Online entrepreneurs finding success in their own homes
Saturday, July 17, 1999
By Liz Garone
Jeff Schlicht spent his college summers in Chico peddling rainbow-colored shaved ice from a hand-built cart. He made thousands of dollars.
Today, he sells a product of a different kind. He makes a lot more. Plus, he doesn't need a cart to do it -- or the broiling glare of the sun and 100-plus temperatures.
Only a computer and a modem.
Schlicht, who lives in San Mateo, is among a swarm of armchair entrepreneurs selling their wares online from the comfort of their living rooms. A growing number are doing so well that they are making a living selling things through online auctions.
Across the Bay in Alameda, Kok Choo toils away in the living room of the apartment he shares with his wife, Alice, and their 8-month-old son, Isaak.
Choo, 27, quit his regular job a few months ago, going from $40,000-a-year as a computer programmer in Fremont to $200,000 selling software online from his Alameda apartment.
At any given time, Choo will have 200 or more auctions running on a number of sites, including the big three: eBay, Yahoo and Amazon.
"Different sites for different customers," explained Choo, who sells his own "how-to" computer software programs as well as software he buys in bulk from a Fremont distributor. Most of his sales come from eBay, the largest auction site on the Web where more than 2 million items are auctioned each day.
"The other sites are catching up, especially Yahoo," he said. "But eBay still has the most traffic."
It wasn't just the money that enticed Choo into the full-time auctioneer life; he also gets to spend all his time at home with Alice and Isaak.
"Now, I get to take care of him, too," said Choo, holding a squirming Isaak in one arm as he pecked at his keyboard with the other hand. "This way, I get to see him all day."
While Choo and Alice waded through 387 e-mails from customers -- a typical day's total -- Isaak sat, rattling an unopened box of Choo's Web site building software, GreatBuilder.
"Family is very important in my culture," said Choo, whose long-term goal is to take his business with him and return to his native Malaysia.
His parents, brother and sisters still live in Senai, the farming village where he grew up. It was his father, a car mechanic, who gave him the money to come to the United States back in 1991.
"He used all his life savings to get me here," said Choo, who graduated from University of Southern Alabama in 1994 with an engineering degree. "I owe him everything."
Choo has already paid his father back with some of his eBay earnings. He bought him a new house -- "the first-class house in our village" -- and a new car -- to replace the one his father had been driving since 1972.
"Part of my father's dream was for his family to be back together someday," Choo said. "I must honor that."
Like Choo, 27-year-old Schlicht also wants to return to his roots.
In August, the programmer will pack up his things and take his software, AuctionPoster, with him and move back to the Sierra foothills, where his family lives.
Schlicht came up with the idea for the software after spending countless hours trying to post "junk" from around his apartment on eBay.
Without the software, it would take him 20 or even 30 minutes to post a book, he said. And then it would only sell for $5 or $10.
"When it takes that much time and sells for that little, it's not worth it," Schlicht said. "I think my free time is worth more than that."
With AuctionPoster, posting takes a matter of minutes, he said.
Schlicht said he had no idea how popular it would become. Now, thousands of people use it, paying anywhere from $6.95 for one month of service to $29.95 for a year of use.
Schlicht is confident that he can further develop AuctionPoster. Like Choo, he wants to do it far from the high costs and crowds of Silicon Valley -- and knows he can because all he needs is his computer and a modem.
"It's too congested here, and it's too expensive," Schlicht said from his one-bedroom, $1,250 apartment in San Mateo.
Soon, though, he'll be able to type code to the rustling of trees in Paradise, southeast of Chico, where he has a two-bedroom, two-bath $850 apartment with an open view of an oak grove waiting for him.
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