Tom Parsons sported a Caribbean-themed Tommy Bahama shirt, a Mickey Mouse cap that identified him as "the Big Cheese," and a girth that hinted at his prosperity.
He was the very picture of leisure, and as he sidled up to the cashier at the Lego Emporium, he looked like all the other visitors to Walt Disney World diverting themselves from the aggravation of long lines and suffocating heat with a moment's haggling. "Would you mind giving me two Disney pins?" he asked.
Parsons inspected the lanyard around the young woman's neck, which was festooned with the likenesses of the Mighty Ducks and the Chipmunks and other colorful characters. Disney instructs its employees--"cast members," they are called--to trade a Disney pin for a Disney pin whenever a customer asks, and one that Parsons couldn't identify caught his eye. "I think it's a C, for Captain Hook," the girl told him.
"Oh, good. I'll take that," he replied. In exchange for this and a striking, rather mysterious pin marked with a big X across its face, Parsons reached into his pocket and pulled out two pins issued for the opening of Euro Disney. "These are from Europe," he said. "They're actually 12 years old."
The Walt Disney Company reaches deeply into the imaginations of young and old alike in countless ways, but one of the company's particularly brilliant--if little-noticed--efforts at marketing is the pin trade. Disney parks and stores mint more than a thousand different models each year and sell them for $6 and up to visitors, who can then exchange them for other pins. Trading with cast members "enhances the guest experience," as company managers like to put it, but the pins have a surprisingly long shelf life, and even a secondary market, in which millions--there are up to 30,000 styles--circulate among collectors and dealers. There are price guides and conventions for pin traders. And on any given day thousands are up for bid on eBay.
In the summer of 2004, these included around a hundred on offer each week from a start-up outfit based in Arlington, Texas, called Parsons & Sons, which also sold various movie-branded watches, dolls and action figures, and sundry other ephemera, the collectibles of our disposable age. Tom Parsons had already made a name for himself--and more than a small fortune--dealing in cheap plane tickets through BestFares.com, the company he founded in 1983. Best Fares took in at least $6 million in revenue last year, according to Parsons, nearly half of which turned into profit paid to its sole owner. Yet here Parsons stood in Downtown Disney, 53 years old and his pockets full of Euro Disney pins. He and his brother John had bought a thousand of them for 80 cents each; they hoped to trade them all in just 24 hours. There was no time for Space Mountain or the Lion King. This was the Fourth of July weekend, but when Tom Parsons brought his family to Orlando, it was a business trip.
"The intent here is to teach him something," Tom Parsons liked to say. "I'm on a mission from hell."
Scouring discounters and liquidators for overlooked bargains may appeal to the same impulses as searching computer reservation systems for unadvertised specials and mistakes, but Parsons's foray into eBay was not strictly for his own amusement. It was as much for his son Bryan, then 15, to show him the value of work and enterprise. "The intent here is to teach him something," Parsons would say. "I'm going to push him and push him. I'm on a mission from hell." Parsons served as an MP in Vietnam, and he is fond of referring to his tasks as missions. He liked to describe eBay as the schooling Bryan was not getting at school.
Bryan's colleagues for a time included his stepbrother Bobby and his cousin David. They did not, however, include his older brother, Michael. Twenty-seven-year-old Michael, who never finished college, bounced from home to home and job to job. The eBay business was intended to keep Bryan off that wayward path, and Parsons even held out hope that once the venture took off, Michael might return to the fold.
On this day in 2004, the Parsons had split up at the gates of the Magic Kingdom, and for hours Tom followed a trail Bryan and Bobby had left on the lanyards of the cast members they met. Now at Downtown Disney, Bryan appeared, a sturdy boy with a mop of blond hair, and together father and son approached a cast member named Sandy at the Disney Tails shop. Tom motioned toward the cashier. "You do yours," he said to Bryan, who requested Davy Crockett and Tinkerbell. Sandy looked over the pins Bryan gave her. Interjected Tom, "They're from, uh, Europe."
