Careers: Interviews
Chuck Eglinton: Famed Programmer, eBay Expert, Publisher, Entrepreneurial Pioneer

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Chuck Eglinton.

As an eBay user since 1997, Eglinton achieved eBay Power Seller status in 1998 and has a positive feedback rating of more than 3,300 points. Moreover, as an "auction sniping" pioneer, his www.BidRobot.com website places last minute “snipes” for tens of thousands of eBay bidders.

Chuck’s software, in its current form at www.FastLister.com, was one of the first fill-in-the-blank software programs designed to create custom eBay item listings and has a proven record of more than 5-million eBay listings to date.

His eBay tools have been mentioned in the best-selling books, “eBay for Dummies,” “Internet Auctions for Dummies,” and “eBay: The Perfect Store.” He also publishes a free e-mail newsletter about online auctions at www.AuctionIncome.com

Eglinton is an accomplished computer programmer, eBay expert, and the proprietor of a short term vacation rental homes near Walt Disney World at the website http://www.mickeytown.com 

Discussion:

Q: Chuck, you are an Internet pioneer and widely known for your innovations and accomplishments. Thank you for doing this interview.

A:  Thank you for inviting me. 

Q: Since a large portion of our audience members are computing professionals including computing students, this question centers on computing. What triggered your interest in computers and in the Internet?  

A:  I graduated from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, which is about 30 miles north of Detroit.  When I attended Oakland in the early eighties, their computer science department taught languages that would help students get jobs with one of the three major auto companies that were nearby.  I enjoyed the university mainframe programming classes, but not as much as I liked tinkering with the personal computers that were relatively new at the time.  I read quite a few books in my spare time that taught programming that was specific to personal computers.  Throughout college, I owned a series of Radio Shack and Apple computers and spent time chatting with other programmers and PC hobbyists on CompuServe, Usenet, and public bulletin boards.  My interest in the Internet came naturally after using direct dial modems and using the early online services like Compuserve and GEnie. 

Q: You have an enviable record with eBay. What’s the fascination with eBay and what specific factors have contributed to your success? 

A: My biggest fascination with eBay is how well it works considering how large it is.  I’m also fascinated by how many individuals and businesses use eBay as a platform to earn a living.  At the most basic level, some sellers sell items for friends and strangers for a fee.  At the other end of the scale, some very large companies have eBay stores and they sell millions of dollars in merchandise through eBay each year.  

I believe I’ve been successful at eBay because I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible when describing the items I’ve sold and I complete transactions as quickly as possible to keep my buyers happy.  

Q: Describe achieving eBay Power Seller status and your high feedback rating. 

A:  eBay Power Sellers are the top sellers who have a 98% or better positive feedback rating and maintain a high volume of monthly sales.  I became a Powerseller in 1998, but I’ve been on and off eBay’s Powerseller list because I don’t spend as much time selling as I used to.  I’ve accumulated a lot of positive feedback because I’m quick to leave positive feedback for my buyers and my buyers are often satisfied that the items I deliver are as described in the listing.

Q: You are in the ideal position to know. What is wrong and right about eBay? What would you change? 

A: What’s most right about eBay is eBay’s user community.  eBay’s Feedback is a public rating system that helps buyers and sellers evaluate the trustworthiness of one another.  eBay’s PayPal.com payment service offers a buyer protection program that protects buyers when they purchase items from sellers who have a feedback score of 98% or more.  eBay’s feedback system and buyer protection programs give buyers the confidence to bid at eBay millions of times each day.  Building confidence in the buyers and sellers is something that eBay has gotten right from the start. 

From a seller’s viewpoint, eBay is not tough enough on non-paying bidders.  These are the folks who bid on an item but then never pay for it.   It’s not an immense problem related to eBay’s volume of sales, but it’s clearly a big inconvenience to sellers who have to file reports with eBay, have fees refunded and then list the item again at eBay.  Also, frequent sellers complain that eBay’s fees are rising out of control.  In February 2005, eBay raised the monthly fee for an eBay store by more than 50%.  They’ve also raised rates for extended listings, photo hosting, galleries and other options.   

Also, eBay’s selling process is too complex for beginners.  EBay’s online listing process now requires completion of eleven screens or more.  Many of these screens contain unnecessary options that can cost a seller more to list an item.  While I don’t have any suggestions for the non-paying bidder problem, my www.FastLister.com website helps sellers list items at eBay six times faster than if they use eBay’s online lister.  FastLister.com will allow a seller to list an item, using only two screens instead of eleven.  FastLister.com can also save sellers money since we charge fees that are lower than eBay’s for hosting pictures and scheduling auction starting times.

