A winning bid

Auctiva CEO took a risk that paid off

Auctiva founder and CEO Jeff Schlicht (seated) and former Vice President Kevin Kinell, who helped launch ChicoStart.

Auctiva founder and CEO Jeff Schlicht (seated) and former Vice President Kevin Kinell, who helped launch ChicoStart.

photo courtesy of auctiva

Jeff Schlicht came upon eBay years ago when he was getting ready to move and needed to sell some things. He found the online auction site somewhat difficult to use, especially the amount of time it took to make a listing look nice.

That’s what sparked the idea that led to his now-thriving Chico business: Auctiva. Schlicht, then a computer programmer in the Bay Area, decided to build software to automate the listing process, making it faster and easier for clients to sell their wares.

“I started writing the software in March [of 1998], I put out a beta in August, and I started selling it in December. By July of ’99, I was already making more doing that than I was making as a software engineer for PeopleSoft,” Schlicht said recently by phone. “I was going to work every day, and I had all these features that customers were asking for, and I was like, ‘Why am I going to work when I’m making like twice as much doing this?’”

It wasn’t long before Schlicht hired his first two employees. Today, he employs close to 200 people. “It was nice that it grew so quickly; it kind of forced me into business at that point,” said Schlicht, a Paradise native and Chico State graduate.

In the early days, Auctiva was based in Oakland, while Schlicht lived in San Mateo. When three competitors who’d raised millions in venture capital started giving away their products for free to get customers, Schlicht gave up his office space and apartment and moved back to Chico, where he already owned a home and where the business is now based.

“I moved back to hunker down and save money; now two out of three of those competitors have merged with us over time, and I’m the boss,” Schlicht said.

Auctiva’s program was originally available as software. These days, the company’s services—such as image hosting, billing support and scheduled listings—are accessible via its website for fees ranging from about $3 to $20 a month. Some services are free.

In 2010, Auctiva was acquired by Alibaba Group—a Chinese e-commerce company whose sales in 2012 rivaled those of eBay and Amazon put together. Alibaba is slated to go public—in one of the largest initial public offerings in American history—sometime this year.

Ever the entrepreneur, Schlicht, who remains Auctiva’s CEO, is also involved in a new Alibaba-backed startup, currently in beta, called 11 Main (11main.com)—an online retailer that, according to its website, offers a “hand-selected collection of specialty shops and boutiques not available anywhere else.”

As for advice to those interested in launching a startup, Schlicht said that good timing and knowing which areas of business are growing fast are key to being a successful entrepreneur.

“Find something you have a passion for,” he said. “You’ll need it, because after that you’re going to have to work your rear off, so you’d better really like it. Look for ways to make something better, easier, faster. Never let anyone tell you it can’t be done. Taking risks is the only way to get big rewards, and failure is part of the game, so don’t be afraid to fail.”