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Make Money Now: The No-Fail Plan to Launching an Online Business During Covid-19

eBay's Liz Austin shares tactical tips and the latest intel

Four years ago, Liz Austin was walking around her new neighborhood in Oakland, California, and had a revelation when she passed by a church. The Australian had just relocated from her native country with her husband, who’d gotten a job with Google, and she was feeling unmoored and unsure of what she should be doing. The church reminded her of the strength of finding community, no matter where she had been in the world — from Australia, where she worked for national art hotels and the fashion industry, as well as Cirque du Soleil to create the company’s online community of superfans, to Ireland, where she worked with high-profile comedians building their brands.

“I thought, ‘No matter how far we go in taking our lives online and sharing our lives with each other on social media, we still need communities,'” she said. “Whether that’s through a church, whether that’s through a group of people that do something that you love. There are so many different micro-communities across the world.”

Now, as the Head of Seller Marketing and Engagement at eBay, she’s helping the online marketplace broaden the way it engages with its seller community, and in turn, helping the sellers themselves connect with each other. Her goal is to create a perfect feedback loop, between the company, its buyers, and its sellers — to create a community where all can be successful. 

How is eBay different around the world, and even within America?

Liz Austin: The power of small business in America is astounding. And the innate support for local small business success is really quite astounding as well.

That’s really what I found to be truly different between America and Australia. It really sparked an interest in me, this notion of accessibility and self-empowerment by taking something and doing it online. You can really have a sense of belonging on eBay and do something that you truly are passionate about. And you can make a livelihood out of it. You don’t have to work for the man. You don’t have to work nine to five. 

“You can really have a sense of belonging on eBay and do something that you truly are passionate about. And you can make a livelihood out of it. You don’t have to work for the man. You don’t have to work nine to five.” 

— LIZ AUSTIN

Obviously right now is a very interesting moment for eBay. What has changed since the coronavirus crisis started?

Liz Austin: So much. There are so many things that we want to do to support our current and existing sellers, but also the brick and mortar businesses who are forced to close; we want to help sustain them by bringing them online. What I get a kick out of is seeing what’s selling well on eBay, because it truly is the barometer of what’s happening in the outside world.

How so?

If there’s some sort of culture moment happening, or some sort of big malady, even if a celebrity has died, straightaway we will see the impact of those moments on eBay. Right now, with COVID, what we’re seeing is that categories that normally wouldn’t be our top categories are trending really well: Massive life-sized puzzles are selling really well right now. Sporting equipment, hair dye. Hair clippers. Webcams, because everyone has got to do their Zoom meetings.

“Massive life-sized puzzles are selling really well right now. Sporting equipment. Hair dye. Hair clippers. Webcams, because everyone has got to do their Zoom meetings.”

— Liz austin

Have you seen a spike in new users?

Liz Austin: We just launched “Up and Running” last week, which is a program to address the brick and mortar sellers who have been forced to close. We will help them on the journey,  teach them how to get up and running on eBay very quickly, and we remove any costs that they would incur. We will connect them to a community of like-minded sellers, who are very experienced at it, so they don’t feel like they’re alone. So we have new brick and mortar sellers, who weren’t online, coming online. Which is wonderful! 

And even our existing sellers are adapting to the changing needs of the buyers and having success in categories that they don’t normally sell in. We’ve offered them the ability to do free listings, so that they can try to sell things that they might not normally sell and just really move and adapt to the changing climate.

How has eBay handled COVID-19 as a company?

Liz Austin: The way that we’ve handled COVID, is really three distinct phases. So the first priority, when it all happened, was to support our current sellers and our employees. We took the time to interview our seller base. So we called them, and we said, “What can we do to support you right now?” And we created a plan based on what they told us. That included free-to-sell: We have deferred the payment of their fees and offered promotions to help with costs.  So if they are struggling to get their items out the door in time, we’re protecting them so their seller standing won’t be impacted. Their biggest concern is if the shipping suppliers can’t get their packages out on time, what happens? So we’re staying very closely connected to our shipping suppliers, and letting our sellers know if there are any changes there.

Second priority was definitely to support buyers by combating price gouging. So as soon as COVID-19 happened, we saw price gouging on the site. So we went out and banned the listing of medical grade masks and gloves on the site, to stop that price gouging. And as we’re seeing more price gouging, we are limiting listings in certain things, like baby wipes, and bleach, and things like that, to make sure that the pricing on the site is fair.

And then the third priority was helping brick and mortar sellers to get online, as we discussed.

What makes a small business seller successful? How do they build a brand on eBay?

Liz Austin: Finding your niche, doing the research, and looking at what sells well on eBay. But really to source and list items, it’s all test and learn. We’re very forthcoming in the data that we share. We have tools that we offer sellers that help them know what sells really well. We let them know what the pricing has been and what their competitors are offering, so that they can price themselves. So I’d say do your research.

“Find your niche, do the research, and look at what sells well on eBay.”

— LIZ AUSTIN

Do you have to be an expert in SEO? What else is important in this space?

Liz Austin: No. Through our listing tool, we offer the most important item specifics and the words to include to ensure that you show up in the highest number of searches. Just follow those prompts and include all the detail that you can. 

And then take great photos. We’ve just launched this new mobile feature; it’s called Image Cleanup. Let’s say you want to sell a unique pair of sneakers that your husband loved, but you don’t love. You could easily take a picture of them on your floorboard, and then you put it through the image cleanup, and we will cut out the wooden floor background, and put it on a white background so that your first image is always white.

That’s important for two reasons: It’s to drive trust with buyers, so they trust the quality of your item and can clearly see the detail. But it’s also for Google Shopping: Google Shopping will reject any listing that is not on a white background.

This is great intel. In terms of using social to drive traffic to their eBay businesses, what do successful sellers do? 

Liz Austin: Social media marketing is a really important marketing tactic. We have 170+ million buyers on the platform so you can rely on that traffic, but if your item has something that makes it truly unique, or a really amazing backstory, we always recommend that you leverage the power of social media to tell that story. Bring them along on the journey, take them to your eBay listing, and have them convert there. 

You can also use social media to increase repeat buyer behaviors. Reward buyers for shopping with you. Reward buyers by giving them the inner track on items that you sell.

Do sellers ever go the other direction — from online to brick and mortar?

We have a number of sellers — small businesses — that tell us that a brick and mortar store is one of their dreams. They’ve been able to fund a storefront because of the money that they’re making on eBay. And they are able to go in their Main Street, and work during the day in their shop front, and go home and update their eBay store, and then make money in their sleep. That’s a thing that we hear time and time again, that sellers just love making money in their sleep. And there’s a funny meme that’s going around in our community of sellers. And they’ll ask each other, “Who got up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet, and did you check your eBay sales?

And they all use the thumbs up emoji, and comment, “Guilty, guilty as charged.” They love it.