something myself. Another thing holding me back is that I saw my own dad struggle financially for thirty years with his own business, and now he’s 65 and nowhere near retiring, unless he wants to end up in one of his kids' basements.

Part of me still hopes that I have the opportunity to run my own business someday. But the bottom line is that if someone gave me $100,000 right now and told me to start my own real business, I honestly have no clue what I’d do. I suppose I’ll have to be content to continue earning a corporate salary and dabbling in hobby businesses like Zarahemla Books.

Next in this series: Going for a Ph.D.

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