How starting early helped Deb Weidenhamer build a business

Deb Weidenhamer Image copyright Deb Weidenhamer

Deb Weidenhamer is not someone who wastes time.

She started her first business aged just 11, was fast-tracked through school and graduated from university at 18 when most people just start.

In 1995, and still just in her 20s, she started her own auction firm seemingly on a whim. Two decades later American Auction Company holds online and live auctions selling anything from property and jewellery to heavy machinery across the US where sales totalled $245m (£161m) last year.

In 2012, the firm became the first wholly owned foreign firm to get a licence to run auctions in China.

Our mid-morning meeting has disrupted her usual routine. By this time she'd normally have spent over three hours writing - she's currently penning two business books as well as writing a regular newspaper column - and then typically works on the auction business from 9.30am until 1am.

In person, she's visibly driven. This is not a woman who bothers with small talk and her answers are succinct and to the point.

Realising not all her employees are as motivated as her, has been one of the hardest things to accept.

"I'm constantly pushing people to do more, have more, try harder and if you're just the kind of person who wants to show up at work and go home at a certain time then that probably doesn't work well for you."

Her approach has always been more go-getting than the average, but she says her success has been down to a handful of key strategies.

Rushed through school

Image copyright Deb Weidenhamer
Image caption "I just wanted to get out of school and get on with things," says Deb Weidenhamer

Ms Weidenhamer started school at four-years-old, like most US children, but that's where the similarities end. She was fast tracked through the system, finishing school four years early and starting university at 14.

"Disdain for her fellow students" drove her, she says. "They just didn't have any purpose in life. All they wanted to do was play and I had stuff to do."

She doesn't think she was unusually bright but says she was "persistent", pushing her teachers to be put in a particular class so she could move up.

And she showed some early business nous. Aged 11, after realising she wouldn't get a cut of the profit from her successful girl scout cookie selling, she set up her own door-to-door sales company selling anything from small household appliances to camping goods.

Focused on numbers

Image copyright Deb Weidenhamer
Image caption Ms Weidenhamer said starting university at just 14 meant the social side of university was "extremely challenging"

Understanding numbers is essential for an auctioneer so that they know how to advance the bid, essentially counting quickly forward and backwards.

"It's very easy to lose track of where the bidding is which could cost a client thousands or even millions of dollars," she says.

But Ms Weidenhamer started out selling insurance, which she saw as a natural fit for her interest in numbers and finance.

She then switched to a job in mergers and acquisitions. Her new role was in San Francisco but she lived a two-hour flight away in Phoenix. For five years she commuted weekly. By the end, she had tears streaming down her face each time she left because she was so sick of the journey.

Open to ideas

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption "He could have been selling cookies and I'd [have] thought that was a good idea," Ms Weidenhamer says of the man who persuaded her to change direction

On one such commute, she sat next to a man in his eighties who worked as an auctioneer. His description of his day and how much money he'd made in an industry she had never really thought about intrigued her.

A month later she quit her job and enrolled in auctioneer school where she learned how to "chant" - the fast talking used by US auctioneers.

She says it was her dissatisfaction in her old job that made her open to possibilities. "I joke he could have been selling cookies and I'd [have] thought that was a good idea."

But it was also the state of the auction industry - estimated to be worth $250bn in the US yet largely controlled by around 5,000 small "mom and pop" style firms - that made her think there was an opportunity.

Taking a risk

Image copyright Jim Poulin of the Phoenix Journal
Image caption The firm's first employee was a 150lb guard dog

She used her savings to rent a run-down warehouse in Phoenix - between a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen - and started marketing to businesses to persuade them to choose her firm to sell their assets.

Here her old job helped. "I understood businesses and I knew what appealed to businesses".

For the first 30 months she took no salary and invested anything she made back into the business. Each day she started at 7am and worked until 2 or 3am doing everything herself from driving the forklift truck to running the auctions.

Her first employee was a 150lb (68kg) guard dog hired for her own personal security. After six months, it became a pet dog.

"On the loneliness scale if I hadn't had a dog I'm not sure I could have done it."


Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Commissions vary depending on the item auctioned, but the firm typically takes a third

Her determination to professionalise the industry - for many clients she says that hers was the first typewritten proposal they had received - shook up the status quo. Some of her competitors explicitly tried to harm her reputation - warning clients she didn't know what she was doing and told her she wouldn't last.

"I'm pretty tough. In many ways it fuelled me to prove them wrong," she says.

She also didn't want to go back to her old job.

A year in, she started hiring other people and now has almost 300 employees globally.

The firm takes a commission from each sale, typically about a third of the price an item is sold for, and its expansion has been steady, helped by a more fun approach to auctions, which are held after work or at weekends, and include loud music, cocktails and food.

Keep growing

Image copyright FRANCK FIFE
Image caption The firm now runs between 25 and 30 auctions each month in China

She's worked hard to establish a presence in China, where the firm now does 24 to 30 auctions a month. Ms Weidenhamer now spends almost half her time there.

The country's "frontier-like" nature has kept her entrepreneurial instincts piqued, but has also offered a new avenue for growth.

"I joke to my friends that I could start three new businesses in China every day because there's just so much opportunity."

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