TradeMe's top guns

21:38, Feb 17 2009

Humble auction beginnings with TradeMe have led to substantial life changes for some, writes Rob Stock.

They are famous people, but although they are known to tens of thousands, few know their real names or have seen their faces.

They're the top traders from TradeMe, and between them the top 25 or so are responsible for more than 100,000 listings a month on the auction website, which has about 1.8 million members.

Hidden behind names like barginsdirect, alfle, gazza1234, aimeelouwhite and morzart, are real people who have used TradeMe as a platform to transform their lives, and make a nice income along the way.

At the top of the tree is former wholesaler for The Warehouse Kevin Swendson, from Auckland, who used his experience to launch a business two years ago which has taken TradeMe by storm and built a table-topping 27,836 feedbacks.

In second place is Owen Ellis, based on Wellington's Kapiti Coast, who, with his mother Joan, has built an electronics trading business called New Zealand Online Auction Broking which boasts 26,855 feedbacks. Ellis started the business in 2000 when still a student, aiming to make a little extra cash in his spare time and keep his student loan as low as possible. Things mushroomed quickly, though while he still sees himself as a top trader, he hopes to help others leapfrog him.

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Ellis happily admits he played a part in Swendson's success by supplying him with consultancy and software support to manage 1500 successful auctions each week.

Ellis's latest TradeMe venture is to package up those services into a new business Snipesoft.

Gazza1234 is Gary Skipper, giftware and hunting knife trader since 2002. Trading allowed him to kick his printing job and move closer to his sick mother, leaving behind the traffic and stress of Auckland for Whitianga in the Coromandel. Skipper says: "We both used to work in the same place, but it used to take us three-quarters of an hour to drive the 7km to work. Now I can walk to work in two minutes."

Others traders say TradeMe has transformed their lives.

Mark Esdot aka Esdot and esdotpc uses profits from trading to pursue his dream of opening a national chain of toy stores, the first of which has just opened in Wainuiomata.

Cathy Phillips aka Morzart was able to give up the life of a travelling sales rep and put down roots in Havelock North as a result of her books, gifts and linen trading business. It also allowed her and her husband to start a computer shop Peak PCs after a spinal injury made employers turn their backs on him.

She says surviving as a trader is getting harder as TradeMe grows. "It's a numbers game. The more product you put up, the more you sell.

"Competition is intense. Our stock base is three times higher than it was three years ago and we have got to be constantly looking for something new to do."

Skipper says being able to secure good quality stock and enough of it, at the right price means skilled traders can stay ahead of competitors. He reckons rivals would need several hundred thousand dollars to invest to be able to rival him quickly.

TradeMe is a perfect place for former National Women's Hospital nurse Sue Vlug-Smith, who trades under the name womantics ("women having antics") to sell her adult toys and clothing. The larger-than-life Franklin resident began selling health books, but says customers started asking for sexual health books; from there requests came in for guides to more rarified practices like bondage, then for sex toys. "Everyone kept screaming, 'We want toys,"' she recalls.

She sources much from overseas, and she admits she ends up browsing some unusual websites, but will source leather goods only in New Zealand as she has to be sure they are not made using child labour, which is rife in the global leather business.

She would figure higher in the rankings, she says, only many of her customers are too coy to post feedbacks. She has her own online shop as well, and plans a retail store too.

Aimeelouwhite is Pauline White from Rangiora in the South Island. Aimee Louise is her oldest daughter. Like many successful traders she's a member of the very exclusive club of traders with more than 10,000 feedbacks she is launching her own online retail portal, selling the end-of-line lingerie, clothing and bridalware.

Like many new mums she bought items on TradeMe and sold things she no longer needed, but in mid-2005, laid low by illness in pregnancy, she and husband Nigel decided to trade for real.

For her, though, trading is not an end game, and she intends to return to work as a primary school teacher, which is her passion.

For many, hours are long.

Ryan (he won't reveal his surname) of Carterton Ryan, an electronics trader on TradeMe, says he works full-time as an educator and has gathered his 6440 feedbacks through after-hours operations. An immigrant from Fiji, he starts at 4am or 5am and he claims often not to be in bed before midnight.

He's living proof, he says, that TradeMe can change lives, having paid for his first stock using the $3000 limit on a credit card.

Christchurch couple Mary-Anne and Jeff Ziolo-Tait who trade as maz.jeff and have the single greatest number of positive feedbacks of any of the traders we tracked down, at over 53,700 are now mortgage-free and building an office and warehouse as a result of their large but expanding craft supplies business.

They work hard for their money, as both also hold down fulltime jobs ("I don't watch TV," Mary-Anne says), and believe strongly in looking after customers. Despite the huge number of trades they have done, they have only three negative feedbacks.

Bejewelled Sandra Boston from Whangarei is TradeMe's cake lady.

Boston, who also runs the website www.kiwicakes.co.nz, generally has 500-700 auctions on the go. Selling everything cake-related, including Jewish and Masonic cake and sweet molds (both of them big sellers), she says she got into trading when she struggled to find cake supplies.

That was back in November 2002, and a business was born. Now, if there's something she wants, but can't find, like her paua shell and silver fern chocolate molds, she commissions craftsmen overseas to make them.

As well as individuals who have become business people through trading, some businesses have turned to TradeMe to expand. These include online DVD rental firm Movieshack, Christchurch shop The Complete Angler, owned by Malcom Bell, aka fishabell, and Shuai, the TradeMe identity of Pulse Fitness and Leisure, owned by David Dolbel.

Sunday Star Times