And so it went for the rest of that night and much of the next day. Bryan and Bobby had trained themselves to spot limited-edition and other hard-to-find prizes; they wandered among the boutiques, emporiums, kiosks, and carts, bartering 80 cents for, they hoped, three dollars, four dollars, five dollars. By midafternoon, they had divested themselves of all the Euro Disney pins. "This was a lot of fun," Bryan said as we made our way to the exit.
"Did you hear that?" asked Tom. "Did you hear what he said?"
Several times a week, Tom Parsons wakes up before the sun, checks the latest tremors rattling the air travel landscape, then awaits a call from a radio jock in Cleveland or Fort Lauderdale or San Francisco. In a given week, he might do 35 radio and TV spots and talk to a couple dozen reporters. He may be the most quoted authority on airfares today, a fact that has allowed him to build his business with very little paid advertising at all--a happy if unanticipated turn of events that began one day in the late 1980s with a surprise call from Tom Snyder's radio show.
Parsons is something of an accidental entrepreneur. He was in charge of loss prevention at Pier 1 Imports in Fort Worth, Texas, in the early 1980s when he began to investigate the mysteries of plane ticket pricing. The company was paying double and triple bonuses to employees who found ways to save money; Parsons had street smarts, an ability to work the angles, to find the weaknesses in the system and--"within the law and within the rules"--exploit them. "I've always been a conniver," he said more than once, quick to add that he did not consider the term pejorative.
He quickly broke the airlines' code. By now, most people have heard of "hidden city" and "back-to-back" ticketing. A traveler uses the first to cut the cost of flying to an expensive hub like Chicago by booking a cheaper flight to a destination beyond, and then not boarding the connecting flight at O'Hare, a scheme the airlines have effectively blocked with advanced reservation systems. The latter trades a pricey midweek roundtrip for two discounted weekend-stay itineraries, one from the origin and one from the destination; the return coupons are discarded. Parsons claims to have named and popularized these ploys. His tip sheet "saved the company a ton," says Robert Camp, Pier 1's president at the time. (Parsons says he cut the firm's travel expenses by $800,000 in 14 months, almost a third of the budget.) Soon he was distributing the tip sheet to friends of the company and friends of friends. Best Fares was born as a side project to his day job, midwifed with $1,000 in seed money. Before long he expanded his purview from DFW to all of the big Texas airports and then to the whole country.
This was, of course, back before the Internet made low fares accessible to everyone, back when finding the cheapest seats required a sort of alchemy. Over the years, Best Fares added proprietary contracts with the airlines (carriers that at first feared Parsons learned to work with him), cruise lines, and tour operators; then came a reservation center. By the mid-1990s, he had 60,000 subscribers, all willing to pay $59.95 a year for his monthly magazine. That's when Best Fares really took off, fueled by explosive growth in leisure travel and by the Internet's do-it-yourself ethic. By 2000, membership in Best Fares had reached 159,000, and revenue had soared to at least $12 million. In recent years, the dividends for his family have been tangible--the condo in Clearwater, Fla., lavish trips, season tickets to the Texas Rangers. And Parsons and Jean, his wife of six years, were building an 11,000-square-foot home, a confected French manor (steep gables outside, wood stained dark, and high broad arches inside) that has a distinctly medieval character, notwithstanding the Mexican-tile pool out back.
Yet as is so often the case with men who try to nurture a business and a family simultaneously, it was work that got the larger share of Parsons's attention. (He has three children; the oldest, Stephanie, is 31.) Even before starting Best Fares, he put in long hours, and the new company had only aggravated the imbalance. This exacerbated--or perhaps was the product of--tensions with his first wife, the mother of his kids. Parsons finally quit Pier 1 in the late '80s. The couple divorced in 1994. "My ex-wife never wanted me to leave Pier 1, okay?" Tom said. "She said, 'This is the stupidest thing you could ever do." Now his adult children--particularly Michael--cause Parsons a certain amount of grief, which he attributes, in part, to his absence from their childhoods.
