If you haven’t noticed, we’re really fond of the Facebook Ecommerce Group. John Lawson, owner and operator of Colder ICE Media has brought together more than 1300 online sellers and counting. It’s a great place for internet retailers to ask for advice, brainstorm, and share their experiences. Recently we reached out to the group and asked if anybody would like to share their story about how they got started in the ecommerce industry.
This month we’re featuring Doyle Carver, owner and operator of DC Mach Inc. They sell a wide range of really interesting products (no, a really wide range of interesting products). You should check out his product offerings.
It’s an awesome story of selling, products and people. It’s amazing how one thing leads to another to Doyle now managing three employees and a large warehouse, being self-employed for over 25 years now. Take it away Doyle!
Give us a little background on how you got started selling:
I have been self employed for over 25 years. I began with a small oilfield supply company I started due to being unemployed. I was forced into self employment or start over as a dishwasher. I was in my mid twenties. I found that I could sell, but I could not manage, and wound up on the edge of bankruptcy. That experience taught me that I had to protect myself and forecast my own future. I got to the point that I was on my face financially and there was no bank, or person, I could beg to get out of it. It was then that I formulated my rules of business and personal life. I needed to be prepared for the hard times because they will show up sooner or later. The default is that NO ONE wants to give you their hard earned money. You have to make it worth it for them. You’ve got to find the value and showcase it. You’ve got to prove that you are the best one to deliver it.
As I pulled myself back to some semblance of financial normalcy I rediscovered musicianship from my younger days and began to play local clubs and even collaborate with songwriters. I also would stop by the neighborhood auto parts shop to grab a cup of free coffee and get the Zaka Road chat. Eventually, I began to work there on the side. Due to that connection, I bought 50 used tires, a tire machine and small air compressor and made a deal with the guy next door to operate out of the corner of his shop selling used tires. Still, I had to borrow the down money from a close friend to get it going. My aim was to make enough money and go on the road as a traveling musician. The business grew. I referred to it jokingly as my golden ball and chain as I couldn’t afford to quit. Finally, I took the shop over and it slowly morphed into a small mechanic shop. I somehow learned and survived till my landlord wanted me out. We were a typical mechanic shop and got oil on the driveway, made all kinds of noise and created lots of exhaust. I guess he hated all that. No matter that I was the only tenant that paid my rent on time and I regularly got a driveway paving service in Louisville, KY to fix my damages. I am still annoyed about it after all these years.
I finally bought the property next door and built my own shop. I paid the horrendous amount of $64k for building and property and sweated making the notes for a long time. Now, of course looking back it was a tremendous investment probably worth $300k today. Plus having paid it off gives me tremendous leeway in taking on future business risks. I also got married during all this building and startup and luckily Sandi has stayed with me ever since.
The mechanic business was tough. The technical qualifications were more and more strict, yet the guys looking for work were no more educated. I stayed at it for years but in the end it was the most thankless job I’ve ever had. I began to hate it. I actually considered just walking out and throwing the keys in the driveway several times. I began to do anything other than that type of work. That’s how I originally found ebay day dreaming on the computer. I began buying and then selling enough that I could get out of the auto repair business. After I closed the mechanic part down and liquidated my equipment, I began to expand my facility. I now have a 50 x 60 building, with 5 ocean going containers, two lean to’s of 20×20 and an outbuilding of 40×40. I even have an old forklift that runs good and is paid for.
I originally messed around with ebay buying a couple things but not selling. Anything to escape the tedium of the mechanic shop. One day my daughter asked me if I wanted some lanyards. That she had about a 1000 of them leftover from a job she had. The company she worked for was throwing them away and could I do anything with them? Not knowing what I was doing at all, I put them up on ebay at a fixed price of $9.99 per 30 pieces. They began to sell. Then, with a few pricing tweaks and shipping changes I got my seed money for this whole enterprise. I then began to sell everything I could find. I hunted a lot of garage sales. I made some great buys. More great ones than bad ones thankfully and kept the money growing. I had discovered a talent that I didn’t really know I had. Buying and selling was my thing.
I began to look for repeatable merchandise. I figured that had to be the easiest way to move forward. I begged manufacturers and distributors to sell to me. I’m not kidding. Almost all of them were condescending and wrote me off immediately. I learned on the fly. I called repeatedly and finally made my purchases as large as my meager cash would allow. I felt like I was taking huge risks with my money and I was. What if this stuff doesn’t move? I would have been dead broke. I was terrified. My failure, if it happened, would affect so many people.
But it did move. I increased my inventory, my reputation with vendors, and finally with a business group I met on ebay. The IMA. They were the single, biggest influence in business in my life. The network was invaluable and the advice made me take the jump into traveling to wholesale shows and buying larger and better inventory. The business buddy network can’t be overstated. This is also what I looked for and found in ICE. These people know their business, are not afraid to show you their weak points, and share their fixes. I don’t really mind the “one time in band camp” stories that John Lawson seems to hate. I do like the actionable moves. Never heard that word used that way before the first conference last year. I’m sure I will be a member from now on even though my future drifts a little away from their main membership.
