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Become a Business, Not Just a Seller

There's more to long-term success than good prices and well-written listings


Become a Business, Not Just a Seller

Selecting the kind of business organization that you'll register is just one of the steps you'll have to take to go from "seller" to "business"

Photo: XLucas / Sxc.hu

eBay selling is often discussed as if it were a simple "start immediately" kind of enterprise. And in some ways, it can be—but if you're serious about eBay selling and long-term success, it's important to do your eBay selling as a business while behaving like a business.

But if like many others you're not already an entrepreneur familiar with the ins and outs of starting a business, how do you know where to begin? How do you get to "be" a business in a more-or-less official capacity so that you eBay selling gets off on the right foot? Here are some steps to take.

Register a New Business

In most areas, becoming a business is first and foremost a matter of registering with the authorities in some way. In the United States this tends to be about getting a business license, which usually involves and annual fee paid to the local authorities and the necessity to collect and pay taxes as a business. Most beginning sellers that are serious about selling will choose either to become a sole proprietorship or a limited liability company (also known as an LLC, similar in many ways to a corporation, most notably in the fact of limited liability for owners).

Many beginning eBay sellers are tempted to wonder whether there is any point to this step, particularly when it leads to additional accounting complexity, the obligation to collect sales tax for local sales, and other similar issues. The fact is that in many local jurisdictions you are legally obligated to obtain a license and/or register a business operated for profit. More to the point, there are also important disadvantages that you'll suffer if you don't register your business:

  • Banking disadvantages. You won't be eligible for business banking accounts.
  • Tax and accountin disadvantages. You won't be able to write off any business losses you experience on your taxes.
  • Sourcing and competitiveness disadvantages. You won't be able to source directly from wholesalers at wholesale prices.

There's actually more to the registering a business than just making the decision to do so and filling out the paperwork that follows—there's generally a decision to be made about the kind of business you'll become. For some, a sole proprietorship or partnership will be appropriate, while for others an LLC or even a corporation of some kind may be more appropriate. Consult your local government offices for requisite forms and preliminary advice, but if in doubt, consult an accountant, tax preparer, attorney, or other expert to help you to make the decision about the business structure or organization that will best suit your needs.

Segregate Your Business Finances from Your Own

For accounting and tax purposes, it is important that you segregate your business income and spending from your personal income and spending, even if you are operating as a sole proprietorship.

This can be easier and cheaper to do than you might imagine—most banks and credit unions are able to offer simple checking or other kinds of accounts in DBA (doing business as) form to be used, for instance, by sole proprietors. In many cases, these are the same products (i.e. kinds of accounts and fee schedules) available to individual account holders.

Thanks to eBay's close association with PayPal, successful selling on eBay rarely requires a merchant account of the sort required to accept credit cards directly, or the rental of any related equipment. Instead, PayPal is able to play the intermediary between banks and businesses for transactional purposes.

It's still important, however, that you operate your business using your business account rather than your personal account, and for sellers that become involved in large wholesale purchases or international (import/export) kinds of transactions, you should communicate with your financial institution about using LOCs (letters of credit) rather than checks or other forms of payment for major sourcing expenses.

Consult a Tax Specialist

Because the U.S. tax code is often both labyrinthine and uneven or (unintentionally) unfair, it's important to consult and continue to work with a tax specialist as you launch and grow your eBay business from the very beginning (i.e. the decision to become and register as a business at all). A tax specialist can help you to comply not only with typical federal and local tax requirements, but can also help you to make critical decisions about investments, business organization, expenses, and other day-to-day business operations choices.

This is especially true for "novel" kinds of businesses like eBay selling and other online businesses, and it is especially true in this era of rapid regulatory change in relation to these kinds of businesses.

Get a Business Address or P.O. Box

This step is another that is often considered "optional" by new sellers, but having a business address/office or at the very least a P.O. box can be important for several reasons:

  • It protects your safety and your family's safety. It protects your home from being located by dissatisfied customers that aren't quite sane. Many sellers shrug this kind of worry off until they receive their first death threat, either from an unhappy buyer or a competing seller. Then they quickly wish that they hadn't broadcast their home address around the world with each sale.
  • There are zoning and business operation concerns. Many localities severely restrict the kinds of activities that can be legally carried out by home businesses in residentially-zoned areas and these restrictions can include restrictions on the number of shipments (even small, individual package ones) arriving or departing from a location and restrictions on the amount if incoming and departing automotive traffic (even if that traffic is your own)
  • You may realize infrastructure cost savings. Depending on the kinds of office space, business space, or other kinds of small business space available in your local area, you may find that it's much cheaper to get set up with broadband, a telephone number, a fax number, computing and printing facilities, and shipping/packaging materials and pickups at an existing office space or shared office location than it is at your own home.

Get Connected

If you're serious about eBay selling and business success, you also need to be sure that you're connected in all of the ways that a business needs to be connected:

  • Broadband internet. While it is probably possible to be a successful online seller with a very slow online connection, it certainly puts you at a tremendous competitive (and psychological) disadvantage to be constantly frustrated by slow connections that leave you a third or a fifth or a tenth as productive as you otherwise would be. To get things done and compete, broadband is a must.
  • Dedicated phone and fax. For most sellers, the realities of customer service and of wholesale sourcing will mean that a separate business telephone and fax number will be essential, particularly as the business begins to grow. Though you can "start out" pre-growth using your own home telephone and fax, once others have your home phone and/or fax numbers as your business numbers, it can be almost impossible to get them to switch to dedicated lines later on.
  • Dedicated website and/or domain name. For most online selling businesses, having a dedicated website is a must for real growth to occur, particularly on eBay, where old transactions become unavailable to both buyers and sellers after just 90 days. Having a website gives you an address that would-be repeat buyers can bookmark, a space to include product documentation and other customer service and contact information, and another platform on which to sell. Most inexpensive web hosts around the country can offer both a domain name (your own .com or other web address) and hosting (a website placed there, including selling features) for a nominal monthly or annual fee. eBay Stores is also a great alternative for those that want to stay within the eBay family and not have to navigate technical decisions or tasks.
  • Dedicated business email. Don't be tempted to mix your personal and business email communication together; this is a recipe for disaster for many reasons. First and foremost, most personal email addresses just don't seem very professional (hotgirl3@gmail.com), particularly when compared to a email address at (for example) your web hosting company (customerservice@my-brush-sales.com). Also important are distinctly increased chance of missing important business communications when they're spread throughout your personal mailbox and the increased difficulty in searching for and finding business email messages from the past in this context.

There's More to Do

Though it may sound like a lot, it's really not much when compared to the long-term complexity of running a successful business, even if that business happens to be on eBay. If you're balking at these steps, it's probably worth asking yourself whether you're cut out to become a serious independent business owner/operator anyway.

If you can and do get these things done, however, you're positioned yourself to take a real, serious crack at starting and growing an eBay selling business where the sky (and your own patience and determination) are the limits.

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