Listening to Patrick Byrne requires a speedy ear. The CEO of Overstock.com spits words and sentences out like machine-gun fire and sounds like he ran to catch the phone-even when he's the one who called. Maybe such breathlessness is a measure of how quickly Byrne needs to move to keep his company, er...stocked.
Overstock.com is an orphanage of sorts. The website adopts manufacturers' excess inventory as well as goods from distressed companies (these days, mostly e-tailers) and sells them, usually for about 55 percent off their suggested retail price. Among its vast and varied offerings are Cartier watches, Easy-Bake Ovens and Rubbermaid pet shelters. (Unfortunately they don't accept orders from outside the US.)The master of this menagerie entered the business world at a young age-and by that he means 14 or 15-doing something he vaguely refers to as "dealmaking." That led to stints in the bankrupt real estate market and eventually the forming of his own investment company, which investedin Overstock.com's precursor and relaunched it in October 1999. Oh, and along the way Byrne managed to dabble in pro boxing, pick up a black belt and earn his doctorate in philosophy from Stanford.
As for figuring out what makes a good entrepreneur-part of it is vision, sure. "But the woods are filled with geniuses who go broke," says Byrne. He adds that entrepreneurialism also takes a rock-hard business sense. To make sure his stays solid, Byrne keeps his eyes open and sleeps with one foot on the floor (well, not really), watching Securities Exchange Commission filings and following the rise and fall of e-tailers. But he disputes the notion that he's profiting at the expense of others. "It's important that they've accepted [their demise]. Then I show up like a bit of a savior." (Often he shows up the same day as the pink slips.) This company that preys on dying enterprises has no fears of the Grim Reaper itself, at least not yet. In November, Overstock.com joined one of the world's tiniest clubs: those that have turned a profit on the Web. So as the Internet graveyard becomes increasingly littered with dotcom carcasses, there we will find Patrick Byrne. Holding a shovel.