Profile: Turning Over a New Leaf

Former landscaper grows thriving e-business around promotional gadgets.

by staff writer
- Apr 14, 2009

For Wayne Ali, selling on eBay wasn't meant to be a full-time career—just an activity he could do at home to help pay the bills after an economic downturn stalled his landscaping business. But the unexpected success of PromoFobs on eBay U.K. has far exceeded his expectations.

After opening his eBay Shop two years ago, business "took off like wildfire," Ali says—and now PromoFobs is a round-the-clock occupation, fulfilling an enduring demand for marketing giveaways and personalized gifts.

With the recent opening of on Auctiva Commerce, Ali looks to be pretty busy for a while to come.

"It's not the easy life I was hoping for when I gave up landscaping," he laughs.

Being an online merchant may be more time-consuming than Ali anticipated, but it's afforded him the opportunity to work a flexible schedule and spend more time with his four children, ages 10 to newborn.

He doesn't say what his annual revenue is. But since leaving the gardening service behind, the PowerSeller now enjoys brisk sales of products that include custom-printed key rings, coasters, magnets, mouse pads and pens.

Fertile ground

When Ali began researching online niches, he discovered an untapped market on eBay for customized promotional items. The idea initially came to him, he notes, because he kept seeing tchotchkes with company names and logos and thought it might be something he could turn into a home-based business.

Ali keeps an inventory of blank products and does the customization himself as orders come in

His instinct was right.

"There were a lot of people out there selling do-it-yourself items—blank key rings and things like that—but there wasn't a lot of competition for actual printed promotional products," he recalls.

Rather than work with a drop shipper, Ali keeps an inventory of blank products and does the customization himself as orders come in.

"The customer will make their purchase and then e-mail what they wanted printed on it, whether it's 10 coasters with photos or 200 key rings with their company details," he explains. "Then I'll come up with a design—something that will fit the item and will look snappy—and e-mail it back to them. If they're happy with the idea, I'll go ahead and print them up."

Because he works so closely with customers, Ali has found it fairly easy to keep his seller ratings high. But during the holiday season, a wildly profitable side venture overextended him and his performance dipped somewhat, he admits.

"I decided to expand and do letters from Father Christmas," he muses. "That really took off, and I had customers from all over. But with about 40 sales a day, my timekeeping slipped a bit."

High feedback marks and seller standards are something Ali takes great pride in—a fact that's evident by his participation in the Association of Committed eBay Sellers, a U.K.-based community that sets high performance and ethics standards for its members.

Currently, Ali's eBay customers are about evenly split between commercial and individual sales. But as he ramps up on Auctiva Commerce, he hopes to specialize in commercial and bulk orders there, and let eBay serve as a marketing channel.

"I think, ultimately, if takes off, it'll surpass my eBay Shop. Then I'll probably just use eBay as an advertising medium, where I sell smaller amounts, and use flyers to start passing customers onto Auctiva Commerce," he says.

Having an off-eBay store will allow Ali to expand his business outside the U.K.

Sowing new seeds

Having an off-eBay store will allow Ali to expand his business outside the U.K., something he's been reluctant to do on eBay, because of the extra fees for international visibility. And finding reasonably priced shipping couriers hasn't been easy, he says.

But he's noticed through Google Analytics that his new site is generating traffic from the U.S., U.K. and Australia. And he uses every eBay sale as an opportunity to promote the store.

It's not that he's unhappy on eBay. "I've found it to be quite lucrative," he says. "But there are a lot of costs involved."

At various times, Ali has considered selling on eBid and other platforms but found them lacking in some way. He missed the familiarity and convenience of listing through Auctiva, as well as the free, cross-promotional scrolling gallery.

However, the opportunity to expand worldwide was too attractive to pass up, he says.

"I saw the offer from Auctiva Commerce and jumped straight into that," he says.

Once his new site is more established, Ali plans to expand his product line, as well, to include T-shirts and mugs—a move that will require a hefty investment in specialized printing and heat-press equipment. And farther down the road, he hopes to offer laser engraving on metal products.

"I'm just hoping that having an international site will get me a little bit wider recognition," he says. "Fingers crossed; I'm optimistic."

About the Author

Auctiva staff writers constantly monitor trends and best practices of those selling on eBay and elsewhere online. They attend relevant training seminars and trade shows and regularly discuss the market with PowerSellers and other market experts.

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