On the Internet, We’re All Equal: One Online Seller’s Story
By Stacie Sefton, Founder and CEO, BHFO, Inc.
I am a mom, a wife, an entrepreneur, a fashion junkie, and also the CEO and founder of a retail company that does more than $40 million in annual online sales on eBay. It bears mentioning, although is implicit in my introduction, that I am a woman.
I read the New York Times story on gender inequality in online marketplaces with much interest, and it prompted me to tell my own story.
I’m one of many millions of women who, thanks to the Internet, have been able to achieve what many of us regard as the Holy Grail — building a sustainable business that allows us the flexibility to spend time with our families. And ours is very much a family business — even our name, BHFO, comes from the initials of our daughters, Brittany and Hannah Factory Outlet.
We got our start in the basement of our Cedar Rapids, Iowa home in 2003 when my husband Jon and I — inspired by a book we’d read on how to build a million dollar business on eBay — tried our hands at selling online.
And some days I pinch myself when I look around and realize that’s exactly what we’ve done, in just 13 years.
The first thing we ever sold was a baby carrier backpack, but I quickly realized the best entrepreneurs do something they’re passionate about. And so I moved into fashion and began helping women find the brands they loved — brands like Juicy Couture, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, Eileen Fisher — at prices they could afford.
Of course, it hasn’t all been easy. As any entrepreneur will tell you, starting a business never is. Growing it to the scale BHFO now operates at has been both incredibly challenging and immensely rewarding. The hours are long and I am away from home a lot as I travel the country, meeting vendors face to face building our sourcing relationships. I got many ‘no’s’ in the beginning, but persistence paid off. The challenge of finding business partners who are right for our growth has also not been easy. We learned from our mistakes which is typically all part of growing a successful business.
But I can honestly say that none of the challenges we’ve faced have been because of my gender. I have never considered being a woman to have any impact on my success. If anything, as we built an online fashion business, knowing what other women want, especially women with busy lives like mine, has given us an edge.
In the 13 years since we started out in our basement, we’ve sold five million items to over 700,000 unique buyers. Needless to say, we’re no longer in our basement — that lasted 18 months before our business took off. Several moves to new locations later, we’re now in a 250,000 square foot facility, complete with robotic technology and, for our employees, a cafeteria, game room, fitness center and a lounge with massage chairs and a TV.
And that brings me to the thing that makes me proudest of all. Through BHFO, we’ve been able to create jobs for 170 people here in Iowa — both men and women, full and part-time. Knowing that they depend on us is what motivates me.
That’s why I wanted to tell my story, because I believe passionately in the democratizing power of the internet.
Ours is an imperfect world. There’s no doubt discrimination still exists in all walks of life. But the beauty of online commerce is that it’s blind. Regardless of your gender, your age, your race or your abilities, anyone with an idea, an appetite for hard work, and the will to succeed, can build a business. Women looking for an opportunity to return to work can do it in a way that suits them. People for whom a 9 to 5 job is impossible, because of illness or personal challenges, can find their own path to success. And a couple operating out of their basement in Iowa can, one day, find themselves competing with global brands.
On the internet, we’re all equal.