When Lee Ann Wright moved to Baltimore two years ago, she made plans to start a home-based business selling women's clothing through the global online marketplace of eBay.
After reading through the site's guidelines for beginners and purchasing an eBay seller's kit, Wright was intimidated by both the Web and business tasks ahead of her. So she called an eBay teacher for help.
During a four-hour class last month at her Fells Point home, Wright learned how to set up a seller's account and picked up numerous tips for starting her business on eBay.
Her teacher was Tracy Poletti, a certified eBay education specialist who is one of 1,800 worldwide, including seven in Maryland. More than 100,000 people have taken classes on how to sell items on eBay since the online giant began its own education program in 2000. And more are expected as eBay tries to build its own teaching ranks to compete in a cottage industry of independent consultants and others who have long taught entrepreneurs about mastering the site.
"As a business owner, you don't have time to sit there and learn the whole thing yourself," said Rieva Lesonsky, editorial director of Entrepreneur magazine, which publishes a guide on running a business on eBay. "It would make a lot of sense to bring those people in ... like consultants."
More than 724,000 Americans operate a business on eBay for a primary or secondary source of income, including about 15,600 in the Baltimore-Washington area, according to a survey conducted in early July by ACNielsen International Research. The number of small businesses on the site has surged 68 percent during the past two years.
Some taught themselves how to use eBay and built successful businesses without any kind of course instruction. Others learned from a relative or friend and applied their own business skills to succeed. And some have turned to eBay's certified teaching specialists and others.
Despite eBay's efforts, some consultants who teach business owners about the site are critical of the education program. They claim that it targets eBay novices and does not equip teachers with the information they need to help prospective business owners succeed.
The company trains its teachers "on [eBay] policy and not on strategy," said David A. Karp, author of eBay Hacks, who has taught advanced eBay classes despite being uncertified. The value of the program "depends more on the instructor than on certification. ... There are probably quite a few who have been certified and have no ability to teach."
EBay was launched in September 1995 to provide a global marketplace for people to buy, sell and auction goods. Since the company makes money primarily by charging listing fees and taking a cut of each sale, it's important for the online site to train instructors because "you've got to teach people how to sell a good for the highest price" said Daraius Irani, director of applied economics at Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute. "Then they [eBay] get more revenue."
Executives initiated eBay University in 2000, holding 25 to 30 seminars and an eBay Live conference annually. This summer the San Jose-based company also is staging an eight-city tour offering free classes. Co-run by local post offices, it stopped in Baltimore July 22.
Last year, eBay began training instructors. For $149, experienced eBay sellers may take an online course to be certified to teach classes on basic and advanced selling through the site. Five certified instructors reside in the Baltimore area. They charge students between $25 and $40 an hour.
Some certified teachers, such as Poletti, have expanded their course offerings to provide lessons that eBay has not licensed. For example, Poletti, of Middletown, tailors her lessons to a client's needs, making house calls and leading group classes.
She is energized by her new gig.
"I didn't want to stop working, but I wanted the flexibility to stay home with my children," said Poletti, a former software engineer. "And you can bring in a lot of money."
Certified instructor Ron Bratt also teaches eBay business classes. He heads Auction-Safari, a Columbia firm that teaches on-site group classes and travels to teach companies about eBay. Bratt also has scheduled a three-month workshop in the fall on how to develop a small business.
"What I saw was a huge, booming market," Bratt said. "It's such an exciting industry, and we're only in its infancy."
People seek eBay instruction for many reasons. Most of them don't feel comfortable using the site and are afraid of making mistakes that would harm their sales. Many are confident that all they need is some assistance.
"I don't know anything about eBay," said Richard Chase of Baltimore shortly before attending a class at the Fayette Street post office during the eBay tour's Baltimore stop. "I need somebody to teach me the first time through, then I'll get the hang of it."
Phyllis Alexander of Baltimore plans to sell artwork on eBay after absorbing a class.