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Startups Downsizing? Online auctioneer makes it easier than ever

The 'long tail' is an idea that more people associate with new media rather than decades-old housewares. But for people who are leaving a house – downsizing, perhaps, or moving into a retirement home – and must leave decades' worth of accumulated knickknacks, an Ontario company called MaxSold is giving the concept a very practical twist.

Traditionally, people who wanted to part with their goods could turn to live auction houses. However, live auctions work better for fewer, large items than many smaller ones: When you've got a bunch of bidders assembled in a room, they're there to bid up valuable items, not the odds and ends in a garage.

"They would take the top 20 per cent of items, and the rest would get thrown away or given away," says Barry Gordon, a partner in the Kingston-based firm.

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MaxSold, on the other hand, wants to find a home for 100 per cent of the goods – the high-value items as well as the long tail of smaller goods. After a customer moves out of their old house with the goods they want to keep in tow – but before the sale closes – MaxSold comes in, catalogues and photographs the leftovers and launches an online auction.

Some items are sold individually while others are bundled into collections. There's no delivery. Buyers are given a fixed time to come and pick up their wares at the house.

"That's part and parcel of the bidding decision," says Mr. Gordon.

Prices start at $1 and there's no reserve. MaxSold wants items to move and the company says they do: Of the roughly 45,000 items listed in about 350 events since March 2010, Mr. Gordon claims a sell-through rate of 98 per cent. Their goal is to see useful – and oftentimes beloved – goods get sold into the neighbourhood, not sent to a landfill.

Mr. Gordon is a second-generation auctioneer, who's been in the business for more than 35 years himself. A specialist in estate sales, he travelled North America lecturing on the subject and became convinced that the auction industry was no longer serving people who were downsizing their accommodations.

"It became increasingly important for me to find a solution that honours the goods that people collect," he says.

Mr. Gordon was already using the Internet to allow bidders to remotely take part in live auctions, but this plan was more ambitious. He partnered with Sushee Perumal, an engineer and entrepreneur who became MaxSold's CEO, to take the process fully online, opening the door for the business to expand from a local concern to an across-the-province operation, with ambitions to keep growing.

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"Coming from a live-auction background, the bias is about the excitement – being in the room," says Mr. Gordon. "But the truth really is, when you involve more people in a process, you get better results."

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