EcommerceBytes-Update, Number 357 - April 20, 2014 - ISSN 1528-6703     2 of 5

SixBit Listing Tool Does Heavy Lifting for eBay Sellers

By Julia Wilkinson

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What was the very first seller tool was to place a formatted HTML template around an eBay listing description? That would be AuctionAssistant, written back in 1997 by John Slocum with his original company, Blackthorne, which eBay later acquired.

Slocum left eBay to create SixBit to support Blackthorne users and expand to other marketplaces beyond eBay, including the auction site bidStart. EcommerceBytes spoke to Slocum to learn how it helps sellers - especially now that eBay has retired Blackthorne - and what's coming next for the SixBit tool.

"At the time I had a full-time job at Lockheed Martin, and was running the business out of my dining room in the evenings," said Slocum of his early days creating an auction listing tool. "The first version of AuctionAssistant came on five three-and-a-half inch diskettes, and I had to teach my four-year-old daughter how to swap diskettes and push a button to start the next disk copy," he added.

Slocum recalls, "Before then, users had to add any HTML formatting themselves, and few users knew how. We offered the first themed templates in our "MegaSet" add-ons, and after that auction templates went on to be an industry of their own."

This was also long before eBay had an API (Application Programming Interface) for third-party developers, he added, "so we would have to download the web pages and "scrape" the HTML data to store in AuctionAssistant." Simple changes to the eBay page formatting was enough to break AuctionAssistant, "and cause us to scurry around for a few hours frantically working on the fix."

Getting Bought by eBay
The first AuctionAssistant was" just a simple listing utility," recalled Slocum, and within four months, he knew that "a more robust business version would be necessary." AuctionAssistant Pro was released in September of 1999.

"At that time, one out of every 10 items listed on eBay was listed with AuctionAssistant," said Slocum, "so that attracted some attention." Andale, which later merged with Vendio, was the first entity to approach Slocum about an acquisition. This was before the Internet bubble burst, when everyone was starting an Internet business, said Slocum. "When I visited Andale, I saw five Stanford MBAs and a team of people with millions of dollars in startup money." He figured it "was only a matter of time before they would overpower me and take all of my customers, so we began discussing an acquisition."

But just days before signing with Andale, one afternoon in December of 1999, Slocum was leaving the office for the day when the phone rang. The machine picked up, but he listened to hear, "Hi, this is Jeff Jordan from eBay,..." "I immediately lunged for the phone, and after a few minutes of very frank conversation, I learned that eBay was interested in purchasing my company also," he said. By Monday afternoon, he was at eBay's headquarters, and shook hands on a deal for Blackthorne to become part of eBay.

As the years passed, Slocum and his team updated AuctionAssistant Pro to become "Seller's Assistant," and then later rewrote it again, and it was renamed Blackthorne, part of eBay's seller toolset.

But "Alas, in 2009 we were caught up in a round of layoffs at eBay where they let my team go and took Blackthorne back in-house," Slocum said.

"After writing auction management software for 12 years, we really didn't know what else to do, so we formed a new company, SixBit Software, and started over," he said. "We'd already rewritten the program three times; what's one more?"

After a few years of development he offered the tool under the name people know it today: SixBit. And, with the recent eBay announcement that Blackthorne was being discontinued, "we're in the midst of converting the Blackthorne users to SixBit," he said. "You could say it's gone full circle."

How Sellers Are Using SixBit
Darron Chadwick is a travelling artist who also sells items including vintage photographs, books, and other merchandise on eBay at Art Vintage Images and Collectables, Etsy, and ArtistRising.com under "Chadwick Studios."

"I find SixBit to be a nice replacement to Blackthorne," continued Chadwick. "I used to edit my photographs in Photoshop and download them into Blackthorne. With SixBit, I no longer have to use Photoshop because of the built-in photo-editing tool - a real time-saver for me," he added

Above: Screen shot of one of SixBit's photo editing screens.

Chadwick says his is a small business, and he used the SixBit tool to migrate from the eBay Blackthorne product.

"I chose SixBit because I like to list offline, and from what I've seen available, most services (are) for online," said Chadwick. He travels a lot and doesn't always have access to the Internet, "and it just makes it easier for me to prepare my listings while I'm on the road," he said. "And when I do have an Internet connection, I just press submit and pray that I didn't miss anything."

Richard Meldner of MDI Performance Sales sells only on eBay, he says, stocking mainly performance aftermarket car parts such as pistons, engine gaskets, rods, shocks, intakes, electronic performance tuners, etc. He uses the Enterprise version of SixBit.

"While we started as a wholesale business (under a different name), we mainly use eBay to sell some of the brands we also distribute," he said. And his company is in the process of building a website that he hopes to launch by mid-summer.

Meldner said his company investigated using SixBit almost three years ago, as eBay was "going through its many upgrades in vehicle and parts compatibility and seller performance standards (feedback)." He said there has been a clear push by eBay to compete with Amazon and "the only way as a seller to continue to have sales success on eBay is to streamline listing and order processing."