The future holds manufacturing and importing for us. I’m determined to separate myself from competition and find smoother water. Brandon Dupsky told me it’s called Blue Ocean strategy. We are developing proprietary products slowly but surely in just that effort.
Though I haven’t had a top 40 hit yet, I can feel it coming.
I’m laying the foundation for it.
It’s like it’s in my hand already.
Talk a little more about how you got selling on eBay, when you started selling, and what some of the most common items were that you sold?
I joined ebay in 1999. I’m not sure when I started selling. I found one item that worked and then began to sell all my old stuff. My daughter actually caught me selling something she gave me as a gift. Oops!
I sold lots of books. I loved hunting them down. They were like treasure to me. I preferred niche or weirdo books. Like how to make home battering rams. I did really well with just about any how-to type book. Then one day a giant bookseller started dumping on ebay and it absolutely ruined my market. In my memory they started everything at $0.99 and sold most of it for that. I think they are gone now, hopefully out of business. One of my early lessons in avoiding competition.
Back in those days the fees on ebay weren’t too bad. We were micro businesses and could control just about all aspects of the business. Then it seemed like the fees began to increase every year. It was relentless and the increase was making it harder and harder to buy and sell. Then we couldn’t leave a negative on a buyer, and further, ebay started telling us how to run our business and punishing us if we didn’t do it the way they said to do it. Not exactly a mutual admiration at this point. I suppose I will never leave ebay as it’s my ecommerce birthplace, but I do miss the freedom to choose my own hours, and ship on my schedule, and handle my own money how I choose without penalty.
In those early days I sold primitive art, stuff I made myself, tools, leather goods, lamps, figurines, banks, grinders, literally anything I could get my hands on. I got a lot from garage sales. Never did estate sales as there was just too much competition there for me. I feel the same way about local auctions.
I was learning even in those early days to avoid competitive markets. I mean, fighting to sell common items was killing me. It has molded my entire marketing plan for the future.
In a nutshell.
1. avoid competition
2. sell proprietary products that no one else has
3. buy in large quantities to get the best price
In the beginning, as you can imagine, shipping fees will definitely hurt a small seller. I lost money many times on shipments. It was only through trial and error and thousands of shipments that I have managed to control it better.
For instance, I don’t know how many trucking logistics companies I let overcharge me in the beginning due to my inexperience. I paid probably 4 to 5 times more than I do now for the same shipments. Plus, while I’m finally eligible for discounts from the primary shippers of UPS, Fedex and USPS, I’m still too small to get the reductions I need to compete in the national market. My current competitors must have some great shipping deals. More reason to sell things they don’t have. My day will come with the big shipping companies if I can stay alive in this long enough. I will remember these tough days then.
What are the repeatables that you are selling these days?
I sell lots of closeouts. I figure these are great items to add to my inventory. I try to buy the entire lot so as to limit other buyers from getting any of the stock. At this moment, I stock large plastic fish, outdoor ashtrays, magnifying lamps, cast iron crosses, step baskets, horseshoes, lots of metal buckets in various sizes, aluminum can crushers, recycle bins and trash cans. Of course, lots more than that but those are my primary repeatables. I found all these by making test purchases of closeouts. When I discovered that there was a market I then hunted a supplier.
When did you make your standalone site www.dcmachinc.com? Why did you do it and how was the process in setting it up? Have you branched out to Amazon or any other sales channels? How successful have those been for you?
I started my original site, www.fishiron.com many years ago to feature my iron art and sculpture. Did I mention that I was a sculptor? I made fish out of rebar and other whatnots lying around. Friends and customers encouraged me so I kept doing it. It slowly morphed into www.dcmachinc.com and my retail platform with lots of categories and items.
We still make iron handicrafts right here in my shop that originated back then. It goes right along with my primary goal of selling proprietary items. We also started selling live plants this last season. I know it comes out of left field but, after all, my motto is “No Boundaries.” I am still working on it. Biggest challenge is shipping live plants and getting them to the buyer alive and not wilted or dead.
I began to import this last year and that solidifies my position even more. I’ve been lucky enough to find some good vendors in Pakistan and China using Alibaba.
I have been very disappointed in my website performance. I am working on it this spring. I killed my Google and Bing PPC campaigns that ran all fall and generated squat. And now I am doing all SEO, and yes, I did hire it out. My personal aim is either inventing, procurement, developing and selling. Everything else needs to be hired out and done by somebody else.