I met Michael at a Rangers game one night with Tom and Bryan. The bill of his baseball cap shrouded an impishly handsome face, bristly with stubble. He dissected the team's fielding and hitting with authority. A man hawking beer climbed toward us, and Michael's eyes lit up. "Dad, buy me a beer," he said. When this got no reaction, he said it again.
"Why do you want me to buy you a beer?" Parsons asked. He was grinning.
"Why do you think?" retorted Michael, grinning back. Recently, Tom had given his oldest son a new Jetta; eventually, after Michael ignored the many tickets he accumulated, Parsons had to bail his kid out of jail. He ordered the beer.
"Michael probably got left out," Parsons told me later. "He also watched me, you know, push the system. But the kid never realized that I worked, sometimes three to four jobs." Parsons credits his military service with forcing discipline upon him, and he empathizes with his boy. "I see a lot of me in Michael," he admitted. "That's probably why I sort of give him breaks."
Back when Michael was a teenager, and Best Fares was starting to make a name for itself, Parsons gave his son a mission: Do well in school, work hard, "and then someday you can own this company." And despite scholastic shortcomings, Michael did have a promising start at Best Fares, where he worked up to manager in the travel agency. Over time, though, he began trading on his father's authority to goof off and undermine his bosses. About two years ago, Parsons told Michael to find something else to do. There is no longer talk that Michael might someday run the shop. "I'm not going to let him take over the company if he can't keep focused," Parsons told me. "I'm not going to let him jeopardize everything I've built." Indeed, in 2004, Parsons was negotiating with two separate investor groups to sell the company.
And he was determined to chart a different course for his younger boy, starting by spending more time with him. The summer when Bryan was 14, he got into some trouble with the authorities, involving fireworks, and that fall Parsons started thinking about a job for him. "When I looked," Tom said, "he could either be flipping hamburgers or working at Six Flags." Tom wanted to instill discipline and responsibility in his son (most of Bryan's wages would go into savings or substitute for allowance) but not a punch-the-clock mentality. He hoped his son would acquire a taste for running a business and, yes, for thinking like a conniver, in that nonpejorative sense.
Bryan was the one who came up with the company name, Parsons & Sons; he liked the old-time connotation. Tom liked the hint of filial ties. Perhaps he saw the plural as a good omen. To launch the venture, Parsons would draw on his experience building Best Fares, but even this would not fully prepare him for the volatile world of online auctions, where the margins are thin and the customers fickle. In the end, Bryan would not be the only Parsons to find the joys and dangers of starting a business sometimes overwhelming.
One Monday afternoon in late August 2004, the staff of Parsons & Sons--Bryan Parsons and his friends Aaron Fenton, Jorden McMullen, and Garrett Lagow--assembled at company headquarters, a small room off in a corner of Best Fares' suite of offices. The kids knew their responsibilities--they did not need Tom Parsons to direct them, though he showed up eventually--and they had plenty of orders to fill. One hundred and one eBay auctions had ended the night before, and Parsons & Sons had received some 60 payments over the weekend, most sent by eBay's electronic payment network, PayPal. Others had come in the mail as checks or money orders. Coldplay pounded from the boom box as the boys set to work on these first, printing out copies of receipts and readying packages for shipment.
In many ways, Parsons considered this the most crucial element of his operation. EBay enforces fair trade through a system that allows buyers and sellers to comment on their transactions and then rate them as positive, negative, or neutral. Ambitious eBayers, sellers especially, work hard to maintain a high feedback score. For part of the afternoon, Parsons and his charges tried to sort out what had happened to a package that a buyer claimed had never arrived. It had been shipped to Troy, Mich., then forwarded to South Carolina before returning mysteriously to Arlington, empty but for a newspaper from Troy stuffed inside. Ultimately they mailed out a replacement. For this sort of diligence, Parsons & Sons had been rewarded by customers and suppliers alike: By early August, the team had received more than 3,200 individual comments, and of these, exactly one was negative. The rest gave them high marks, often expressed as "Mickeys"--as in, "Great seller!! Will recommend!! AA++!! Thanks!! ºoº ºoº ºoº ºoº ºoº ºoº"
"Hey, Bryan, are you awake?" asked Tom. Earlier, the younger Parsons had reached into bins filled with pins, picked out a handful that appealed to him, and begun scanning them so that they could be listed. But after a while he slumped, his head resting in his hand. This was the first day of school, and Bryan, like his friends (and his father, for that matter), had awakened early, at 5:30 a.m. Classes were in session from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., followed by work. Then twice a week came soccer practice. And after all of this, presumably, came homework. Aaron crumpled paper into a ball and threw it at Bryan's head; it bounced off and after a long moment, Bryan rose to get some beef jerky and an A&W out of the fridge.
