Running a Business in Your Own Yard

Oct. 6, 2010

As my book, Raising Eyebrows: A Failed Entrepreneur Finally Gets It Right (John Wiley & Sons) hits the bookstores, I thought I would share some practical advice for running and starting a low-cost, no-overhead business with the other compulsive capitalists out there. It's a business anyone with extra stuff can do --  a yard sale.

Why is the founder of Tweezerman, the multinational beauty tools company, writing about yard sales? First, I love starting businesses, large and small. And second, I am an avid believer that individuals need to wrestle our economy out of the hands of huge corporations. Microbusinesses such as yard sales are lots of work for little money, but they'll keep you employed in the short term and make you think like an entrepreneur. They might even save our economy.

In my case, what began as a weekend yard sale evolved into an every Saturday event that went on for 10 weeks. That's how long it took to pull everything out, get it priced, and figure out a system for getting people to show up. Plus, I got addicted to the process.

Here's some advice from a serial entrepreneur and successful yard seller. Note: The main messages apply to any modest start-up business:

Expect modest returns: People who go to yard sales are looking for bargains. For your pricing formula, figure you will need to sell something that looks new for one-fifth the cost of buying it new. Cover every price point, from $1 and $2 stickers on up.

Learn from your customers: Don't assume you know what people want. I got $250 for an old truck I had sitting on my lawn for the past 15 years. (Turns out it was worth more than that as scrap metal.) I got $200 for my old PC computer. Some of my junk turned out to be art to some people -- like the rusted old metal frame for a sewing machine that sold for $15.

Remember why it's worth it: When the weather is inimical and you're wondering why you're doing this, consider the benefits. You're getting rid of stuff that's taking up space in your home or would end up in the landfill. You're taking stock of your own overconsumption habits. You're meeting neighbors and other interesting people. You're helping people get things they need at affordable prices.

Prepare for everything: I set items up in places that were protected from the rain -- my porch and my garage. I put prices on everything with little round white stickers after I discovered that having unpriced items and a sign, make me an offer, led to no offers. Have plenty of ones, fives, and a few ten-dollar bills. Have something you can give away to kids. I gave away matchbox cars my deceased brother had collected. Give something to the kid and the parent will often find something to buy. Also, be ready for the early birds -- the professionals who show up before the posted time.

Good signage rules: In retail, location is everything. Stick a big sign at several busy intersections coming from every direction to your house, with a very obvious arrow pointing in the direction of your place. Each sign should be readable from both directions. Keep a color theme -- black on yellow worked well for me.

Promote your sale: Craigslist has a great events section that yard sale shoppers look for. Craiglist ads pile up over time so it's best to post yours first thing in the morning the day of your sale. This way you pick up the serious people who check Craigslist on the day they're heading out. List every type of item you will sell -- e.g., wetsuits, CDs, books, men's shirts, etc. -- and your ad will be found when people search for that item. I also ran stand-alone ads with photos of my big-ticket items.

Give it the right name: When people see Yard Sale, they think clothes and household items; Garage Sale, they think tools, garden, building supplies, manly stuff; Estate Sale, they think everything including antiques and chances to find treasures. If you are willing to bring out everything, call it an Estate Sale.

Reinvest your profits: Over 10 weeks, I took in $2,012 in Poulsbo, Wash. After all the hours it took, I figured out I made only about $20 per hour. However, it was a business and it turned a profit. Since I didn't need the money to feed myself, I invested the $2,000 in two boxes of $1 coins, 1,000 to a box. Some people hoard gold and silver to protect them from any future financial meltdown, and I ask: How are you going to buy basics with gold or silver?

Practice responsible capitalism:  After the sale is over go out and take down your signs.

Steal my idea: If you find you have a knack for yard selling -- and you're currently unemployed or underemployed -- you could rent a vacant building where a big box store used to operate and set up a Yard Sale business. Using a scanning device, you could have people bring in their stuff, label their items with a special code, and split the gross with each owner. In earlier and leaner times, I might have done this myself.

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