Early in my career, I made the big leap from the Northeast to Texas to take a job developing a combined box-office and sales operation for the four major Houston performing arts groups. The first person to reach out to me was Larry Mers, an educator at Houston Community College, a singer in the Houston Grand Opera chorus, and a real live Texan from Corpus Christi. Larry was a great mentor to me, and he helped me navigate a very different culture and climate than I was used to.
After a couple of weeks, Larry invited me to his house to meet his partner, Carl Dreibelbis. Carl and I hit it off instantly. Behind the small house he and Mers shared in Alief was a large greenhouse filled with all kinds of rare cacti and succulents, many in bloom. I’d only seen cacti on television Westerns, and the occasional one growing in someone’s office. I got the grand tour of Carl’s cacti, each one more rare than the previous one. Larry, Carl, and I remained friends after I’d moved back to the cold Northern winters, and with the arrival of Facebook, began sharing updates on a more frequent basis.
Larry had risen in the ranks of education in Houston; Carl had a great career in the corporate sector in the United States and Singapore, then as an independent contractor working in New York and Mexico, and as a consultant for an online retailer. He became adept at logistics, traffic management, and order management, all skills he brought to growing and selling plants. All along the way, he grew and sold the rare cacti and succulents, and in 2009, started a business, Bodombilly, in Livingston, Texas, where he lives on a 25-acre farm with his five greenhouses, 20,000+ plants, 11 donkeys and five dogs.
Dreibelbis originally created Bodombilly to sell rare beads on eBay. The “Bodom” bead from Ghana is extremely rare, shrouded in folklore and high-priced. Dreiblbis had a good collection of them; the market was hot, the prices were high so he created the name “Bodombilly” and was ready to sell. But something came up and he had a major delay in starting this bead business so he used this name to sell rare plants and the rest is history.
(As a side note, Dreiblbis co-authored African Beads: Jewels of a Continent with Evelyn Simak and Lois Sherr Dubin, published by Africa Direct.)
“I’ve a business with one employee–me, oh, and my boss–me”, says Dreibelbis. “I’m a power seller on EBay, and when I’m actively selling, my offerings are online at this address.
Dreibelbis’ transition from cactus hobby to business did not follow a traditional path. “It was a surreal experiment more than a decision,” he says. “I’m self-taught in the art and science of cacti propagation, sales, and shipping. I had been watching the eBay rare plant market for several years and suddenly there was a boom in demand for a few species that I had been growing for years. My consulting contract was near an end and the employment market in Houston was extra dire, so I decided to take the plunge and become an eBay seller.”
Dreibelbis brings his corporate skills to the greenhouse. “Since I started, I’m more streamlined, more savvy and more efficient,” he says. “I am fortunate to be in a niche market soliciting to mainly serious collectors of rare plants. Unlike so many other sellers, I offer items others cannot. Being involved with these plants for over 40 years has given me an expansive list of sources, plus I have been successful with difficult propagation methods. Additionally, photographs are what sell plants on eBay, and I have been told numerous times that I have the best photos. High contrast color photographs are important.”
Dreibelbis automated his business, using EBay for sales, PayPal for orders, and generating his postage from his computer. First and foremost, he believes in good customer service. “I’d heard the old phrase ‘we want to exceed our customer’s expectations,’” says Dreiubelbis, “And I’m the sole customer service person. I want to know that the customer received their order promptly, and that they’re satisfied with what they received.”
Since turning his hobby into a business, Dreibelbis has staged, completed and shipped 9,638 orders (with 1 to 30 plants) on eBay to date and all customers have left positive feedback.
Dreibelbis didn’t follow the course of having advisers and mentors. He credits Mark Twain for some of his acumen. “As Twain said,’A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.’” laughs Dreiblbis. He also says “There has been only one mentor in my life, Larry Mers.” Mers died in 2013.
If someone asked Dreiblbis about starting a business, he’d be enthusiastic. “You never know until you go!”
And that’s succeeding in small business.
Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.