What started as a way to make some extra cash turned into a hugely-profitable business for Rachael White, 44, and her husband Colin, 43, from Burnley in Lancashire. And it was all thanks to eBay.
Starting from their kitchen table the pair have forged a million-pound enterprise called Thingimijigs, selling Disney-themed items for kids .
We spoke to Rachael to find out how it all came about, the secrets of her success and what tips she has for other aspiring eBay entrepreneurs.
What were you and your husband doing before Thingimijigs?
I had spent most of my working life in retail – starting with Morrisons from college and spending eight years at BP. For the last year before starting Thingimijigs I was working for a local company on a project helping people back into employment.
After working in different supermarkets for many years, Colin was working for Skybet in their call centre.
When did you start selling on eBay?
I started using eBay in 2003, buying a few things like CDs and books. But I also sold some of my daughter's clothes that she had grown out of.
How did Thingimijigs come about?
We were looking for things for our children online. So we started to think that if we were searching the internet for things to buy for our children that other parents would be doing the same.
How did you start the business?
In 2004 we took £200, went to a wholesalers in Manchester and purchased a range to sell on eBay.
From there we ploughed the returns back into the business and looked at new ranges and more lines. Nine months after we created a separate website for Thingimijigs.
We now stock over 2,500 different products in a variety of ranges, including fancy dress costumes, pyjamas, backpacks and bags, stationery – all based around children’s characters.
How did you come up with the name Thingimijigs?
I am terrible at remembering names for things, and I always call things a 'whatsit' or a 'thingimijig'. So when we were trying to decide a name, this one jumped out at us.
Why do you think Thingimijigs took off?
E-commerce was in its infancy when we started, and many household names did not want to sell on the internet, favouring high street stores. We used our determination to succeed, combined with our retail knowledge, to capture the change in shopping moods.
eBay offered the ideal platform to start selling items, without the massive costs associated with high street stores, or promoting your own website. The eBay brand name and presence puts your products in front of millions of customers.
How long did it take before you turned a profit?
The company was in profit very quickly, as we had only invested £200 and a computer. We have always used the motto "turnover is vanity, profit is sanity". We are very mindful of the costs when we price items and look at new ranges.
Last year our company turnover was £1.3 million.
When did you quit the day job?
We officially started the business in October 2004 and by March 2005 both my husband and I decided to work full time on the business.
What’s it like being your own boss?
Working for yourself is very daunting at first – if anything goes wrong it is down to you, and you are not guaranteed a wage at the end of the month. But starting slowly and growing at a manageable pace helped us.
One of the main reasons for starting the business was to enable us to work around our family, which we have achieved.
Do your kids help out?
We now have three children: Ellie (14), Alfie (13) and Helana (9) and they love to help out.
We’ve have asked them about certain children’s characters, or about certain items – children are very honest with these things! We have also used them as models for fancy dress costumes and pyjamas, and they have helped us pack items or label bags.
Does eBay still play a role in your business?
eBay accounts for around 30% of revenues today, the rest comes from the Thingimijigs website.
So eBay plays a large part in our company – it is multinational, and we list items on several different eBay sites across the world, in several languages and several currencies.
Over 50% of our items are sold overseas. We sell quite a bit to USA, Australia, France, Germany, Israel and all across the rest of the globe.
Sites like eBay make the world seem smaller and customers are now a lot more confident buying items from retailers who are not based in the same country as them.
What have been your biggest mistakes?
Buying certain ranges that did not work, either because it was too dear for the market or we missed the trend.
Another would be purchasing different items because they are cheaper, only to find they do not work as well and cost your company more money in the long run.
What lessons did you learn the hard way?
That recommendation counts for a lot, and to not just look at the cost differential.
Also hiring staff can be very hard. When hundreds of people apply for a job vacancy, it's very hard to make the right decision. Luckily we now have a fantastic team of eight staff who all work very well together and have a great team spirit and commitment to our company.
Finally you should never be afraid to shout and ask for help, whether this be from your local Council Business Unit, or your peers on an online business forum.
What do you put your success down to?
Hardwork, determination and an ability to keep going when things get tough. We treat all customers as we would expect to be treated ourselves and grow at a managed pace.
What are your plans for the future?
We intend to grow both in range and the markets and countries that we sell in.
We moved into our lovely new warehouse to give us the space to stock new items, and the office space to be more efficient in what we do.
Rachael’s top 10 tips
Here are Rachael’s top tips for those thinking of starting their own eBay business.
1. Know your product
It’s important to start with the products you know about. If you love cars, then look at new or second-hand car parts. If vintage furniture is your passion, then you should focus on this area. Whatever it is you choose to build your business on, make sure you enjoy it as you’ll end up living and breathing the products!
2. Take it one step at a time
Rome wasn’t built in a day! World domination for your business may take a little while. Small and steady steps are fantastic as it’s better to grow slowly from a steady base than boom and bust.
It’s much better to start with a small product range that is manageable, that you have stock for and you can replenish when sold out. This way, you can invest the profit back into the business and grow at a steady pace.
3. Use clear photos and descriptions
Clear descriptions, stating things like the size of the item, the make, model, what it’s used for and what it’s limitations are all help the buyer make an informed choice.
And clear photographs, taken from different angles – preferably on a clean white background – help the buyer to decide if this is the item they want.
4. Stay on top of things
The internet is a place that never sleeps, never switches off, and doesn’t have a national Bank Holiday. So it’s important to remember, while you have listings the business is open.
No-one expects you to be at the computer 24/7, but getting into a routine is important to make sure you fit it all in.
5. Post items quickly
Customers will expect their items quickly without delay, so that they can enjoy the item they have paid for. So the quicker you can post it, the better.
6. Have a clear returns policy
Stating your returns policy clearly on your listings gives customers’ confidence in you as a company.
7. Treat customers as you want to be treated
Treat every potential customer as you would like to be treated. Be polite in emails and respond quickly and accurately to their questions.
8. Keep an eye on your cash flow
Make sure when you’re pricing items that you are pricing realistically, and considering all of your costs, such as eBay fees, PayPal fees and all postage costs.
No-one wins in a race to be the cheapest. Watch your margin while you are chasing the sale.
9. Get free business advice
Starting a business is daunting, but there is plenty of free advice out there.
We were very fortunate to have a great Business Development team in Burnley Borough Council, who pointed us in the right direction for new businesses with the local Enterprise Trust. We also joined the Federation of Small Businesses, which is a great website with lots of business templates and advice.
HMRC has free courses on PAYE, which we also found invaluable.
10. Use forums for support
Think of online forums as your work colleagues. Here you can ask for advice, look at trends and see what everyone else is having a problem with, just like you would in a large office.
eBay has its own Community Discussion Boards, where you can chat with other eBay sellers and post questions. Other sites such as tamebay.com are a fantastic wealth of information, updating you on the world of e-commerce.