Exclusive interview of Pierre Omidyar - Founder of eBay Inc


I was born in Paris Paris France I lived

there until I was six years old actually

and I went to bilingual school as I was

growing up during that period so I

learned English and at age six moved to

the United States I moved to the east

coast of the US Washington DC area grew

up in the DC area actually through high

school had a brief stint actually in

Hawaii junior high school eighth the

ninth grades then back to the Washington

DC area college in Boston and then after

college moved to California it's kind of

a resume of where I've been

I was actually interested in gadgets you

know little electronic gadgets whether

it was calculators actually remember

early on going out shopping for a

calculator and this was when calculators

were like a hundred dollars you know I

mean and with my dad I think and so I

was always fascinated by these little

gadgets and I always managed to break

them for one reason or another of course

as kids do and then I would take them on

part and try to fix them which I was

never able to

I've always been into the gadgets and I

guess when when I first saw a computer I

trying to think if it was third and may

have been third grade it was pretty

early on actually and it was an early

trs-80 you know RadioShack kind of the

original Radio Shack trs-80 computer 4k

of memory I think this one had the 4k or

the 8k expansion module which was like

as big as a desk you know and learned

how to program basic on it and I used to

actually cut Jim sneak into the computer

room which wasn't really a room was a

closet where they kept the computer

between classes and play on the computer

I always wanted to be involved with

computers my original kind of career

choice what I thought I was going to do

was more Computer Engineering which was

I thought you know figure out the

hardware and the software combine the

two to learn about computers when I got

to college at Tufts I was accepted into

the engineering school to do an

electrical engineering Computer

Engineering program I learned quickly

there in my first semester actually my

son well I learned very quickly that the

engineering program was a little bit too

rigorous for me and I took a class I

took a chemistry class I think that was

second semester freshman year because it

was required for the engineering program

taking chemistry I had no interest in

chemistry and I have worked I worked so

hard for that class trying to understand

what was going on study for the test and

everything did so poorly I remember for

the midterm I studied harder than I had

for anything else and got the 25 out of

100 on the test and I was at that point

I said you know what like this is kind

of ridiculous I transferred out of the

engineering college went to liberal arts

and justed the pure computer science

professional debut six bucks an hour and

it was it's funny to thinking about it

because it was it was using computer

technology right to print out library

cards for the card cat and so all it was

was a program to just format you know

somebody would type in the information

and I would format it the way the

librarian wanted so they could put the

cards in the card catalog so you know

this is like incredibly basic computer

technology this is no database there no

search engine you know nothing like that

but yeah six dollars an hour and also I

at that time I also worked on the

software to help schedule classes which

was key this was in high school a tenth

or eleventh grade I think when I was

working on that and you know I resisted

the temptation to you know to put in

some code in there to make sure I never

had classes on Friday you know because I

wouldn't been able to get away with it

but I thought about it

you know I mean when I was in college I

taught myself how to program the

Macintosh a big foundation actually for

that was a class I was actually so it

wasn't completely self-taught it was a

seat programming class called data

structures it was the big kind of the

weed out class for the computer science

program learned how to program to see

great great professor probably one of

the best I've ever had

and a couple things stemmed from that

story the first is that that professor

eventually had to leave the school he

was he was a great teacher but

apparently he never published anything

and so they asked him you know that he

had to leave and that was a scandal you

know at least in my mind so I don't know

what exactly that taught me but it did

have an impact on me and yeah and in a

second you know I learned how to program

C and then I used that ability to teach

myself how to program the Macintosh

which I was just very excited about

learning everything I could about it and

of course that's how I began actually my

professional career was after college

actually a year before graduating from

college I took a summer job in

California working at a software company

for the Macintosh

this important thing of eBay is the

human side now but at the beginning I

didn't get that for me it was an

experiment it was like you know as like

I said I wanted to create an efficient

market where individuals could could

benefit from participating in an

efficient market kind of leveled the

playing field and I thought gee the

internet the web it's perfect for this

this is more of an intellectual pursuit

you know than anything else it was just

an idea that I had and I started it as

an experiment as a side hobby basically

while I had my day job and it just kind

of it grew and within six months

it was earning revenue that was paying

my costs within nine months the revenue

was more than when I was making in my

day job and that's kind of when the

light bulb go off and knock knock knock

you know you've got a business here you

know do something about it so that's

when that really started

I always kind of just went ahead and

tried things and one of the things I

learned later you know more kind of

professionally is that a lot of people

don't just go ahead and try things like

they'll have an idea and they'll say

they'll convince themselves or other

people will convince them that it can't

be done

you know one or the other and actually I

think that the first is even is more

more dangerous and more serious as

convincing yourself that it can't be

done and I never learned that for some

reason so I just kind of had this naive

approach to well gee you know why not

I'll just go ahead and do it

if you think about it commerce and trade

is that the is at the base of all human

activity you know and it's a bit of an

exaggeration but I like to talk about

you know in the old days people would

bring their stuff to market and they do

business and then they'd go back to you

know their their hillside homes or

wherever and eventually they were doing

this enough that you had to build a wall

around them to you know to protect them

and that was the birth of cities and so

forth again gross generalizations and

simplifications but fundamentally

everything we do in human activities is