Parsons intended to keep the boys as busy within the office as without, employing a sales strategy that tied his remaindered merchandise to current events. Anticipating the summer 2004 release of blockbuster sequels, Parsons & Sons had begun listing quartz watches from the first Spider-Man movie and Harry Potter action figures in early June. Now they were gearing up for the summer Olympics in Athens with hundreds of pins and miniature medallions from NBC, even as they continued to present a broad menu of other gear.
Listing the stuff was easy, especially with the automatic services available online. Pricing was trickier. Parsons had bought something like 10,000 pins--mostly in bulk from other eBay sellers--but because he refused to take inventory (a fact that would soon become an issue), he didn't know exactly how many he purchased or what he paid. Nor did he have more than anecdotal knowledge of the sales history of any pin style to harvest for guidance, though it might not have helped much even if he had. "I've discovered I have not the slightest idea what a pin's worth," he said. "One day you can put a pin up that will go for $18. The next week you put the same pin up, it'll go for $4. It has no logic."
When they took a stab at opening bids in the $5 to $7 range, they found themselves lucky to sell half the lot. So Parsons decided to start his pin auctions at one cent: "I figured if I put it up for a penny, there's a 99.9% chance somebody's going to bid on it."
The kids got the psychology of the penny pin. Bidders see the listing, Jorden told me one Saturday night, and "they think, might as well just go for it."
"And it keeps building up," Aaron chimed in.
"And then it'll end up coming up to, like, $5."
The kids had scaled up the learning curve, and Parsons was pleased to see the business run so smoothly. All this was prologue, though; the real test lay ahead. As the nation girded for its holiday shopping spree in the fall of 2004, Parsons & Sons geared up to sate what Tom Parsons anticipated would be an enormous appetite for discount treasures.
On a sunny Sunday, Parsons took me on an impromptu tour of his supply circuit. We started eight rows behind home plate at Ameriquest Field, the new-old red-brick baseball stadium in Arlington where the Texas Rangers play. By the bottom of the eighth the Rangers were up 6-2 over hapless Tampa Bay, so we got up to leave. While we waited for his black Lexus (valet parking), Parsons took a call from his ex-wife, Suzanne, who was out with Bryan shopping for the new school year. "Make sure he looks presentable tomorrow," he barked. "I told him to shave that stubble shit off of his face."
Joining us was Stewart Chiron, who is known professionally as "the Cruise Guy." He and Parsons have been friends from the time Chiron worked for the firm that handled Best Fares' cruise bookings. When Chiron struck out on his own, Parsons threw him some work and some all-important radio and TV gigs. Ostensibly, our destination was Rancho Parsones, as Parsons bemusedly called the chateauesque house he was building, but first we had a few errands to run.
Arlington, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, was a sleepy little town until World War II, but it has expanded to fill the space between its neighbors. The city's east side is dotted with pawnshops and a surprisingly large number of discount stores, the source of much of Parsons & Sons' merchandise. Indeed, the SuperPages listings show 36 "dollar" stores in Arlington alone, one for every 32,000 residents. We stopped first at Sam's $1.00, an emporium of cheap plastic trinkets in cheap plastic packaging. "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the stuff here I wouldn't touch," said Parsons.