Q: Sniping sometimes creates controversy and you are one of its pioneers. For the uninitiated, describe what it is? What prompted you to innovate in this area, and what are the advantages and disadvantages?

A:  A traditional “live” auction will continue for as long as two bidders want to bid against each other.  By contrast, each eBay auction ends at a specific time as determined by the seller.  This is called a “hard close.”  When an eBay auction ends, no more bids are allowed, even if there was a possibility that other bidders wanted to bid higher amounts.  So, an eBay “sniper” waits until the last few seconds of an auction before submitting a bid.  The primary reason they do this is because the auction ends moments after the bid is accepted and competing bidders will not have time to place a “counter bid.”  

Bidders should understand that snipers don’t win every time.  Ultimately it is the highest bidder who always wins, even if the highest bidder is not a sniper.  Also, if something technically goes wrong when submitting a last-minute bid, the bidder can be out of luck.  There are no second chances if a last minute “snipe” bid fails.

When a sniper places a bid in the last few moments of an auction, it generally throws other bidders off because they may have been watching an auction for several days and they’re completely blindsided by the sniper’s last minute bid.  Snipers believe that placing a last minute bid eliminates the emotional bidding war that can cause the winner to pay too much for an item. 

Also, bidders who snipe a bid in the last few seconds can hide their interest in an item until an auction has ended.  If collectors bid early in an auction and use eBay’s regular bidding system, then their competitors can see every pending bid and can easily bid against them.  So, many stamp collectors, coin collectors and other professional buyers use sniping software to hide their interest in an auction until it is too late for their competitors to bid against them.

Another reason bidders use my www.BidRobot.com sniping service is for its unique “group bid” feature. Let’s say you want to buy a specific model of a digital camera, but there are currently 10 different eBay auctions for that type of camera.  BidRobot’s “group bid” feature will let you place pending bids for all ten of the camera auctions, and will snipe each bid as each auction ends.  However, at the moment you win any one of the camera auctions, BidRobot will automatically cancel your pending bids for the remaining camera auctions.   Group Bidding is not available at eBay.  You can’t place bids on multiple auctions at eBay and have them automatically cancel when you win one auction.  Group bidding is a bidding feature you can get from BidRobot but you can’t get from eBay.  Some of our BidRobot customers care less about sniping than they do about the convenience of placing these group bids.

The first auction snipers have been around since the beginning days of eBay and they would submit last minute bids manually using a stopwatch and a browser.  I started off as a manual sniper.  I wrote a computer program for sniping in 1998 because I didn’t like sitting at my computer at all hours of the day and night to place bids.  I wrote BidRobot.com for myself and later cleaned it up and started selling it to other eBay snipers.

Q: What unique tips can you provide on being successful with online auctions?

Whether you are a buyer or a seller, it is good to know the recent selling price for your item.  At eBay, you can click “Advanced Search” then click “Completed listings only” to search for an item and know beforehand what similar items have recently been selling for at eBay.  As a seller, you’ll know how much you can expect to get for your item.  As a buyer you’ll know approximately how much you’ll need to bid to win that type of item.

If you are selling items, you can be most successful if you schedule your auctions to end when the greatest number of people can bid against each other to increase the bid amount.  Generally this means setting an auction ending time of Saturday or Sunday evening when eBay has the most bidders online.  You’ll also get higher bids if your listing is clear, concise and includes pictures.

As a bidder, you’ll get the best deals by bidding on auctions that end at times when other bidders are not around.  For example, you’re most likely to win an item for a great price if the auction ends at 3:00 am – because no other bidders are online to bid against you. Holidays are a good time to bid because many prospective bidders are away from their computers.  Sunday nights are when you’ll have the greatest numbers of bidders to compete against.  Of course, sniping your bid in the final few seconds, either manually or with a service like BidRobot.com, can help you win more auctions and pay less for the items you win.

Q: Can you share five areas that are good and bad about the Internet?

A: Good: 

1) The Internet can be inexpensive and is available to just about anyone with a computer.  Many libraries currently offer free dial up service. For more advanced users, it’s great that wireless Internet access is becoming available in new public places all the time.

2) The Internet can make anyone a publisher.  Weblog programs, or blog programs, are menu driven programs that allow anyone to publish their writing on an Internet web page for the whole world to see.

 3) The Internet can make anyone a business owner.  The average person has an unprecedented variety of options for selling services and products on the Internet.  You can knit a hat, create a beaded bracelet, or build a cabinet then sell it for a profit on your own website or at established Internet stores like stores.yahoo.com, stores.amazon.com, and stores.eBay.com. 

