Name: Patrick Byrne
Everyone knows someone who knows "a guy" who can get you a watch or a purse or a suit for "real cheap," and you can't figure out how he does it. But Patrick Byrne knows how, and this knowledge is making him the wealthy owner of Overstock.com.
In fact, if you've been invited to "look for the 'O,'" you already know about Patrick's company. You hear that ad slogan everywhere now for Overstock.com, a fast-rising dot-com that sells designer-brand apparel and other merchandise at deep discounts.
Patrick was a serial investor, turning around bankrupt or broken companies and then selling them to new investors. Overstock.com started as a small supplier of surplus merchandise to flea markets when the vision struck Patrick that he could turn it into an online giant. He believed that the business principle behind Overstock.com would prove every bit as powerful as the concepts that have helped a few other dot-coms - including Amazon, eBay and Travelocity - survive the late '90s and prosper even today.
"It isn't 'hot' merchandise," Patrick says. "It's just another way of understanding supply-chain theory. This 'guy' that your father or uncle always knew was tapped into a community of jobbers who live on the fringes of retail. And on a much larger scale and on the Internet, that's what we do.
"The American retail system is set up for dealing with mass quantities of a particular item of merchandise," he explains. "When it becomes available in tiny lots of 100 or 1,000 because some order gets canceled, or there's a little bit left over, some distributor will dump it out the back door just to get any cash for it. We scoop it up, and the market rewards us by allowing us to sell it a little bit cheaper, and on special terms, out on the Internet."
After Overstock.com displayed slow but steady growth, a couple of years ago potential competitors "began sniffing around this space," Patrick says. That's when he got serious about trying to grow his company into an Internet giant, unveiling a blow-out national marketing and branding campaign that has made Overstock.com an $800 million concern.
"We decided to spend $20 million branding ourselves now rather than $800 million fighting deep-pocketed imitators later," he says.
And Patrick's far from finished. "We're trying to turn e-commerce into 'O-commerce,'" he says. "Our game plan is now becoming visible. We've got the best online store on the 'net. Auctions with half the fees of eBay. Books with prices below Amazon's. Travel with the lowest booking fees and the best deals online. Eventually, 'O' is the only place you'll have to go.
"That's the $50-billion idea, anyway. I'm not sure if we can do it. We're shooting for the moon."
Nearly every retailer, of course, aims at female customers. After all, they control the vast majority of consumer spending in most societies. But Patrick knew that drawing women to Overstock.com was even more important than for most other e-tailers or retail stores.
More or less, you see, Overstock.com is the Internet equivalent of Marshall's and TJ Maxx, a couple of chains of retail stores owned by TJX Corp. Their merchandise is much of the same stuff being sold in fine department stores, but these big boxes don't do much merchandising and don't have high overhead and just kind of throw their attractively priced things on racks and let customers come in and search out the best bargains.
"We just put the treasure-hunt aspect of this online," Patrick says. "We have hundreds of thousands of people who visit every two or three days just to see what's new." And these visitors, of course, typically are women because this is not the kind of shopping that most men enjoy.
Patrick had trouble for awhile getting people to understand that, for his company, it's all about women . Ad agencies he initially worked with, for example, would deliver him poor ideas that were obviously created by men who didn't have a clue. "Lots of ads are written by men for men," he says. "But women want ads that will inform them."
So Overstock.com picked out its own TV spokeswoman a few years ago - "She's a 40-ish woman who is sexily confident and can be appealing to both men and women," Patrick says. And he's proud to note that Overstock hired a director and wrote the scripts themselves instead of relying on an ad agency to do that.
More recently, the company has introduced ads representing Overstock.com as "Your Online Outlet" and promoting its $50,000 Family Bailout Plan Contest, along with a "Love Story" ad depicting a true story about a loving couple named Joey and Rory. All of these messages consistently appeal to their female shopper audience.
"Now," he says, "there's no mistaking the female shopper we're after. She knows it, and she's coming to Overstock.com."