What, if anything, are TEFLers doing these days to supplement their teaching salaries? Steve Collingborne is one of that select group of teachers who dabble in a bit of 'E-bay exporting' on the side. So the big question is - does it make any wonga?
Steve, welcome to the hot seat. First off, how much teaching do you do compared to how much time you devote to your E-bay business?
I'm extremely lucky inasmuch as I only teach two days per week but per hour, I'm very well-paid. I can rake in almost 30,000 baht a month just from my teaching gig. So that's really my bread and butter income. It's always there. The other five days a week are devoted to my E-bay business, but even then I only spend a couple of hours a day on it at most. I have a lot of free time it must be said.
Can you divulge what you sell exactly?
(laughs) I would rather not Phil. There might be people reading. Let's just say that it's a product that's mostly for women, but men can use it as well. It also comes in small packages so it's much easier to send out to customers.
I don't have the first clue what it could be but I guess the secret is sourcing a good product?
Yes, of course. The first bit of advice I would give out to potential part-time E-bayers is don't restrict your product sourcing to Thailand alone. Look further afield to other Asian countries. Sure Thailand has some terrific products available at very reasonable prices but you would be a fool to think Thailand is your only choice.
When I made my mind up which product I was going to sell, I researched as many countries in Asia as I could. I found that the best products and the ones I could make the most profit on came from Korea. There's a lot of great stuff coming out of Korea these days and of course a lot of Korean products have tremendous street-cred.
Because I was determined to make a real go of a small exort business, I even flew to Korea to meet the manufacturer and to negotiate the best possible prices.
Do you have a dedicated website as well as your numerous listings on E-bay?
Yes, I do. It's very difficult to drive customers to a dedicated website without spending a small fortune on Google Adwords and that kind of thing - especially in the field of business I'm in. However, I think the dedicated website can really compliment and boost your E-bay listings.
Customers often look at the products on E-bay, see the link to my website, and obviously think 'let's check the website out'. When they see it's a professionally-run website, it probably gives them extra confidence in me as a seller and gives them that extra push to part with their cash.
I've worked with a number of teachers who have done the E-bay thing on the side, but few seemed to make a success of it?
I'm not sure why that is. Perhaps some teachers choose the wrong product, find out that there is no market for it and then just give up. I think you need to stay focused and if at first you don't succeed, try again. Eventually you will find a product that sells.
I haven't mentioned money but presumably the E-bay business makes you more than teaching does?
Oh, it makes a lot more. I love teaching, but I don't love it so much that I want to do it more than a couple of days a week. And I realised very early on that I would probably have to work all sorts of long hours to make ends meet as a teacher.
I wasn't interested in just 'surviving' on a teacher salary. With the export business ticking away in the background, I can afford to fly back home for family visits and do a whole load of other things I probably couldn't afford if I relied on teaching alone.
Are the Thais themselves much competition for you?
Funny, there are an awful lot of Thai people doing the E-bay / export thing but they seem to lack focus. They'll go in all guns blazing with nice websites, etc but the most important thing in this business is building up your reputation and winning customer trust. This is where I think the Thais fall down. We all know that aspects of customer service here are not as good as they should be. I guess the same happens with Thai E-bay businesses but on a smaller scale of course. Good communication with your customers is key.
Do any of your teaching colleagues have an E-bay business?
A couple of guys I used to work with both had thriving export businesses. One guy sold security cameras made in China. The demand was phenomenal over a two-year period but then it died. But he made a fortune in those two years. Another guy I knew made a lot of money selling printed t-shirts. He had a design background anyway and he was brilliant at looking out for current trends and striking while the iron was hot.
Doing the post office run every morning with all those parcels and boxes must be a pain in the arse?
Yes it would be, except I don't do it (laughs) I organised a Thai guy to go and do it for me about four years ago and he's been with me ever since. Come rain or shine, he picks up all the orders from me at 8.00 in the morning and takes them to the post office. I pay him a hundred baht a day. It doesn't sound a lot but he's never complained.
I quite fancy selling t-shirts with 80's UK bands on them. I found a seller on E-bay and I loved a lot of the stuff he had - but they were quite expensive. Have I come up with a winning idea do you think?
No, t-shirts have been done to death. I'd go back to the drawing board if I were you.
Done to death eh? - a bit like floppy fisherman's trousers and bamboo chopstick sets?
Tell me about it. That's what I call the 'Chatuchak weekend market' syndrome. Every time you stroll around the weekend market, you see people's faces lighting up and you know exactly what they're thinking - "I could make a fortune selling that back home" But chances are that a hundred other people have thought the same thing. One quick check of E-bay will probably confirm it as well.
I've always advocated having as many revenue streams as you can realistically manage and not to just rely on the teaching. You'd probably agree with that I guess?
Definitely. Whether it be a bit of private teaching or some translation work or some proofreading, try and get as many incomes as you can. Then if your teaching job falls through - and these things do happen - you're not left high and dry with no income at all. That's another good reason I started E-baying. Teaching work here is too unpredictable in my opinion.
I'm no expert but as an E-bay seller, I guess having a good reputation is crucial?
I've served thousands and thousands of happy customers and I've had just three complaints in all that time. My reputation is virtually 100% in terms of customer satisfaction. Yes, that's important. You never want to get a reputation as a seller who doesn't deliver.
What are E-bay like to work with as a trading partner?
They're pretty good. They change the rules and conditions on a fairly regular basis but they always claim it's to help the small businessperson. A lot of the time it does help us but no one is really fooled. It's also usually a way for E-bay to make more money out of us in listing fees.
I kind of lost interest in E-bay when it stopped being primarily an 'auction site' and too many sellers started using the 'buy it now' feature. For me it destroyed the essence of what E-bay was originally about.
Yes, I know what you mean but selling things using the auction method is an incredibly risky strategy. Have you seen how low some of the winning bids can be? You wouldn't make enough to cover your bloody postage and packing.