4) The Internet lets people talk cheaply or free.  The Vonage.com voice over Internet (VOIP) telephone that I installed in my home is 75% less expensive than our old wired phone and the sound quality is the same or better as our old wired phone. Some people use a telephony program from Skype.com to make free, clear, voice calls to other Internet users, anywhere in the world. 

5) Internet news is more current than newspaper news.   News.google.com allows anyone to create a custom newspaper and browse 4,500 news sources.  I can get more news from 20 minutes on the Internet than I used to get after watching 90 minutes of television news.

Bad:

1) Phishing is the act of trying to get a user’s id or other sensitive information by using a fake e-mail that masquerades as an official correspondence from eBay, or a bank, or some other institution.  Many people are tricked into giving away passwords to phishers every day.

2) Although I’m not receiving as much e-mail spam as I have in the past, it is still a problem.  I’m confident that eventually Internet service providers will establish e-mail verification systems that will put both spammers and phishers out of business. 

3) Viruses also continue to be a problem. I’ve been using AVG from Grisoft for the past few years which does a fine job of containing them.  Home users can get a free version of AVG at the free.grisoft.com website.  I also use the online updates for Windows to install Microsoft’s latest security patches every few weeks. 

4) Spyware can redirect browsers, cause pop-up advertisements, and slow down a computer.  I use a program called “Spybot Search and Destroy” to contain spyware, but I wish that my Internet Browser eliminated spyware automatically.  

5) Parental controls for the Internet could be better.  I’ve tried some net-nanny type programs with limited success.  I really like Google’s “Safe Search” option which filters inappropriate sites and allows only family friendly web sites to appear in the Google search results.

Q: How will your software products and web sites evolve in the short, medium and long term?

A: Short term:
In the past few years I’ve been concentrating more on creating websites rather than stand-alone software because websites are much easier to maintain and support.  Our distribution and update issues disappear when customers are using a website instead of downloading files and installing programs.

Medium term:
In the medium term I hope to complete a collection of subscription-based websites that operate independently of each other and serve various niches.   While I expect that eBay will be around for a long time, I also enjoy working on sites that automate other processes, like managing vacation rental properties.

Long term:
Web sites like eBay, Yahoo and Google don’t change often and they don’t change much.  I can appreciate that.  My sites change the most throughout design, alpha testing and beta testing.  After a site has been operating for several months, I don’t expect that I’ll be making many changes to it other than technical changes that will improve performance.  My goal is always to produce applications that are intuitive and simple so that anyone can use them.

Q: Can you make 5 forecasts about the future? You can choose any area.

A: How about if I mention interesting ideas that I’ve read about that I think have the greatest promise of becoming reality?

1) My family started driving a Toyota Prius Hybrid electric vehicle a few years ago.  Hybrid automobiles have an electric motor that works with the gasoline engine to achieve up to 60 miles per gallon.  By design, you don’t have to plug in a hybrid because the car’s batteries are charged by the gas engine and generators in the car.  However, hobbyists have decided that they wanted another choice besides burning gasoline to charge the batteries.  They’ve modified hybrid cars so that the batteries can be recharged from either the gasoline engine or by plugging the car into an electrical outlet each night.  These plug-in hybrids can achieve up to 150 miles per gallon of gas.  I believe that the auto manufacturers will eventually copy the hobbyists and offer plug-in hybrid automobiles that will achieve more than 100 miles per gallon of gas.

2) Folks who have Tivo or other hard-drive based Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) appreciate the ability to skip over commercials and the convenience of watching television programs whenever they want.  PVR’s automatically record programs to a computer hard drive so that you can pause and rewind live television and watch programs at times that are convenient for you.  Look for similar devices for your car radio and other portable radios.  Satellites and radio stations will simply deliver your favorite programs and music to your portable radio and you’ll be able to pause and rewind and enjoy the audio on your schedule instead of theirs.

3) Many people prefer the touch and feel of real paper when reading a book.  To them, reading is just not the same on a computer screen.  In a few years, computer screens will be nearly as thin as paper.  You’ll be able to view these flat computer screens in direct light without a backlight.  Large companies like Kodak have created prototypes of Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) screens that are flat and flexible and will likely replace the LCD screens we use today.

4) Your cell phone will continue to do even more amazing tricks.  For many people, cell phones have replaced wristwatches, electronic organizers and digital cameras.   For years, cell phone companies have offered handsets with downloadable games.  Now several phone companies offer video clips to your cell phone, on demand.  Some cell phones have GPS chips that can be used to display the location of your cell phone on a map on the Internet.  Some cell phones have memory expansion slots that allow phones to show pictures and play music.   Your IPOD could be the next device to disappear when the wireless phone companies begin to stream music and programs directly to your cell phone.  Your cell phone will become a pocket entertainment system.

