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In the beginning, all Brendan McCarthy was trying to do was put a little spending money in his pocket. So he'd wander over to a liquor store near his apartment in Madison, where he was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, and buy promotional glassware to resell on eBay.
One day in 2007, he picked up a half-dozen large "beer boots" -- tall, boot-shaped glasses that hold 68 ounces of the foamy stuff -- and before you could say Skoal! he was into an online retailing business that grossed $430,000 in 2008, its first full year of operation.
Better yet, thanks to 32, soon to be 45, online stores peddling about 2,500 products, the business is on track to reach $1 million in sales in 2009.
The product lineup ranges from hand-carved nutcrackers and cuckoo clocks to home barware and furnishings, and from biodegradable packing peanuts to artificial Christmas trees and hundreds of costumes to help customers celebrate Halloween, Christmas, St. Patrick's Day, Thanksgiving and July 4th, among others.
Oh, yes, and Disney costumes, mascot costumes, pet costumes, Star Wars costumes, pirate and witch costumes, even plus-sized and maternity costumes, not to mention his bestseller: Michael Jackson costumes, complete with a sequined glove and red faux-leather jacket with a plentitude of zippers.
I swear, I'm not making this up.
And it all began with those six beer boots: "Before I went to bed that night, I posted them on eBay, and by the time I woke up they were sold," said McCarthy, 27. Seeking a reason for the rapid sale, he went online and discovered a connection to a 2006 movie called "Beerfest," which included the beer boots being used in an Oktoberfest drinking competition in Germany.
So he bought another 65 beer boots, and when they sold out in a matter of days, he promptly started his company, ClickToShop.com. By the end of the year he had built his sales to $30,000.
More important, he moved from eBay in September 2007 to his own e-tail outlet, bierboothaus.com, and began adding related products -- conventional beer steins, Oktoberfest party decorations, T-shirts and hats. When the Oktoberfest items began selling briskly, he promptly opened another online store, Oktoberfesthaus.com.
And he was off, spending hours online to identify additions to his growing product line and track down manufacturers and distributors to supply them.
Multiple site strategy
The thing is, each of his bestselling items has its own website -- in many cases, several websites. It's a strategy he credits for the rapid growth.
"The idea is to be the most visible in a wide variety of categories," said McCarthy, who has acquired 440 domain names and figures to launch the majority of them eventually. "The specialty niche sites raise the odds of a hit on one of them when a key word is entered." It's also a tad cheaper than paying for prominent positions on search engines, he added.
McCarthy generally starts with a primary shopping site that includes a number of related items, and as an item becomes more and more popular, he gives it its own site.
For example, he started with costumesltd.com and now has 18 costume sites. Similarly, he opened with buybarware.com, then added sites for wine glasses, then wine racks and home bar furniture, not to mention beer steins, German toasting glasses, fine wine refrigerators and, of course, beer boots.
That's not all: McCarthy's list of online stores in operation or set to open this year also includes shipping scales, hand trucks and towel warmers. Oh, yes, and a site for lederhosen and dirndl costumes.
Online retailing isn't his first entrepreneurial effort, said his father, Minneapolis attorney James McCarthy: "He started with Kool-Aid stands when he was in grade school. And in high school he had a lawn-mowing business" equipped with several mowers, leaf-blowers and a trailer.
Until late last summer, McCarthy was a one-man operation working out of the third floor of his parents' home in Minneapolis. In August, as he ran out of space to store product, he leased a 6,000-square-foot office/warehouse in Roseville and began hiring. He now has five employees plus six workers provided by temp agencies.
He sees unlimited opportunity ahead: "Now that I've figured out how to sell online, I think I can sell virtually any product," McCarthy said. Which helps explain why the long list of domain names he's acquired includes specialty niche sites for the likes of dog costumes, ceiling lights, designer diaper bags and "ugly Christmas sweaters."
So what's the best part of his growing success?
"Well, my father has stopped showing me articles about the best companies to work for in Minnesota," McCarthy said.
His dad acknowledged the retreat: "I'm as dense as most fathers are, but even I can get the message."
Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • firstname.lastname@example.org