When Lee Ann Wright moved to Baltimore two years ago, she made plans to start a home-based business selling women's clothing through the global online marketplace of eBay.
After reading through the site's guidelines for beginners and purchasing an eBay seller's kit, Wright was intimidated by both the Web and business tasks ahead of her. So she called an eBay teacher for help.
During a four-hour class last month at her Fells Point home, Wright learned how to set up a seller's account and picked up numerous tips for starting her business on eBay.
Her teacher was Tracy Poletti, a certified eBay education specialist who is one of 1,800 worldwide, including seven in Maryland. More than 100,000 people have taken classes on how to sell items on eBay since the online giant began its own education program in 2000. And more are expected as eBay tries to build its own teaching ranks to compete in a cottage industry of independent consultants and others who have long taught entrepreneurs about mastering the site.
"As a business owner, you don't have time to sit there and learn the whole thing yourself," said Rieva Lesonsky, editorial director of Entrepreneur magazine, which publishes a guide on running a business on eBay. "It would make a lot of sense to bring those people in ... like consultants."
More than 724,000 Americans operate a business on eBay for a primary or secondary source of income, including about 15,600 in the Baltimore-Washington area, according to a survey conducted in early July by ACNielsen International Research. The number of small businesses on the site has surged 68 percent during the past two years.
Some taught themselves how to use eBay and built successful businesses without any kind of course instruction. Others learned from a relative or friend and applied their own business skills to succeed. And some have turned to eBay's certified teaching specialists and others.
Despite eBay's efforts, some consultants who teach business owners about the site are critical of the education program. They claim that it targets eBay novices and does not equip teachers with the information they need to help prospective business owners succeed.
The company trains its teachers "on [eBay] policy and not on strategy," said David A. Karp, author of eBay Hacks, who has taught advanced eBay classes despite being uncertified. The value of the program "depends more on the instructor than on certification. ... There are probably quite a few who have been certified and have no ability to teach."
EBay was launched in September 1995 to provide a global marketplace for people to buy, sell and auction goods. Since the company makes money primarily by charging listing fees and taking a cut of each sale, it's important for the online site to train instructors because "you've got to teach people how to sell a good for the highest price" said Daraius Irani, director of applied economics at Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute. "Then they [eBay] get more revenue."
Executives initiated eBay University in 2000, holding 25 to 30 seminars and an eBay Live conference annually. This summer the San Jose-based company also is staging an eight-city tour offering free classes. Co-run by local post offices, it stopped in Baltimore July 22.
Last year, eBay began training instructors. For $149, experienced eBay sellers may take an online course to be certified to teach classes on basic and advanced selling through the site. Five certified instructors reside in the Baltimore area. They charge students between $25 and $40 an hour.
Some certified teachers, such as Poletti, have expanded their course offerings to provide lessons that eBay has not licensed. For example, Poletti, of Middletown, tailors her lessons to a client's needs, making house calls and leading group classes.
She is energized by her new gig.
"I didn't want to stop working, but I wanted the flexibility to stay home with my children," said Poletti, a former software engineer. "And you can bring in a lot of money."
Certified instructor Ron Bratt also teaches eBay business classes. He heads Auction-Safari, a Columbia firm that teaches on-site group classes and travels to teach companies about eBay. Bratt also has scheduled a three-month workshop in the fall on how to develop a small business.
"What I saw was a huge, booming market," Bratt said. "It's such an exciting industry, and we're only in its infancy."
People seek eBay instruction for many reasons. Most of them don't feel comfortable using the site and are afraid of making mistakes that would harm their sales. Many are confident that all they need is some assistance.
"I don't know anything about eBay," said Richard Chase of Baltimore shortly before attending a class at the Fayette Street post office during the eBay tour's Baltimore stop. "I need somebody to teach me the first time through, then I'll get the hang of it."
Phyllis Alexander of Baltimore plans to sell artwork on eBay after absorbing a class.
"A lot of people are doing it," Alexander said. "All of those people are not rocket scientists."
Starting a small business on eBay takes more initiative than attending a class. Entrepreneurs need to master eBay and take all the steps necessary to create a business.
