It was twenty years ago today when Omidyar created eBay…

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Back in San Jose California, Pierre Omidyar launched what he called AuctionWeb on the Labor Weekend of 1995. That little idea became eBay and the creation myth says that blast off occurred on the 3rd of September 1995 and here we all are two decades on.

My own association with eBay began 15 years ago in July 1999 in a rented office at Marble Arch Tower in London. I was a student seeking a summer job.

Noone grumbles more than me about eBay. And I guess that’s because I love it. When they open me up they will find “eBay” engraved on my heart. I was there on day one when it launched in the UK. My love for eBay is why I get so angry. When I write a critical Tamebay post about eBay, I really mean what I say. Mostly as a gamekeeper turned poacher.

Right now I think the company is contemptuous of its sellers, complacent about innovation, cruddy at communicating and prone to cock-ups which it then conspicuously covers up, cack-handedly. And yet the people who work there are all talented, charming and diligent, in my experience. The problem isn’t the individuals. There’s a malaise that dogs the organisation.

And eBay could offer so much more to buyers too. Bag the bargain. Find a treasure. Fulfil that fantasy. But the eBay website and app customer experience is actually dull, clunky and workaday in an industry where others truly shine.

eBay should be the best loved company in the world. Revered. Emulated. Celebrated. Pierre’s guiding philosophy was pure and his ambitions were true. It’s such an amazing idea: an unfettered global marketplace. Think about that. You can trade across the planet via the internet with anyone anywhere. And everyone can get involved. That’s eBay.

When I first discovered eBay in 1999 the very notion that I could buy and sell from people all over the world was exhilarating. Now I worry we take that for granted. It was mind-blowingly new then that I could sell a Tom Baker Doctor Who money box to Nevada and buy a Bobby Darin 7inch single from New Zealand. And I still find the concept exciting. But sadly these days the rendering disappoints.

Maybe I am fanciful in believing that any multi-national corporation can be good. But with boyish enthusiasm I still think eBay could be a company that people universally adore. It does so often deliver delight to people. It has been a transformational business opportunity for millions. But the customer service experience they provide couldn’t be worse.

As an old-timer, our mission was to bring ecommerce to the world. We had to persuade a sceptical public that online trading was even possible and then that it was desirable and profitable. We won that argument. The new generation of eBay employee has a far more exciting (and yet more difficult) task. Create magic. Bring back the joy. Inspire trade.

I encourage everyone who works at eBay to see the split from PayPal and the 20th anniversary as a watershed. The Donohoe and Whitman eras are passed. All assumptions can be revisited. Reimagine the idea of eBay. Adequate and satisfactory isn’t enough. Dream big and seek not just approval but love. Profits will follow.

Happy 20th Birthday eBay!

4 Responses

  1. we have been invloved with ebay since 1997 not much has changed
    ebay was a Bully than and is still a Bully now

  2. I know eBay comes in for a lot of grief but in the early days I really liked it. I liked the way it wasn’t “mainstream”, you could find the things there that weren’t so easy to pin down on the high street and other shops you might visit, of course eCommerce was a “newbie” back then ….

    It changed, in my opinion, when certain sellers came on board to treat it as a full blown “business” and it was therefore “diluted” to become a somewhat more generic retail “experience.” Those early sellers were what, in my opinion, brought this change about, so to be fair I was part of that, I myself was one of those sellers.

    I suspect also that eBay moved at some point behind the scenes from being the “fun techy” company (next stage after start up) to the “recruit people with MBAs” and “men in suits”, people with Sigma Six (or whatever it’s called; in short it became more business formal and caring about the seller went further down the list of priorities.

    The epitome of eBay’s decline from the small seller’s perspective, in my opinion, can be summed up in two words: “Richard Ambrose”, one of those “groomed to make margin at the cost of everybody else ex management consultancy suit types.” Remember the famous (and public) comment he made? “We don’t care unduly when sellers leave, there’s always more to replace them.” A thoroughly obnoxious and unpleasant individual and if that’s what today’s eBay staff are like you can see the problem 😉

    The Pez dispenser days are sadly long one I’m afraid, now it’s all about shifting piles of retail “tat” as cheap as possible to bottom feeders via schlock merchant sellers. Sad, but true (IMO, YMMV.)


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