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eBay’s glass ceiling: What one online retailer did to change his fortune

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What does a military air traffic controller and an ecommerce guru have in common? Probably nothing – and that’s exactly why Nathan Hartnett gave up his post with the Royal Australian Air Force in 2007.

Described by Nathan as “hours of boredom mingled with moments of terror,” his career as an air traffic controller wasn’t shaping up to provide the flexibility he was looking for. True, Nathan was tipped for promotion, but when he lost his deployment opportunities and freedom to participate in military exercises, it just wasn’t fun any more. In what might appear to be a random change of course, Nathan turned to eBay for a future in retail. But it wasn’t so much random as a carefully crafted manoeuvre following substantial investigation and research.

Nathan said “the end goal at the beginning was simply to have enough location independent income coming in so that we could move to Thailand and not have to work! Online seemed to be the natural place to achieve this.

“Initially, I just wanted to know how to use eBay and then start figuring out how to source products – and just keep learning from there.”

With his wife Tessa firmly on board, the couple started selling men’s jewellery through an eBay store. A choice that may seem random, but Nathan explains: “I had read that it was important to find a market before finding a product, and I found out that jewellery was the highest selling category on eBay. I gravitated towards men’s jewellery because it seemed to be an under-served niche.”

Then, after only a year of trading, Nathan and Tessa ‘hit the roof.’ In 2008, eBay increased its seller fees as well as introduce new policies to suit sellers who sold the most volume.

Nathan said “we had a higher profit margin, lower conversion strategy. We could have changed our strategy, but the low profit margins would have turned our business into a part time hobby, so it wasn’t a viable strategy or platform for us anymore.”

In a bid to graduate from eBay’s platform, Nathan and Tessa began experimenting with as many as 30 different ecommerce sites to find the perfect formula. Their two biggest successes were mensringsonline and maskshq. The once eBay novices later became ecommerce experts, rolling out three other platforms: hammockhq, bowtiehq and foreverfascinators. All under the umbrella of their new enterprise, Hashtag Brands.

Speaking of their endeavours for the ‘winning formula,’ Nathan said “we learned how to find product niches that people are already searching for, learned how to source the product with low capital outlay and low risk and most of all, learned how to rank the sites in Google.

“Once we have completed this analysis, and are happy, then we’ll build a site and source an initial range of stock.”

Since 2007, this ecommerce venture has grown from a $30,000 per year in revenue to just over $320,000 in 2014-2015.

And the question many want to ask of Australian online retailers: Are they affected by overseas competitors? “Not really” said Nathan.

“While there are international competitors, we can always ship much faster, exchange easier, and have cheaper returns for our customers,” he said.

So it would seem they still have a great deal of bargaining power to play with.

Now – Nathan and Tessa have achieved exactly what they set out to achieve with Hashtag Brands: they‘ve lived in Thailand for two years, and they’ve spent two years in Christchurch, New Zealand. All “on a whim,” because they can.

“The business has given us well beyond the lifestyle we were looking for,” said Nathan.”

Now, spending time mentoring others in ecommerce and having been named a finalist at the 2015 Brisbane Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards, Nathan concedes that he and Tessa are “thinking much bigger now than at the start.”

“Initially the business was just a necessary evil to get the lifestyle we wanted, but now business and entrepreneurship itself has become our passion and way of life,” said Nathan.

Having launched International versions of their stores earlier in the year, their new focus is perhaps one rarely ever heard of: to develop a business that “can not only run without us, but also grow without us.”