Ed Mattson of Towson launched E. Christian Mattson Inc. online in 1998. He earns 90 percent of roughly $200,000 in annual revenue selling antiques on eBay. He learned to master the site through the teachings of a friend.
"Once you're into it, it is easy," said Mattson, 67, a retired Baltimore police officer. "But you've got to know what you're doing."
Pawn shop owner Chris Donahoo does 40 percent of his Anchor Loan Co. business on eBay, selling more than 18,000 items, from musical instruments to electronics, on the site since 1998. Donahoo taught himself how to use eBay and developed his own business.
Donahoo and Mattson weren't guaranteed success just by moving their businesses to eBay. Each one understands the site's nuances, such as how to write listings, the importance of positive feedback and when to use certain pricing options.
Two of Donahoo's friends were not as prepared. Their businesses failed, Donahoo said, because they overestimated the demand for their goods and overpriced their listings.
You won't necessarily get that knowledge from taking a class with a certified eBay teacher, some experts said.
The rise in eBay's popularity has prompted scores of consultants, teachers and business owners to assist would-be entrepreneurs in selling on the site for years. Some teach classes in Baltimore, such as a basics course being offered at the Community College of Baltimore County in September. Others have written books about the practice.
In response, eBay executives created the education specialist program in part to differentiate between them and their own certified teachers, said Jim Griffith, eBay's dean of education.
"EBay has a brand that's built up some good will," Irani said. "In this fashion you're controlling it. ... You're trying to make sure that, A, what needs to get taught is taught and, B, it doesn't put the company in a bad light."
But eBay students don't learn tips on how to thrive in the business world, and the qualifications needed to become a certified instructor are too low, said Adam Ginsberg, author of How to Buy, Sell & Profit on eBay.
"To a large degree what they teach works," said Ginsberg, an uncertified teacher who has conducted his own versions of eBay courses to more than 20,000 people in two years. "But my experience is it's really good for getting people started. It isn't necessarily good for getting people to the next level."
EBay recognizes the program's limitations and plans to introduce a small-business curriculum, Griffith said.
"We're taking a lot of time and care in building our own eBay for business program," Griffith said. Meanwhile, "there are people who have done very well in growing a business after taking these [basics] courses. These courses are launch pads."
Wright needed such a takeoff. She collected dozens of women's clothing items on the cheap, mostly from store closings, sales and auctions, and planned to resell them out of her home via the business she calls Aliceanna Inc.
Like many would-be small-business owners, though, she had trouble getting started. EBay's manuals assume people have a working knowledge of the site, which Wright lacks. She also did not know how to use a digital camera to upload images onto her listings or how to establish an account on PayPal, a service that conducts secure online financial transactions.
Poletti, who has sold more than 800 items on eBay, explained how to do those things, also noting the importance of key words in titles and showing Wright how to avoid ambiguity in her listings.
Taking a class was "the only way I could have even begun" the business, Wright said.
She's not alone with that sentiment.
Those who take advantage of their education often praise the benefits of selling in a marketplace with 157.3 million users, many of whom contributed to the 16 million bids made in the first quarter this year.
"You can't open a store with just a couple of items. But you can do that with eBay," said Jennifer Guenther, who sells children's items from her Frederick store, Enkore Kids, on eBay and is a certified teacher. "That's the beauty of it."
The school of eBay
What you could learn by taking an eBay seller's class:
How to effectively write a title and description, set the right price options and upload telling images of your listings.
How to communicate with bidders during an auction, minimize the amount of time you spend monitoring your items for sales and garner positive feedback from buyers.
How to set the right payment options, ensure you receive payment and use PayPal as a middleman for transactions.
To become a certified eBay education specialist, you must:
Be a consistent user, selling continuously for at least the previous three months, and maintain positive feedback from buyers at 98 percent or higher.
Order an instructor's kit by mail from eBay for $149 and pass an exam online that lasts 1 to 2 hours. Kits can be purchased by visiting http://pages.ebay.com/education/.
Information: http://pages.ebay.com/university/specialist/ on the education specialist program or to contact a certified instructor.