When Sotheby’s Meets eBay: Q&A With Jacquie Denny, Co-Founder of Everything But the House

EBTH sits in the subtle intersection of e-commerce and the arts and antiques market. EyesWideOpen/Getty Images

For people who love treasure hunting at estate sales, there can never be enough of them; they are fun, unpredictable and often full of bargains at the seller’s cost. (At its extreme, thrifty shopping at estate sales can fuel a business as big as Nasty Gal.) Sellers, on the other hand, find these events dreadful for that same last reason—they never seem to realize the amount of stuff they need to get rid of until the last minute.

But after all, you can only go to so many yard sales within your living radius. Solving these problems for both parties—not enough shopping options for buyers and a lack of planning for sellers—was the core idea when two Cincinnati estate sales veterans, Jacquie Denny and Brian Graves, founded Everything But The House (EBTH) 11 years ago to bring estate sales across the country all to one, single place—online—with professional planning.

Subscribe to Observer’s Business Newsletter

As its name suggests, EBTH helps you sell everything in your old home besides the house itself. Its mission is to make sure that no objects from your old house ends up being the star item on Antiques Roadshow that some thrift shopper claims he or she got for $5 from a yard sale but turns out to be an undiscovered masterpiece by Vincent van Gogh.

EBTH sits in the subtle intersection between volume-centric e-commerce and the rarity-driven arts and antiques market, meaning that it has had to figure out a playbook that fits both worlds.

So far, things have gone unexpectedly well. In 2017, EBTH facilitated over $90 million worth of sales of vintage objects and, in co-founder Jacquie Denny’s words, “outgrew its initial management team.” Last year, the company hired former Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith as its new chief executive to lead the company into its next phase of growth.

In a recent interview with Observer, Denny, EBTH’s co-founder and chief development officer, discussed how her company has outlived the boom and bust of e-commerce sites in the past decade, some surprising facts about online estate sales, and the unique challenges of this unusual business.

When you first started the company in 2007, who were your competitors in the online estate sale space? Was eBay considered a rival?
When we first started, there was absolutely none. eBay was great if you just wanted to sell a few collectibles. But it wasn’t really efficient to sell an entire house of content because of fees, categorizing things and logistics. A lot of people come and go in this space. In Cincinnati alone, we’ve had 13 companies that tried to replicate us, but they are all gone now.

All of them? Wow. What’s so difficult about this online auction business?
Because it’s not just about using technology or knowing the industry.

Today, I think anyone can buy software and start an online store. But not everybody runs the operation top-down like we do: from the authentication part to the logistics part to the customer service end of it.

It’s a service business that takes real human capital and real dedication to clients to be successful. A lot of small sites are still developing. I’m not saying they are ignoring the customer service part on purpose. It just takes time to develop all of these things.

In the past 10 years, there has been sort of a boom of online resale platforms. A lot of them specialize in re-selling luxury clothing and accessories. Do you consider them competitors?
Not really. The reason is, when people come to us, they don’t just want to sell their mom’s purses or a few artworks; they need an entire estate resolved. What if the mom had Louis Vuitton purses and 500 Beanie Babies? Or—who do I donate to and get the best documentation from?

So, we are really a full concierge-style service. When we work with a client, our staff goes to the families and helps them identify what is sellable, what is donatable and what is disposable.

What are your best-selling product categories?
Jewelry is our top-selling category by far. We are probably one of the top two or three sellers as far as prices realized and quality of items in the jewelry resale market. Next would be art, followed by fine décor. Those are the three most robust categories on the site.

Do you remember what the most expensive item ever sold on your site was?
It was an oil painting by Josef Albers, sold for $162,000 two years ago.

How do you authentic these valuable items? Because every house is different, I suppose sometimes it can be difficult to predict what your clients have for you to sell. How do you ensure the authentication process works sufficiently and efficiently for such a wide range of objects?
For our largest category [jewelry], we have a complete in-house jewelry center that consists of 60 people. That includes five GIA-certified gemologists, cataloguers, sorters and packers. They work in a really secure part of the building that requires a special badge to enter.

Auction houses typically have partnerships with a local jeweler to handle this part. But we actually felt early on that jewelry was going to be a robust category and that we needed to build out our own jewelry division.

What about art?
Yes, we have a director of art who came from a fine art auction house and is an art appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. But the art world is very complex. Even with the depth of experience we have here, there are times where we have to seek outside help. We’ve had a few paintings where only two people in the world can tell you whether the signatures on them are real. That’s why this space has a few very dominant players—like Christie’s and Sotheby’s—which I respect very much.

Neither you nor Brian took the title of CEO, which is quite unusual for self-founded companies. Why did you decide to hire an outside CEO?
I’m 63 and my business and marketing degree is quite jaded; I graduated from college in 1976. And Brian’s focus is more on the technical knowledge of our company. When we grew to about $6 million, we realized that we needed insights into venture capital and other areas of the business that we didn’t really have.

So, we hired our first management group in 2012. We brought in a CEO, a CFO and a CRO [chief research officer]. They were with us until last year.

Your new CEO Scott Griffith joined EBTH last year from Zipcar. That seems like a very different industry than yours. What about his background attracted you guys?
The truth is, a dynamic company will always outgrow leaders as it gets bigger and more complex. And last year was the point that we believed we needed to bring in someone who could handle the next level of complexity of our business. That was when Scott Griffith came in, and he has been absolutely wonderful to work with.

By the time we hired him as CEO, Scott had sat on our board for two years. So he understood the nuances of this company—the early growth and the challenges we were going through at the time. So we were confident that he would be the right person to lead the company into its next phase of growth.

You are the chief development officer, and Brian is the chief learning officer. What responsibilities do these two roles entail?
I handle all the high-value clients. We did the estate sale for Jason Biggs and Jenny Mollen last year, for example.

Brian is in charge of developing our training program. As you can imagine, it’s unrealistic to just go hire someone with a background perfectly matching the nuances that are just special to this business. So we need to develop a training program, so that people who go out and work with clients are well-rounded.

The biggest responsibility we take when we go into a house is to make sure that we don’t end up donating stuff that you see on Antiques Roadshow, where someone will say, “Hey, I bought this for $5 in a yard sale,” and it turned out to be a $10,000 print.

EBTH is now one of the largest private companies in Cincinnati. Do you think you and Brian have accomplished what you guys set out to do 10 years ago? What do you see as the biggest challenge as the company moves forward?
You know, we’ve went beyond our wildest expectation. We thought we were just going to be a regional player, and we are absolutely thrilled to have become one of the largest online estate sale platforms on a national scale.

But we know there’s a lot of work to be done here yet. Logistics will always be the main challenge for any e-commerce company, especially for us. Because the fine items that we sell require careful packing, we can’t really find a third-party service that can handle that reliably. We’ve found that even the lowest cost offered by outside services could be quite prohibitive to our clients, so we had to build our own logistics service, which is still in the infancy stage.

Correction: A previous version of this article used a picture that incorrectly identified EBTH’s Chicago General Manager, Susan MacKenzie, as Jacquie Denny. 

Observer’s inaugural Business of Art Observed on May 21st in New York is the premier event for art industry professionals. Join us for a half-day of talks, live debates and networking sessions with key industry players. The world’s leading art firms, galleries, museums and auction houses will converge to share what’s disrupting the industry today. Don’t miss out, register now

When Sotheby’s Meets eBay: Q&A With Jacquie Denny, Co-Founder of Everything But the House