related to trade and and there's

something I think that's wired in human

beings that that drives us to commerce

not sure what it is exactly but the

human side that's the human side I'm

referring to with eBay became apparent

very quickly because in order to do a

trade a transaction with someone you

actually have to get to know that person

and build a trusting relationship first

you have to build trust before you will

enter into a transaction and so in order

to build trust you have to communicate

you have to get to know one another and

so very quickly I started getting

letters about actually some of the early

letters were more negative they were you

know this guy's a jerk

kind of thing and I said okay there's

some human element to that I wasn't


please be nice you know not everyone is

a jerk maybe there's some

misunderstanding give people the benefit

of the doubt but you know so very very

quickly I learned that it was actually

the human element that was really

driving it more than more than the

commerce says interesting

if you think about a retail environment

where people are buying things in a

retail environment the retailer has a

whole bunch of control they choose the

products they design the store or the

catalog they train the salespeople they

control the experience and if there's a

problem with a sale you know with a

salesperson they retrain and so on and

so forth at eBay our customers

experience is based on how one customer

interacts with another customer ok and

you can't control customer behavior so

the only thing you can do is have a

certain set of values that you encourage

people to adopt and the only way your

customers are going to adopt those

values is if they see that you're living

those values as well so when I say that

I believe people are basically good it's

because I believe people are basically

good I mean it's not something that I

came up with for eBay and if I say that

you should treat people with a benefit

of the doubt it's because I believe in

that is a way of life and we have to do

it internally at eBay at the company as

well because if we don't then eventually

that seeps through and customers will

see that and that will harm our business

because you know we can't control

customer behavior so our business is

based on that

what he baited really was kind of it was

create a new market of one that wasn't

really there before and that was a

global market for the kind of goods that

were usually traded at flea markets and

garage sales and this kind of thing and

that was the for me that was the start

of it and it hadn't existed before and

now it's you progress past that into

consumer electronics computers you know

a lot of people don't know that and I'll

put a plug in for my business here but

they don't know that kind of every

category that we're in assign in

addition to collectibles we're the

number one leader in terms of the

dollars traded in that category on the

internet except for books and music

because there's another company that's

pretty good at it but I mean consumer

electronics computer equipment sporting

goods everything it's jewelry and it's

just unbelievable so so that base of

kind of the flea market base has really

evolved into a market for pretty much


growth and success no one in their right

mind would predict 30% growth for

another year every month any monthly

growth for another year so we were

behind on a lot of things and a lot of

the infrastructure and we had some

fairly public failures in the middle of

99 and where our systems went down for

22 hours and then went down for 8 hours

after that and we had a very large

community then you know not as large as

today obviously but still very large

front page news we had CNN satellite

trucks in the parking lot I mean it was

it was big big the world is watching

this company's gone it's going away and

I think failure of that magnitude or a

challenge of that magnitude is it's

really important and I'm glad that we

face it so early in our evolution

because meg is the CEO I brought on Meg

in March of 98

she really woke up to the fact that

infrastructure and technology was

critical and just really built that

organization out over the next it was a

six to nine-month process for us to kind

of get over that and so I think I think

those challenges are also really

critical really important and what you

learned from them is of course kind of

what you know would they say is if it

doesn't kill you it makes you stronger

and it's true and and what you learn

from those challenges and those failures

are what you will get you past the next


I say that you know you should pursue

your passion if you're passionate about

something and you work hard then I think

you'll be successful if you if you start

a business because you think you're

going to make a lot of money at it then

you probably won't be successful because

that's the wrong reason to start a

business you have to really believe in

what you're doing

be passionate enough about it so that

you will put in the hours and the hard

work that it takes to actually succeed

there and then then you'll be successful

when you look at the accomplishments of

accomplished people and you say boy that

must have been really hard you know when

you look at something that looks hard

that was probably easy and conversely

when you look at something that looks

easy that was probably hard and so

you're never going to know which is

which until you actually go and do it so

just go and do it

try learn from it you know you'll fail

at some things that's a learning

experience that you need so that you can

take that on to the next experience and

don't let people who you may respect and

who you believe know what they're

talking about don't let them tell you it

can't be done because often they will

tell you it can't be done and it's just

because they don't have the courage to

try it

if we can help people reconnect with

their communities I think we can work

together as a global community and solve

the world's problems you know it's a bit

idealistic but where we're really

looking kind of for second-order effects

and what we're doing in other words if

we can just get people to just reconnect

with their community just realize that

you're an individual but you have a

responsibility to be part of your

community and that responsibility is not

just a burden but it also comes with

benefits that are real tangible benefits

that you'll see being a part of that

community then just think if everyone

thought like that you could actually

tackle local community problems

homelessness you know healthcare I mean

just serious problems and you could

tackle global problems as well because

we now have again a global

communications medium and communities

are being built not just in the real

world but in the virtual world as well

so I'm very hopeful that the

reconnection with community that I am

frankly I first became passionate about

because of eBay because I saw it happen

on eBay

I'm very hopeful that that reconnection

is going to dramatically improve the