Item Specifics and Customer Support
Meldner did not know at the time that Blackthorne was going away, and he thought SixBit "was offering superior customer support. Plus, the price difference between Blackthorne and SixBit was worth the added level of support," he said.

SixBit also offered a unique method to deal with Item Specifics, giving much more flexibility and control over using that feature on eBay, Meldner thought. "We think item specifics are a valuable tool in eBay to provide important data to buyers. SixBit also offers the feature to keep item specifics private (non-posting to eBay), which then allows us to use these fields in our listing templates," he said. "This way we can use SixBit as our master database for all relevant specifications."

SixBit allows you to import and export this information to a flat file, "so updates and additions are very easy." In addition, he liked the way SixBit kept the vehicle compatibility information in XML format in the SQL Server database.

Meldner says his favorite things about SixBit are "the flexible item specifics and the customer service." He also likes the "the relatively well laid-out SQL Server database, which allows for easier integration of custom tools. It is relatively easy to follow the SQL Server DB structure as the tables and field names being used are not cryptic abbreviations, but use real names for easy understanding of their purpose."

He adds that the use of XML to hold some of the data (i.e. the vehicle data) makes it easy to integrate and update that information from outside of SixBit, and "allocation plans are also extremely useful as they allow us to use manufacturer stock information to update real inventory on eBay. (This reduced customer problems by automatically removing listings when an item is on backorder)."

Also fans of SixBit's customer service are Herb and Martha Oberman, who have been using John's software since about 1998, starting with AuctionAssistant, and then Sellers Assistant, Blackthorne, and now SixBit.

They migrated to SixBit after they heard rumors that Blackthorne was going to go away. "Also, our experience with John's past software programs plus the excellent service we have always gotten from him and his staff made the choice easy for us," they said.

They sell vintage post cards, memorabilia and other ephemera under the eBay id herwoldallas, and at the MHO Collectibles eBay Store. A "Small Business"-level user of SixBit, they also sell on Amazon, Bidstart, Bonanza, "and soon 11 Main."

"We have tried a few others over the years and did not find that they had as complete a set of modules from listings, to sales tracking, to customer service to inventory and much more," they said, adding, "SixBit has all we need and lots of capabilities we do not use."

The Obermans said it has amazed them over the years that so many "professional" sellers do not use any seller tools, "but rely on Turbolister and the sell-it-yourself forms. They look at the cost of a seller tool and say they can not afford it, but "they will spend many hours doing things manually that SixBit and other tools do in seconds with a few clicks."

"The information we derive from using SixBit is priceless," said Herb. "I can access customer history, previous listing history, prices realized and so much more. We would be unable to run our business and continue to grow without SixBit."

SixBit's Pricing Structure
SixBit offers three levels of service, spelled out at their Choose the best solution for you page.

Packages start at the "Home & Hobby Level, at $19.99/mo., and go up to "Enterprise" level at $69.99/mo.

On Users' Wish Lists
"I am hoping SixBit can figure out a way to implement working with Etsy," said Chadwick, the artist.

Chadwick added that if he could change something in SixBit it would be the category interface: "Currently, if you want to input the eBay category number, you have to click on manually enter category, then input the number, press enter, then click on the go button. It seems like "enter" should be enough, but hey I'm not a programmer, I'm just an end user."

He said he also wishes users could scrub emails and addresses from SixBit. "I was able to do this with BTPRO, and it was great for sending out newsletters to customers," he said. "I have always hated that eBay has not really picked up on this; I mean let's say I have a customer that buys a black-and-white train photo from me, and I find a huge stash of train photos (this happened ). What would be the harm in letting the buyer know, "Hey, I'm listing these in case you're interested?" I think SixBit at some point will allow this, since I see a lot of users requesting it."

Meldner, the auto parts seller, says, "If importing vehicle information was available today, we would not be developing this feature ourselves right now. But the flipside is that we are also developing a more connected method using industry-standard data source versus a simple flat file import, so in essence over time we would probably have gone down this path anyway."

As for the Obermans, they "would love to see this program interface with Amazon."

They may get their wish soon. When asked if SixBit has plans to integrate with Amazon and other channels, Slocum said, "We currently work with eBay and bidStart, but from the very beginning we have designed SixBit to be multichannel. We consider support for other sites to be crucial to our ongoing success and will continue to work toward that goal."

"I think what separates us from the rest of the pack is our experience with eBay and eBay sellers. We've been around since the very beginning, and along the way I've talked with thousands of eBayers. We know how they think and the features they are looking for, and our track record shows that we work hard to deliver those features."

Learn more on the SixBit website.


About the author:

Julia Wilkinson is the author of "The eBay Price Guide" (No Starch Press, 2006) and "eBay Top 100 Simplified Tips & Tricks" (Wiley, 2004-6). Her free "Yard Salers" newsletter is at available at YardSalers.net where you will also find her latest ebook, Flip It Again.


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