He sought name-brand goods and products tied to popular trademarks. "One time I found Star Wars pins--a set of five for a buck. They sold for $20 or $25," he said. "But we only bought 15 of them, and by the time I got back here, they didn't have any more." Today he was looking specifically for Spider-Man watches, and finding none we returned to the Lexus and drove six miles to another Sam's $1.00. The young clerk there recognized Parsons immediately and shook his head.
Back to the car and on to Big Lots, which is in a strip mall that just might represent the densest concentration of discount stores in America: There are four in this shopping center alone, and across the street is a Family Dollar. After a quick walk through the toys, Parsons headed to children's accessories. In the past, he said, he had bought Tinkerbell wallets here for $2.99 and resold them for $14. We found $2.99 watches bearing the face of Winnie the Pooh, Cinderella, and characters from Toy Story. But Parsons was unmoved. This was a typical Sunday. He normally visited five stores twice a week, occasionally calling Chiron from the field to seek a quick eBay price check. "The amazing thing is that he doesn't have a camera on his cell phone," said the Cruise Guy. "Then he'd truly be dangerous."
Though Parsons's friends, employees, and even kin questioned the logic of his business plan--didn't he have better things to do with his time than trying to squeeze a dollar in profit here, a dollar there?--they all understood where it came from. They remembered that in the late '80s and early '90s he would track down scores of special offers issued by the airlines and their partners: $25 off a Continental roundtrip with dinner from the Olive Garden, a $75 discount on TWA for a bottle of St. Ives Apricot Scrub. Once on a Sunday morning, Parsons went to Burger King and bought 400 Whoppers for 99 cents each because they came with travel coupons that he could give to his subscribers. (The burgers--most of them, anyway--went to a homeless shelter.) This mania transcended business. Chiron recounted an instance--everybody who knows Parsons can tell a similar story--of shopping for food for a barbecue. "We had been to both Kroger and Albertsons," Chiron recalled, "but then we had to drive across town 40 minutes to get peppers and wait in line for an hour--just because they were 19 cents cheaper."
Afterward, we paid a call to Rancho Parsones and found a nearly completed chateau sprawling on three acres, the biggest brick-and-stone mansion on a block of big brick-and-stone mansions. It was early evening and after dinner at an upscale Mexican restaurant, we stopped at Electronics Unlimited to look at plasma TVs. It was Parsons's intention to compile a list of all the gadgets and gizmos Rancho Parsones would require--including 28 TVs, all wired for cable and satellite--and then submit it to several electronics stores for bids.
"Tom's in it for the game--the thrill of the kill,"
Chiron said of the eBay venture. "He's not doing it for his son, he's doing it for himself. You notice he just has the kids doing the basic stuff. He doesn't have them doing inventory. He doesn't take them to the store when he goes buying."
Two days later, Bryan stood in the Parsons & Sons office and recounted how that spring he and his cousin David had tried to create an inventory system to keep track of the pins. "When we first started, they were stacked to here," he said, leveling his hand over his head. "We dumped all of the Disney stuff onto the floor, and we did inventory. We did that for a good month and a half." With help from Best Fares' art department they scanned pins and assigned them numbers. This had taken Bryan's father by surprise. "My dad said, 'You did inventory? You didn't have to do that!"
Now, Bryan was fuming. Tom had called to report another shipping mix-up: This time, the boys had mailed out the wrong pin, a mistake that Bryan thought could have been avoided with an inventory system. But his dad, Bryan said, with perhaps a trace of sarcasm, "doesn't believe in inventory." In Tom's view, there was too much to catalog--"it would cost me hundreds and hundreds of man-hours," he said later. Instead of accounting for pins individually, Parsons preferred to aggregate them. He figured he paid, on average, $2.77 per pin. "If I get more than three bucks, I'm happy," he said later that day, after he'd arrived in the office. "People ask me, 'How much profit did you make on this pin?' And I say, 'It cost me $2.77. How much did I sell it for?' People can tell me there's a simpler way, but I don't think there is."
