Elliot and Joseph Arking, 62 and 54, owned restaurants, bars, and two liquor stores in suburban Philadelphia when they got the idea to start a big-box arts-and-crafts chain. It failed, and by 2000, they were forced to sell off everything but the liquor stores. The brothers figured they would return to the simple shopkeepers' life for good. Little did they know that within 10 years, they would be running a $50 million flash-sale site. As told to Burt Helm.
Elliot: I had no interest in a Web store. It just seemed like a waste of time to me.
Joseph: That's when my son came to me and showed me a site...
Joseph: Not Wine-Woot. Woot.com.
Elliot: I think they were the first flash site.
Joseph: They were putting electronics and stuff on at 12 o'clock, and when it was sold out, the site just shut itself down. It was becoming very cultish. We liked it.
Elliot: We had a lot of wine we had purchased opportunistically. It was a container from Australia, with great stuff. That became some of the first product we put on the Web.
Joseph: We built this one-at-a-time site.
Elliot: We paid a company to build it. We didn't even have a high-speed Web connection.
Joseph: We tested all kinds of stuff, with freight or without freight cost included, then a whole bunch of different-size packs...
Joseph: We did a whole bunch of different stuff...
Elliot: A mystery pack!
Joseph: ...to see what was going to sell.
Elliot: We made every mistake conceivable. Selling the wrong stuff...
Joseph: Using the wrong packaging...
Elliot: Broken bottles!
Heating bottles by mistake...
Elliot: Putting the wrong stuff on the site. I was writing all this copy for the Web, which is not easy to do.
Joseph: Eventually, we realized that four bottles was about as much as you could sell a customer of any one wine, and they wanted free shipping. And we guaranteed every bottle we sold. If somebody was unsatisfied, I would send an e-mail with a letter of apology, and we would give an instant refund.
Elliot: The best customer service is not asking somebody to pay for something.
Joseph: Then it started to grow. I would say, relatively quickly.