By the way, I sell on Amazon, Ecrater, Bonanza and Ebay. I recently fired Sears for being just too much trouble. Sears might be a good fit for others but it was terribly time consuming for us. We are now beginning to use FBA this spring due to the influence of the ICE conference. I resisted it for a long time. We shall see how that works out.
Did you go to the ICE Forum last year? What have you learned that’s actionable for your business? Have you implemented anything you’ve learned from the Ecommerce Group on Facebook?
I like going to events like ICE because I surround myself with like-minded individuals. I admire John’s leadership in the event too. I also like hearing of the different angles and methods used by other business people. Plus the experts available were inspiring. Chris, and his FBA approach, the guy who designed websites and plainly told us what was wrong with ours, the analyst who talked about Amazon’s growth curve, the cute and lively Jackie at the beginning of the event. Having the weight loss conference outside our room was sheer genius. I felt so light and thin when I walked through there!
Somebody had a spinning platform disc for taking photos of items. Forgot who, and what it was called, but I did want that. All kinds of apps were talked about but my speed writing simply couldn’t keep up with them.
The only complaint I have was that it started too damn early! I did love the free breakfast, but it was not necessary. There were prizes given out at the end and somehow Kirk won mine. Still mad at him about that.
How many employees do you have and what do they do? How you hired them and how many hours they work per week would all be really cool tidbits I think a lot of our readers could benefit from. When did you take the step into hiring your first employee any why?
I have 3 employees plus myself.
My employees are a motley lot. I’ve given them great autonomy and a daily performance bonus and they do well. My guy Vince is our chief tinkerer, welder, forklift operator, dog feeder, warehouse manager, and master of all packing problems. He is the only one in the world that knows how to stretch a box. I didn’t believe him until he showed me. Amazing. Probably ought to make a Youtube video. I also trained him in the bulk of my small craft fabrications and he takes care of all that. He comes in when he wants, usually around 6:30 am for no good reason I can see. He’s an early bird. He likes to leave around 3ish. I pay him a performance bonus based on the total shipped boxes going out the door. His real value is taking my ethereal vision as a problem, and making a tangible device I can hold in my hand. He’s invaluable.
My office manager, Tina, handles all orders from all venues and actually prints the labels. She also handles all email pertaining to “where is my stuff” or “this stuff arrived broken”, or “I didn’t know the black lamp was actually black, can I return it?”. She and I worked on customer service replies for quite awhile and she has appropriate feel good remarks to say to just about anybody. She is very good at smoothing over ruffled feathers. She also keeps up with inventory and reminds me when I should be buying more. She helps keep pricing correct on all venues also, and has learned how to write listings and is fair with the office camera. I loaned her a laptop which she uses to mainly read Facebook, (LOL) but, in exchange, she reads the company email and handles emergency complaints over the weekends. I also pay for her cell phone since I may need to call her. She only works Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for now because these are the main days we ship. We only ship expedited shipments Tuesdays and Thursdays. She gets a performance bonus based on gross sales dollars daily. I don’t worry when I’m gone on the road. She can handle 95% of all problems. She’s golden.
My third guy is a neighborhood local, Steve, who came up here and worked for free for about a month. At first I threw him out. I thought he was homeless and going to steal something. He kept coming back in spite of me being mean to him. He would take the trash out, sweep, etc. I couldn’t figure him out. I told him time and again that he didn’t work here and that I was not hiring. Also, he needed a bath! His sheer persistence wore me down. I suppose it was born of just not having any choice but to keep on asking me. I finally offered him a helper position, to come in for two hours a day and do just what he’s doing. He has been an employee ever since. After some trial and error, he decided to come in at 12:00 noon and work till 2:00 pm. I gave him a raise this past fall from $8 to $8.50. He is so worth that. He has learning disabilities but we have figured ways around them. He is becoming a better and better hand. I am very proud of his progress and his becoming so dependable.
As you can tell I let my employees play a huge role in their decision processes during the day. I’ve told them many times that if I have to follow them around and tell them what to do, I will find someone else to do the job. Actually, few people have been given that kind of freedom in their work. In the beginning they struggle with it. After a while though they come to love having control and choosing what needs to be done. With a little time and direction they know perfectly well what needs to happen every day. I try to give them some small perks. We have a kitchen, and I provide all the Ramen noodles they want including microwave popcorn and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I also let them buy anything I have in inventory at crazy cheap prices.
I handle all purchasing and handle most brainstorming, dreaming and opportunity scouting. I do payroll and taxes myself. I am the chief plumber and carpenter, pretty good welder, an ASE certified Auto Tech, poet and tremendous karaoke singer. I believe we are surrounded with opportunity but too dumb to see it. It’s everywhere. I believe in manna from Heaven. I have faith. I also believe strongly in fidelity and finally, in forgiveness. Sometimes, my sheer doggedness will enable me to find that marvelous bone here and there, and for that I’m thankful.