Parsons had fired David a few weeks before for laziness and lack of interest. Though Bryan and Aaron approved of this, Bryan thought his cousin was frustrated after their inventory scheme was shot down. "That's what we argued about for so long, my cousin and I, before he got laid off," he said. Today it was Bryan's turn. He had been at it since January and worked full-time for nearly the whole summer, yet in late August his duties were the same as they had been in May. "I think Tom needs to let go and let them learn a little bit more about handling the money--balancing the books, learning the math part of it," Parsons's wife, Jean, told me one morning. "You don't learn unless you fall and bruise yourself a few times. I think they need to be allowed to make a few mistakes."
From Parsons's perspective, though, the kids had no time to absorb new obligations just yet; they were too busy listing and shipping and filing. And he sure wasn't going to spend his time listing, shipping, and filing. "I have never been, myself, the guy who does the legwork," he said at one point. "I come up with the ideas, and then I look for people to fulfill what I want to get done." Even at Best Fares, he showed little patience for administrative obligations. Many staffers recall how turmoil attended the company's rapid growth between 1995 and 2000, when the head count quadrupled. It fell to Jean, now Best Fares' senior vice president of operations, to impose organization on the firm.
At P&S, there were hardly any books to balance, just Parsons's extraordinary recall of figures, although it was also clear that his memory wasn't perfect. The $2.77 figure Parsons channeled was an oddly precise number, especially given that nobody knew how much he had spent to capitalize the firm. Parsons's best guess was that he had forked out $45,000 for inventory, maybe $60,000 if he counted some coins he had purchased separately.
And it was telling that this figure represented the cost of pins sold, not the cost of selling the pins. It excluded a host of expenses--fees assessed by eBay and PayPal, the kids' labor, the office space and equipment provided free of charge by Best Fares--that Parsons never calculated but that probably added $4 or $5 to each pin, which in fact altered the cost structure significantly. And even this did not account for the time Parsons spent shopping the outlets and monitoring hundreds of auctions. But to Parsons's mind, hunting down bargains hardly qualified as work. Quite the opposite: It was an antidote to the long hours he put in at Best Fares. He got exercise; he lost some weight. Even Jean agreed that he seemed happier and healthier.
The few accounting procedures in place at P&S were put there at Jean's insistence. That June she had established an account for the nascent company's revenue, and used it to pay for any obvious eBay-related charges she spotted on her husband's credit card statements. "It drives me crazy when I just see spending and spending but I don't see--I don't think he's turned a profit on it, let's put it that way," she said. "I feel like we're giving the kids seed money, and they should take it from there." Jean hoped that once the new house was finished in October 2004, she would have the time to instill some fiscal discipline on P&S. She anticipated computerizing the books. "I would really like Bryan to see, 'Here's what your labor is costing you, here's what your postage is costing you'--you know, 'how much profit did you make on this particular pin?"
That afternoon, on the way to soccer practice, I asked Bryan if he thought the eBay business was similar to Best Fares. "Isn't every business the same?" he asked. "Of course, Best Fares sells travel tickets; I sell toys. But if my dad doesn't keep his people happy and put in new airfares all the time, he's going to lose business. If we don't keep putting things up and sending people feedback, they're going to get mad, and then we'll lose business."
A little later, Parsons appeared at the practice, and we started talking about Best Fares. After 9/11, the airlines had ended commissions to travel agents, and Parsons saw $1.5 million in revenue disappear overnight. Worse, airfares plummeted, and with them, Best Fares' subscriptions. From a high of 159,000 in 2000, membership had fallen by almost half, and much of the almost $5 million that evaporated was pure profit.
Parsons was refining a couple of schemes to lure his customers back. One was a promotion to steer members to airline websites, where they could book online for a $20 discount. Another rebated 70% to 75% of his commission on vacation packages. Parsons believed he could have kept a bigger cut--he did not think his members would notice--but he decided against it. "I'm really trying to give my subscribers one hell of a deal," he said in the twilight, as we watched Bryan, his friend Aaron, and their teammates run one-on-one scrimmages. "I want to push it as hard as I can to make sure more money gets into their pockets. As long as I'm saving the guy $50 or $80, he's happy. And I'm happy because he's going to go tell 10 more guys."
