Mention "eBay" fifteen years ago and you would have gotten a lot of blank stares. How times change.
Back in the 1990’s, a man by the name of Pierre Omidyar, who had a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, received a complaint from his then girlfriend (now wife) — a collector of Pez dispensers — that there wasn’t any easy way for her to connect with other collectors for trading.
Omidyar, in his efforts to sooth his girlfriend’s suffering, built the precursor to what would become the world’s largest online auction.
Or, at least, that’s the corporate line the marketing boys came up with. It does make for a great story, and chances are there is a lot of truth to it, although certainly with a marketing twist. However, why Pierre started the online auction revolution isn’t important. What’s important is that it changed the World Wide Web, and the world, forever.
In 1995 Omidyar wrote auction software, which he called AuctionWeb, and put it up on the web. He listed a broken laser pointer as a test of his newly formed program. Astonishingly, the laser pointer sold for nearly $15.
Initially, sellers were allowed to list items for free. But when supporting AuctionWeb’s users became too overwhelming, he decided to start charging 10 cents to list an item in the hopes it would thin out the herd. In fact, it did nothing to reduce the number of sellers. Instead, listings continued to grow. Rumor has it that some sellers would snail mail Omidyar a dime taped to a postcard in order to pay for their listing.
Eventually the time to get some serious brains behind the brawn came. Jeff Skoll, a Stanford MBA, was brought on board in 1996.
Jim "Griff" Griffith, a struggling artist and regular helper at the user-supported AuctionWeb, received a call from Pierre and Jeff with an offer to become eBay’s first customer support employee. That call, Jim would later recall, probably saved his life as he was in the midst of contemplating suicide when his phone rang.
AuctionWeb would later become eBay (which some say is a reference to Echo Bay, the name of Omidyar’s consulting firm at the time) and Harvard MBA and former Hasbro executive Meg Whitman would soon join the rapidly growing ship. Under Meg Whitman’s leadership, eBay’s growth was exponential. Early employees, thanks to stock options, became millionaires while executives became billionaires.
Stuart Lisonbee, who worked at eBay during 2001 and later became a PowerSeller and author of an eBay eBook, has often expressed amazement at learning that millionaires worked alongside him in entry-level positions.
Employees weren’t the only ones to strike it rich. The online auction giant became the platform that would support thousands of entrepreneurs who would make a full-time income, some of them hauling in six figures per month.
Although imitators have come and gone, eBay has remained through it all. Still the largest online auction website today, it continues to support thousands of sellers who make money on eBay as their sole occupation.