Glen Johnson has a passion for money.
Not just the green stuff you and I use to pay the grocer and the paperboy. Sure, that kind of money has its place. But Glen's real passion is for old money. Old and rare US paper currency... Paper money printed by or for the Federal Government from 1862-present.
Money he buys and sells as part of a profitable part-time business he runs on the web.
Glen has been collecting US currency on and off as a hobby for about a decade. He started with coins and then moved quickly to paper money. "Many issues of US currency are extremely ornate; works of art in their own right, " he says. "This is what attracted me to it."
A programmer by trade, Glen was also involved with online services, and started buying, selling, and trading paper money as a hobby online in early 1995. " In the beginning, I never really kept track of whether I was making money or losing it. This was just a hobby and I didn't really care," he says.
But then, he started to teach himself html and build a web site. "I spent an awful lot of time working on my website. As the appearance and functionality of the site improved, I got more and more visitors, and more people wanted to buy from me than sell or trade, so I began to get the feeling that I was on to something. That my hobby could be a business."
And he knew exactly where he wanted to set up shop for keeps: on the web.
"There are two reasons I went for the web," Glen says. "First, I noticed that nobody else was doing it, and the other reason was cost. I already had a service provider, I knew how to write web pages, so setting up shop online was going to cost me just about nothing."
Initially he posted price lists on his web site. The lists described what he had available and directed anyone interested in making a purchase to send him email. Whenever anyone wanted to make a purchase, Glen gave them his postal address and asked them to send a check for the purchase.
"There were several problems with this," Glen says. "Customers want instant gratification. It was tedious for people to write me an email, wait for me to respond, get all the information, send me a check and wait for the merchandise. A day or two would go by before a deal was closed, and I had to deal with each and every customer and order manually. I also noticed that I would put up an item at a particular price, and it wouldn't sell. Even if it was an extremely reasonable price. So, I tried the auction format.
"That changed everything.
"Customers are more apt to buy something if they feel like they have some control over the price they are paying. And there's also the "thrill of competition" as well."
Glen managed the auction manually until 1996 . "You'd send me your bid by email, I'd write you back confirming your bid, then manually update the web page with the new price. This worked well for while, although it was a tremendous amount of work for me. 5 minutes before the auction would close, I would get bombed with emails and be frantic writing emails back, updating web pages, and watching the clock. As I grew in popularity, it became an absolute nightmare. I simply could not keep up with it."
So, Glen decided to completely automate the process. He licensed auction software from OpenSite Technologies (www.opensite.com) and it literally "revolutionized" his business, he says. Users now register to bid. Then they click on the item on which they want to bid, and enter their bid amount. The software automatically updates the bid board on the web, emails them a confirmation, emails them immediately if they've been outbid, and generates and emails them an invoice when the auction is over if they've won any bids.
As a result, Glen's website, (http://www.uspapermoney.com) has become the leading web site for US currency sales, bringing in more than $40,000 a year as a sideline business.
Although Glen says he could quit his full-time job if he decided to put more effort into promoting his currency business, he has no plans to do so. "You must understand that my business is not a typical one. Its very much a market driven business that depends on a good, solid economy. My product is not a necessity, its a luxury. And if the stock market bottoms out, people aren't going to spend hundreds of dollars on rare bank notes. The paper money and rare coin markets although independent of each other, react quickly, and in concert with the state of the economy and the market."
Glen's knowledge of his business and his customers has been one of the keys to his success. His knowledge of the web and willingness to work long hours have been important in shaping his success, too.
"Realize that it takes time, effort, and persistence to get people to find your web site," he advises others who would like to start web businesses.. "You cannot create a web site and expect thousands of people to magically show up. I listed myself in all the major search engines, posted short ads in targeted newsgroups, and subscribed to free advertising services like BannerSwap and LinkExchange. If there is a newsgroup dedicated to your particular product or service you need to get in there and talk to people. Be a participant, not just an advertiser. Get involved in the discussions so that people know who you are.
"And, never, EVER, send junk mail. Unsolicited commercial email offends the OVERWHELMING majority of the people that receive it, and the vast majority of people that receive it delete it without even opening it. It is NO way for legitimate business to advertise, and its the fastest way to destroy your reputation."
What advice does Glen have for others who want to start a web-based business?
"First off, guarantee what you sell. Many people are very wary about sending money to an unknown entity. Have some very low priced items to help get first time net-buyers involved without them taking on what they perceive to be a big financial risk.
"If you are not adept at designing professional looking web pages, have someone else do it for you. A poorly designed or amateurish looking web site conveys the impression that you don't care about your business, or are a poorly run operation. If you have a web site that looks like a 9 year old designed it, nobody is going to take you seriously.
"Get your own domain name. This shows that you mean business, that you are here to stay.
"Put your URL and email address on all your business material. Your business cards, your stationery, promotional items, etc.
"Register with the major search engines. Yahoo, Lycos, Infoseek, Altavista, and WebCrawler. You don't need to pay some company $150 to register you with 200 other search engines that few people ever use. Do it yourself for free.
"Do reciprocal free advertising with a banner swap service like Link Exchange. One is enough. Do not plaster your web site with ads.
"Lay off the graphics. Use them sparingly to enhance your site, not dominate it. Make them as small (in terms of # of bytes) as possible. If you make somebody wait forever while a meg of graphics load on your page, they will hit the stop button and go somewhere else.
"Make your web site fun and interesting. Change it regularly. Give people a
reason to keep coming back to it.
"Never ship a product until the check has cleared :)"
Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org