My Time at eBay

Yesterday I got a chance to talk with a room full of eBay folks, and it was a bit different than my time at Yahoo, Google, Amazon, or Microsoft. I've always viewed eBay as a more buttoned up and, well, corporate company, perhaps because Meg Whitman is such a…

EbaylogotmYesterday I got a chance to talk with a room full of eBay folks, and it was a bit different than my time at Yahoo, Google, Amazon, or Microsoft. I’ve always viewed eBay as a more buttoned up and, well, corporate company, perhaps because Meg Whitman is such a Wall St. icon.

After I ran through some passages of the book and told a few stories, we got to a pretty robust Q&A (one attendee, Alan Lewis, wrote it up here). A lot of questions about Google, not surprisingly, given the Base announcement.

One interesting question was “What should we (eBay) be doing that we’re not doing right now?” I thought for a while and it struck me that the answer was “experimenting.” Google has a whole culture based on that idea, and Yahoo has been doing a lot of it lately. And Amazon, well, Alexa’s news was very keenly watched in the halls of eBay yesterday.

Where the real experimentation is happening on eBay is with its developers, who are building all sorts of interesting companies on top of eBay’s web services APIs and platform. But the company itself is not well known for creating interesting new web widgets. With the purchase of Skype, however, and the need to grow beyond its core offerings, I sensed from my conversation there that this may change, and soon.

6 thoughts on “My Time at eBay”

  1. eBay has long been known for leveraging (stealing) new features from its developer community; innovation is not part of their DNA. Remember Connection to eBay or Billpoint?

    I think eBay is panicked by Google, and honestly, I think it is about time their monopolistic practices are challenged.

    Hats off to you, John for giving them the right advice. Experiment, indeed.

  2. This advice is interesting – I would have to agree but only somewhat. If you look at the primary identity and motto (whether conscious or unconscious) of a place like Google, I would say it is, “We are the smart ones. We can beat others by hiring really smart people who come up with incredible innovations.

  3. SorenG, very well said! I completely agree with you. eBay is a company where ‘doing good’ is truly part of their DNA in a far more important way than Google’s ‘do no evil.’

    I used to work for eBay and loved it there hope they follow your advise and become more innovative and experimental. I am not saying to be like Google but a little more out of the box thinking and experimentation would do them some good.

  4. um… “Google = Smart” vs “eBay = Good” is a very simplistic way to look at the 2 companies and cultures. that’s some pretty broad-brush stereotyping, and probably not that on target.

    [full disclosure: i used to work at eBay; hired by PayPal in 2001 & later joined the eBay empire via PayPal’s acquisition in 2002]

    if you’re going to stereotype the 2 companies, i’d say it this way:
    – Google hires Stanford (& other) engineers
    – eBay hires Stanford (& other) MBAs

    again it’s a gross generalization, but probably a more accurate one. as John observes, eBay’s culture is more driven by business types; Google’s more by engineering types. possible that recent acquisitions like Skype,, and others are diversifying the eBay culture a bit, but i’d say it’s fair to characterize eBay as being more about numbers than bytes.

    (one caveat: prior to acquisition, PayPal culture was pretty different from eBay’s. PayPal, like Google, was very engineering-driven for most of its early years).

    re: experimentation & widgets, i’d agree with John that eBay focuses more on optimizing its existing platform than tinkering with it (tho again the recent acquisition moves might indicate that’s changing). but there is a pretty active developer evangelism program at eBay, and both the eBay Developer program & PayPal Developer Network group (which i started in 2001) have done a lot with the developer community to build & promote add-on tools & components.

    Working with developers beginning in 2002, PayPal created a number of PayPal widgets for various developer tools & consumer apps such as Dreamweaver, FrontPage, Flash, C++/.NET, Outlook, & more recently QuickBooks & Firefox. (plug for old times sake: info on PayPal widgets, components, and other tips & tricks can be found in O’Reilly PayPal Hacks, a book written by my former colleague Dave Nielsen & pals).

    one thing i think is interesting about Google is even though they’re very geeky & smart and produce lots of cool tech, they still have a long way to go with Google developer evangelism. Other than a few folks like Matt Cutts doing great work over there, they aren’t nearly as visible as they could be…

    – dave “still geeking after all these years” mcclure

  5. I agree – eBay has not been presented as an innovator. They don’t know much ideas and this is especially sad considering they are the kings of online auctions. Look at Oltiby website and you will see so many features on there that eBay does not have even today.

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