However compromised the lesson plan for P&S might have been, Bryan still grasped the credo his father lived by at Best Fares. Clearly a lot of people have decided that they do not need an intermediary to help them fly cheaply. Under such circumstances, customer service may be the best weapon the firm has left.
Those summer days were good ones for Parsons & Sons. Some merchandise did extremely well. A limited-edition Disney pin with Stitch holding an eBay auction gavel--a freebie that came with other cheap pins--reached $71 one week. The lots of 50 state pins, which Parsons cobbled together for $125, routinely sold for $300 or more, and once soared to $405. Also popular were Disney car antenna toppers, little plastic balls molded like Mickey Mouse ears and other characters that often returned at least $4 on an investment of $1.50. In mid-August, Parsons confidently predicted that in another month the firm would have $30,000 in the bank, with the peak shopping season still to come.
More than once he compared his sense of "mission accomplished" with President Bush proclaiming victory in Iraq.
At first, Bryan continued to put in long hours at Parsons & Sons even after school started. He reconciled himself to the monotony of the job--he understood it would be no better anywhere else, and he was grateful to have a flexible schedule and friends around. On the other hand, he had soccer and a girlfriend, too--a "long-distance relationship" (meaning she lived 15 minutes away), so he could see her only on weekends, when his dad wanted him at the office. By October his grades were slipping, and he was failing geometry. Something had to give. Parsons hired a woman who was between jobs to help out.
He, too, was reappraising the value of his time--"I make too much money to spend so much time on this," he said--and it was only partly a reaction to the ambivalence he detected in Bryan's priorities. Parsons knew he had neglected Best Fares. The latest talks to sell the company had stalled, and his thoughts turned to righting the course. He lured new vendors to the rebate program. He negotiated savings off his long distance, Web programming, and other expenses totaling between $1.4 million and $1.7 million a year. Membership picked up a bit.
In early December Parsons, claiming some $40,000 in the bank, declared Parsons & Sons a success. "I've given Bryan a year's worth of a run for his money," he said. But he did not sound completely convinced. More than once he compared his sense of "mission accomplished" with President Bush proclaiming victory in Iraq on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln back in May 2003.
Bryan Parsons suspected that Parsons & Sons could have avoided a lot of problems if his father had just let him keep inventory.
Perhaps that is because at the time the business was unraveling. As Bryan saw it, the trouble began in late November, after, he said, his father listed merchandise in bulk without checking to see if it was actually on hand. When it turned out that they didn't have many of the items they had listed and sold, they had to scramble to calm customers--either by coming up with the toys or by issuing refunds. Disorder snowballed: Spending so much time trying to fix the problems made it impossible to list more auctions, and when they finally did, they made the same mistake again--just in time for the holidays. If Parsons had listened to Bryan and David back in the spring about inventory, Bryan said, none of this would have happened.
"That's garbage," Tom spat, clearly annoyed, in a separate conversation. "There was no mistake. The mistake was delivery. The mistake was the kids didn't have time. It's not for a teenager, running the kind of shop we were running, and pushing as hard as I was. When school started, eBay went from one or two on their list to No. 10. Well, they can't do that." Parsons had a point here, and even Aaron Fenton admitted later that "we didn't take it seriously once in a while." Subsequently, Parsons discovered another culprit: The automatic listing service Parsons & Sons had retained for $4.95 a month had inadvertently duplicated some listings. As for the chaos that followed, Parsons was baffled. "That one last month, I'm not even clear how--how, how--that many orders got messed up," he said. "And I don't believe that many did get messed up. It could've been the post office they were shipped to."
In any case, by mid-December Parsons had had enough. He shut down the online store and told the kids to ship everything out by December 24. He brought in a couple of Best Fares employees to help clean things up. PayPal issued refunds to several customers with whom Parsons was trying to settle, an intercession that only confused matters more. Parsons decided PayPal could handle all the complaints. "I said, after December 24, I'm not doing anything. I'm not going to respond to e-mails, I'm not going respond to anything," he said. "If PayPal's big enough to touch the first two or three, they're going to do everybody else's. I'm gonna make them work for their money."
