Mom-and-Pops, All Grown Up
To Survive, Online Sellers Evolve Into Full-Time, High-Stress Businesses
By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2006; D01
Susan Gearing's home office in Columbia looks like a fun factory -- embroidery
machines hum, and shelves are lined with 350 rolls of fabric, including some emblazoned
with Elvis, Betty Boop and shirtless cowboys.
But behind the colorful facade lies a grueling, complex Internet retail operation. Every
day, Gearing cuts, folds and mails 30 yards of fabric to customers around the world who
buy from her online. And each year, her business, SusieCraft, grows bigger and more
The same is true for Jennifer Canty, a Sterling entrepreneur who started refurbishing
iPods and other gadgets and selling them on eBay three years ago, primarily so she could
work from home and care for her infant son. Today, the company she founded, Dyscern,
employs 12 people, occupies a 10,000-square-foot warehouse and is projecting $6 million
in annual revenue.
As Internet shopping matures and enters its 12th holiday season, veteran eBay sellers are
discovering what it takes to make a long-term career out of selling online. Internet sales
have become as competitive as traditional retail but compounded by the furious pace of
change on the Web.
"You have to have a big range of skills that have to come together," Gearing said.
Gearing, 60, and Canty, 35, are among the 1.3 million sellers who make all or some of
their living on eBay, the global bazaar where $12.6 billion worth of merchandise changed
hands in the most recent quarter. Both have recruited their husbands to help, but both say
it's a fantasy that self-employment is stress-free.
"We joke that it was easier when we worked for other people," Canty said, adding that
the initial joy of working for herself morphed into another challenge: "Don't let the
business take over your life."
Gearing, who learned to sew at age 12, spends much of her time doing the usual
spadework of any retailer, scouting quilt shows and magazines to stay on top of trends.
She personally answers more than 100 customer e-mails a day and writes ad copy for