P.E.I. entrepreneur Marco Thorne says he was caught off guard but "pleasantly surprised" when eBay told him it wanted to celebrate his business in its hall of fame as part of the company's 25th anniversary.
Thorne has run his little hockey equipment store, API Hockey, for 15 years — first in Wellington, then in Charlottetown and for the last several years in Cornwall. Selling on eBay, as well as via a website of his own, has always been an important part of his business.
"They mentioned that it's not financially the most successful, but they were looking for long-time small business stores [to celebrate doing business] with eBay," Thorne said.
"They were looking for different businesses with different approaches. I told them a little bit about what eBay meant to my business, and one thing led to another I guess and they liked the story, and they liked the fact that I was still with eBay."
'It was a big effort'
Selling hockey equipment is Thorne's second career — he was first a teacher for a decade, working in Wellington.
He grew up in Montreal, where he played hockey in college and even went semi-pro for a time. He then attended St. Thomas University in Fredericton, where he played for the university team coached by P.E.I. native Al MacAdam, who had just finished a 12-year career in the National Hockey League.
But Thorne said he found his passion for education fading. At the same time, he revived an idea for an innovative product he had invented in 1985, that protected hockey players from what's known as "lace bite" — when tight laces cause the tongue of the skate to bite painfully into the front of players' ankles.
Thorne called the product ankle protective inserts, or APIs, and describes them as little foam "pillows" players place on the front of their ankles. In the mid-1990s, he began having them manufactured, and successfully pitched and supplied them to several large retailers. Players loved them, and several NHL teams used them.
But like many other innovative entrepreneurs before him, Thorne had a great product that sold successfully, but found it wasn't the road to riches.
"I had a go at it, and it was a good idea," Thorne said. "I soon found out it was a big effort to make a little bit of money, in the long run."
In his travels to promote the APIs, however, he made contacts and got into business with other manufacturers and retailers, and he began selling other types of hockey gear from his basement, via his website APIHockey.com.
"When one door closes, another one opens," Thorne said pragmatically.
He eventually quit his teaching job and opened a hockey equipment store, taking the plunge into retailing full-time. He sells everything from helmets and skates as well as branded merchandise for local minor hockey teams, whom he said have been a great supporter of his store.
'eBay became a neccessity'
The APIs were the first product Thorne sold on eBay.
"After a while, eBay became a neccessity for my business" he said. As a small store, Thorne said he doesn't have the buying power large retailers have to make bulk purchases that allow them to not only sell at lower prices, but make profits on even deeply-discounted items. So Thorne uses eBay as a type of clearance centre — he posts "lingering product" he has left from previous seasons, at reasonable prices.
The big manufacturers will not allow retailers to post current products for sale on eBay, Thorne explained, but will permit selling of older stock.
The strategy has worked well, he said — his sales on eBay account for a third of his profits.
"It's a form of liquidating what I have, and continuing the process of ordering new product," he said. "It's been a symbiotic kind of thing where local, my web store and eBay, all three are a big-time necessity."
People who shop on eBay are looking for good deals on quality merchandise, he said, so it's "a good fit" for him. He's also successful because he has an excellent rating on the platform.
Liquidating old stock is especially necessary because his shop is only 1,000 square feet, Thorne said.
'You have to be very passionate'
The work involved in selling online is no small matter, however.
Thorne runs his storefront solo, with the exception of help some Saturdays from his daughter. Each package takes approximately half an hour to complete, he said — work that often must be set aside to wait on customers. With six or seven shipments to prep in an average day, Thorne said he often ends up coming into work early and putting in late nights.
To this day, I do get excited every time I see an email saying there's another sale. — Marco Thorne, API Hockey
Then there's the packaging. Finding the right size box for shoulder pads, hockey shorts and helmets can be tricky. His neighbours at the Cornwall shopping plaza help him out by saving their boxes for him, which he said is "really nice."
"There's a lot of hours involved," he said. "You have to be very, very passionate about what you're doing.
"To this day, I do get excited every time I see an email saying there's another sale."
Just when things were going so well
Thorne said his business grows every year, and last year he was about to hire someone part time in February — then COVID-19 hit, and business took a blow. Many businesses took their products online for the first time, and government programs were quickly implemented to help with that process.
Thorne shared his tips for creating and running a successful business online.
Make sure you're passionate about your business and it's not just about profits.
Know the technology yourself so you are not relying on IT help constantly. This will save time and money.
Stay on top of Google and Yahoo tagging trends. There is a delicate balance between making sure your products are properly described to show up at the top of a search, and being considered spam. "There's a lot of reading," Thorne said, which he usually does in summer, his off season.
Have a solid business plan.
Be flexible and open to change.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.