5) In a few short years, the Internet will be available everywhere – and it will be free in many places.  You’ll get easy Internet connections on airplanes, in automobiles, on city streets.  Right now, you can buy a plug-in PCMCIA card from www.VerizonWireless.com that will allow your laptop instantly connect to the Internet at speeds that are ten times faster than dial-up. Oakland County, Michigan, where I live, is planning to make its entire 910 mile area a huge Wi-Fi Internet hotspot.  Many cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston and Albuquerque are also planning to blanket large urban areas with free Internet access.

Q: What are your favorite information links, tools, and other resources? Why?

A: 1) I use www.Google.com to find answers to technical questions and to research current projects.  I’ve installed the Google toolbar (toolbar.google.com) and I use it throughout the day.   The Google toolbar appears at the top of my browser and it allows quick searches for websites, discussion groups and Internet images.  The toolbar also stops pop-ups and can quickly look up word definitions.

2) I participate in discussions lists and online message boards.  It seems that no matter what your business is, or what your hobbies are, you can find community on the Internet.  The lists I visit are related to vacation rental home ownership, entrepreneurship, and other business topics.  Groups.Google.com and Groups.yahoo.com are good places to start when looking for a discussion group. 

3) Trillian Chat Software allows me to exchange text messages throughout the day with co-workers, friends and family.  Trillian provides simultaneous access to five popular Internet chat clients: Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, ICQ, mIRC, and AOL Instant Messenger.…

4) I visit several web sites to get my daily news.  I read online editions of our two local Detroit newspapers.  I also read the Orlando Sentinel Online because our rental homes are there.  I really like news.google.com where you can to create a custom news layout and browse news feeds from 4,500 sources.  I also subscribe to the Wall Street Journal Online, Business Week Online and some other online periodicals.  I read for at least 40 minutes each day for inspiration and business ideas.

5) I’ve come to rely on the text messaging on my Verizon Cell phone.  Some of my business reports are sent to the display on my cell phone.  Web site and server problem reports are also sent to my cell phone display.  Also, I’ve become fairly good at using the keypad to send short messages from my phone number pad.  I have some friends that are using more sophisticated telephones like the T-mobile Sidekick and the Treo.  However, I like that my Verizon phone is small enough to fit, unnoticed, in my shirt pocket.

Q: Give one example of a major challenge in the last six months and how it was resolved?

A:  You mentioned in my introduction that I own short-term rental homes near Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  In the past few months, I have been overwhelmed with correspondence related to that business.  It takes a lot of time to respond to inquiries, send rental agreements, update availability calendars, and perform other routine paperwork.  So, I produced a website, www.RentalToDo.com, that automates these things.  I’ve been testing RentalToDo.com for the past few weeks and it has cut my manual correspondence work load in half.  I expect to make RentalToDo.com available to other vacation rental owners sometime this summer and I’m sure it will save them as much time it saves me.

Q: Impossible question, however you are a visionary so …where do you see yourself in five and ten years?

A:  I’ve really enjoyed producing software for the past 20 years and web sites for the past several years.  I hope that I’m doing more of the same for the next five to ten years.  I’ve been working with friends on some joint Internet ventures.  I hope to do more of that in the years to come.

Q: Here is where we turn it around. Imagine you are the interviewer; what three questions would you ask and what would be your answers?

A: Q1) Can the average person make money with an eBay business?
A1) Yes!  Thousands of average people have been make profits every day by buying items at garage sales then selling them on eBay.  People have also bought wholesale items in bulk then sold them individually at eBay for a profit. Some sellers sell items for others and charge a service fee or a commission for each eBay item they list.  Visit www.Amazon.com and search for “eBay business” to find several books about starting your own eBay business.  You can also find information about eBay businesses at www.AuctionIncome.com

Q2) What is an important thing for novice eBay Sellers and Buyers to remember?
A2) For buyers, be sure to read the seller’s feedback comments and be clear about the seller’s return policies before you place your bid.  For sellers, don’t ship the item until the buyer’s funds clear your bank account. 

Q3) How do you come up with ideas for your programs and web sites?
A3) I read a lot of business publications.  I like to talk to people in all types of traditional businesses to hear how they think the Internet could make their jobs easier.  I believe there are still many opportunities for entrepreneurs to translate some aspects of off-line businesses to time-saving on-line subscription services.

Q: Chuck, it has been interesting. You are even into vacation rental homes at www.Mickeytown.com. Amazing! Thank you for sharing you deep insights and experiences with our audience.

A: Thank you.  It has been a pleasure.

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