For many high-powered women who put "former" in front of their titles to stop out and stay at home with their kids, selling stuff on eBay often starts as a dalliance, a means of purging closets of never-worn mistakes and stripping the guilt from all those forays to Filene's Basement (RVI ) and the ever-seductive Prada and Gucci (GUC ) outlets. By picking up an extra pocketbook here, a pair of thrift-store-priced stilettos there, these moms in turn flip the items on eBay -- essentially shopping their way to earnings.
Ever since founder Pierre M. Omidyar started the global bazaar by selling a broken laser pointer for $14, the eBay economy has given Mayan villagers a chance to sell their pottery to Park Avenue princesses and rural Kansas collectors an opportunity to vie against Christie's. Now, with the help of wireless technology, digital photography, and friendly postmen, eBay is becoming a hot new career for managerial-class moms. "Flexibility is a big part of it. But they also get the opportunity to do something they enjoy," says eBay Inc. (EBAY ) CEO and President Margaret C. Whitman. "Often these women are trading in areas they have always been passionate about."
Today, upwards of 430,000 people in the U.S. alone -- more than are employed worldwide by General Electric Co. (GE ) and Procter & Gamble combined -- earn a full- or part-time living on eBay selling everything from fashion to farm equipment, with the highest-sellers grossing up to $1 million a month. Of the estimated 48% of these sellers who are women, many are "mompreneurs" -- corporate stopouts who have found in eBay a way to tap into an international marketplace from their kitchen tables and finesse a saner work-life balance at the same time. It's no coincidence that the rise of the eBay mompreneurs comes as more highly educated women are choosing to stay at home with young children. The percentage of working women with children under the age of one dropped from a record 59% in 1998 to 55% in 2002, after rising steadily for 30 years. Some see the decrease as a referendum on the work-life balance. As in, it doesn't exist.
On eBay, however, says Marsha Collier, author of the bestselling Starting an eBay Business for Dummies, "there's no commuting. No back-stabbing. No office politics. No glass ceiling. No need to waste gas. No waiting in line at the post office, because they'll pick up for free. I mean, how much better could it be?"
For former Dow Chemical Co. (DOW ) engineer Kim Kincaid of Leavenworth, Kan., not much. She began selling antiques on eBay in 1998 as a hobby (her first coup: a $7.50 Pillsbury Doughboy cookie jar that sold for $75). Today she moves at least $100,000 worth of antiques and rare books a month. But she is still able to arrange her schedule around her four- and 10-year-old sons. "When women look at the workforce once they have children," says Kincaid, who now runs the business with her husband, sister, and parents, "they say: 'I'm going to be working for $2 an hour after child care and not having all that time with my kids."'
Ann Whitley Wood, a Stanford University grad who has a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin, quit her job as an appellate attorney at Dallas blue-chip firm Haynes and Boone in 2000 after her second of three children was born. She simply couldn't figure out a way to make the job work part-time. Yet as a buyer on eBay, she was dumbfounded by the volume sellers were doing. So she started experimenting. (Her first sale: an old evening gown hanging in her closet, $400). In 2002, she got more professional, scouring last-call sales for Lilly Pulitzer dresses and Kate Spade handbags. She now makes a decent part-time income.
The idea of selling on eBay came to Elise Wetzel as a way to raise funds for her kids' preschool. Holding a virtual garage sale on eBay seemed like a better idea than pushing overpriced candy or tired wrapping paper. Wetzel, a former director of marketing at Unilever, quit her job after attending her Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management reunion in the summer of 2002. Of all the women there who had two kids, she was the only one who was still working. "It was like I missed the memo," she says. After the school fund-raiser, she was hooked and today has an eBay business called iSold It, which is fast developing into a chain of online consignment stores.
EBay, experts say, is a welcome, recession-proof option for many women, especially since it makes a virtue of the very traits that are often perceived as weaknesses in Corporate America. Research shows, for example, that women's detail-oriented strengths -- as well as their tendency to bear down and have lunch at their desks -- are impediments to advancement. On eBay, those so-called shortcomings become a competitive advantage, allowing women to provide the kind of high-touch customer service -- the Holy Grail among buyers -- that the big retailers just can't give. The real test now will be how the eBay entry on the updated résumé plays when they try to return to the corporate world. That is, if they even want to.
By Michelle Conlin in New York