It is possible to trace the decline of Parsons & Sons by scrolling through the thousands of feedback comments posted under Parsons's eBay handle, mrfares1982. Through the fall, negative comments remained rare. It was not until after Parsons shuttered the business that a red tide overwhelmed his green sea, and over the next month the feedback was nearly as likely to be neutral or negative as positive as toys arrived ruined or too late for Christmas. A customer named aarys6 spoke for many when he shouted, "PAID 12/4--NEVER RECEIVED--DELETES MY EMAILS--CAN'T RUN A BUSINESS. BEWARE!!!" Others were more plaintive. "This item showed up cracked and broken," reported kerryelizabeth73, "a big disappointment for a little boy."
Ultimately, Parsons--or rather, PayPal, drawing on Parsons's account--issued about $1,200 in refunds. Goodwill that took months to earn was wiped out. Parsons swore he did not care. "It doesn't bother me. I mean, they have the right to protest, and they have the right to give the negative," he said. "But nobody got ripped off. We've never disputed one payment through PayPal--not one."
Bryan, on the other hand, was as crushed as his customers. "It bummed me out. It made me not even want to go to work," he said afterward. "In the summer and the beginning of the fall, people liked us so much. And you would notice the same people coming back, buying stuff. That felt really good. Then toward the end of it, you'd go and look at how many people bought something from you, and you're like, 'Crap, there's only 20 people."
In the end, Bryan wondered if his dad might have caused P&S's ruin on purpose, to create a teachable moment.
In the wake of the flameout, Parsons decided that Bryan needed the sort of job that Parsons & Sons was originally devised to avoid. He needed, Parsons explained, "to work for someone who's not his father. He's not going to be able to just take off and do whatever he wants, he's not going to be able to just take a break whenever he feels like it. And he's going to find out that working by the hour and under heavy supervision is a miserable feeling." But Parsons's soft spot got the better of his hard nose. He found work for his son at a friend's carpet store, where Bryan has had some flexibility in setting his own schedule, with time off for soccer games.
Parsons, Jean, and her daughter Caitlin moved into the large, airy rooms of Rancho Parsones last December. In March, Bryan, who had lived at his mother's modest ranch house across town, joined them. Tom and Jean established strict guidelines for his residency--during the school year, he had to be home by 8:30 on weeknights. When he did come home, he often found Jean waiting to grill him about the day's homework assignments. His grades improved dramatically, despite the intoxicating allure of the 50-inch plasma TVs in the game room and the poolside cabana and the DLP rear projection TV in the home theater.
Neither Parsons wanted to give up on eBay. Tom still had a lot of toys on his hands--in fact, on a visit to Disney World over winter break, Bryan reported in January, "my dad bought 20 of each antenna ball that they had there." He added that they were debating new names for the tarnished enterprise. "He's trying to make it like 'KoolStuf' or something like that. And I'm like, 'Dad, that's not cool. We can make a better name than that."
But as winter became spring, and spring summer, each was still waiting for the other to make the first move. Tom wanted to bring his brother John, whose own eBay business has completed over 13,000 transactions in seven years, out from Florida to help Bryan start over. First, though, he wanted Bryan to show how he would find the time to keep the company afloat, largely without Tom's help, during the school year--while still punching the clock at the carpet store. If they do try again, Parsons said, it would be a leaner operation--probably just Bryan, at least to start. Though Jean refused to be involved in the new venture, she may have made her point: Tom said that this time Bryan would be paid not in wages, but in profits, after expenses were deducted. Tom decided--for now--that Bryan's share would be 25%, while Tom would take 75% in exchange for supplying his leftover merchandise.
Of course, that's just one of many details that remain to be worked out. If there is one lesson that Bryan is surely learning, it's that business grows complicated when it is not strictly business.
This is Robb Mandelbaum's first piece for Inc.