Ganzbot: I Could Not Be More Proud

I am fortunate to manage a really cool team at LinkedIn.  How do I know this?  Because when Steve Ganz, one of our more senior web developers came back from vacation, he was greeted by… GANZBOT!

Ganzbot is a lot of fun… he is hooked up to Twitter, and to a custom queue application, so you can make him say almost anything.   I sit right across from him, so I’m blessed with hearing a lot of the best Ganzbot interactions.

Now featured, of course, on:

Now, if only we could teach Ganzbot to write modern Javascript…

The Tower of Babel 2008: Burj Dubai

Remakes are all the rage in Hollywood, and what better original material is there than the Old Testament?

If you are not familiar with the Burj Dubai, it’s the tallest building in the world, and the construction isn’t even finished yet.  It currently stands about 2,275 feet tall, but they are keeping the final height a secret.  Some rumors state that the final height will actually be over 940m (about 3,055 feet, for US types).

Here is what it is supposed to look like when it is done:

Last week, I caught this article in Gizmodo, and it had this great picture in it:

It seems that, like the story of the Tower of Babel, recently the building reached heights that interfered with the functioning of the construction site walkie talkies.  Literally, they built a building so high that they could no longer communicate.

When the unbelievable Burj Dubai started to get really high, the construction workers discovered one problem that seems obvious now: their walkie-talkies stopped working as they climbed the structure. The reason was simple: distance. At the beginning of the construction they used walkie-talkies—which are light, durable, and have a long battery life—across the site.

Not to get too biblical, but a quick synopsis of the original story:

According to the narrative in Genesis Chapter 11 of the Bible, the Tower of Babel was a tower built by a united humanity in order to reach the heavens. To prevent the project from succeeding, God confused their languages so that each spoke a different language. They could no longer communicate with one another and the work could not proceed. After that time, people moved away to different parts of Earth. The story is used to explain the existence of many different languages and races.

Interesting to consider… if just for a moment. Fortunately, there is a happy ending for the Burj Dubai:

Fortunately for them, they turned to mesh networks, which are similar to the ones used in mobiles, but local. For that they used a company called Firetide, using several Wi-Fi-enabled VoIP phones over a HotPort wireless mesh, which also serves as the transport for the security video in the site.

Gotta love technology.

By the way, the Wikipedia page on the world’s tallest buildings is really, really fun to explore.

A Eulogy for eBay Express

If you follow eBay closely, you may have heard the news already. If not, I’m sure you’ll be reading more about the big eBay announcements over the next few days.

AuctionBytes has coverage, as does Business Week, but I actually think Randy Smythe has the best summary I’ve seen to date.

There are a huge number of changes, and I’m not going to cover them all. Instead, this post is dedicated to one of the smaller bullets in the announcement:

Closing eBay Express: The best features are now on eBay. We’re continuing to bring the best features of eBay Express into eBay.com including more selection in Fixed Price merchandise, improved buyer protection from PayPal, and easier, more intuitive ways for buyers to find your relevant listings. So we’re closing eBay Express and focusing our resources on improving and bringing buyers to eBay.

Since my name was so closely associated with this effort at eBay during my last two years at the company, I figured it was appropriate to post a few thoughts here for those who are either personally or professionally curious.

First off, there is no way to avoid the fact that I feel sad to see eBay Express close. When you build a team and put literally thousands of hours into something, you want to see it continue to live, grow, and flourish after you’re gone. But I’m not going to spend a lot of time on what might have been now.

Instead, I’d like to reflect on just a few key topics: why eBay launched eBay Express, what we got right, what we got wrong, and why eBay Express likely doesn’t fit with eBay’s current strategy.

Why eBay launched eBay Express. This is one is pretty simple, and was publicly discussed in several forums, but I rarely see it accurately reflected in regular press/analyst coverage. It all started in Q4 2004, which was a real wake-up call for eBay. It was the first quarter where the metrics made it clear that there were significant issues with the way buyer demand was scaling on eBay.com.

eBay Express was the culmination of three years of various forms of market and customer research that effectively argued a simple truth: as e-commerce continued to become more and more mainstream, an increasing number of buyers were looking for a different shopping experience. At the time, we called them “convenience-oriented buyers”. While buyers loved the value and selection of eBay, convenience-oriented buyers were looking for more convenience and trust in their shopping experience. They wanted good prices on fixed-price items from reputable sellers, with first-class convenience in checkout and customer service.

When we looked at the needs of both buyers and sellers to make this type of market successful, we found that they were radically different than the auction model eBay.com was based on. eBay Express was the culmination of one possible solution to that problem – a site that leveraged the tens of millions of high quality fixed price listings that eBay already had, while providing a brand-new shopping experience for buyers.

The key to this bet was that with literally zero additional work for sellers, we could boot-strap a brand new marketplace with millions of sellers and tens of millions of items from day one. Once the marketplace had traction with buyers, we would then be able to roll out new seller features and services more appropriate to a high-volume, fixed-price venue.

What we got right. Without getting into the weeds here, there were quite a few things eBay got right with eBay Express. Not all of them may be appreciated by those outside the company.

First and foremost, eBay Express represented a radical break with the way eBay designed and built products. We had volumes of research from over the years, and we literally went across every page, every flow, and asked the tough questions on why this couldn’t be simpler, easier, better for the buyer. The team had two fundamental principles:

  • Keep the site “seller agnostic”, ie, 100% backwards compatible with existing seller process. Selling on eBay Express should be so compatible, sellers shouldn’t even necessarily know that their items were selling on eBay Express.
  • Always ask, relentlessly, “What’s best for the buyer?”

With a strong, dedicated founding team, the effort drew many of the best and brightest from within eBay to assist with every area of the product and across technology, design, and product. At the time, most people at eBay worked on a large number of projects at once, with divided focus across many different features. With eBay Express, time was of the essence, so people had a chance to spend 100% of their time dedicated to the effort.

The end result was a huge leap forward in both technology, patents, user research, and design thinking for many product areas. A modern search classification engine. Relevance sorting. A full featured shopping cart. A completely rethought integration with PayPal. 24/7 Customer Service. No listing fees, with revenue coming purely from promotion and successful sales conversion. Even though the team did not win all of its feature fights to break with the old, the team asked the hard questions, and fought the hard fights.

Not as visible to end users, the groundwork was also laid for significant changes to the way eBay Express would integrate with other sites, both inside and outside of eBay. Half.com integration. Shopping.com integration. Dynamic CPC & CPA-based Featured Placement. API-based platforms to allow any e-commerce site to offer multi-vendor inventory to complete their offerings.

Most importantly to me, eBay Express was designed with extremely heavy involvement from our customers, both buyers and sellers, as well as development partners. In fact, it was reviewed so many times, that even at launch, I don’t think one “new” question came up that hadn’t been raised previously. That isn’t to say that every customer loved every decision made for the site, but it did mean that every concern, every suggestion was considered and incorporated into the design when possible.

What we got wrong. This could be a long section too. Like all 1.0 products, there were a lot of small things we missed. But there were a few big ones that seem so obvious in retrospect.

  1. Branding. It was a tough decision. If you don’t use the eBay brand, you lose any possibility of the positive affiliation and traffic that comes with a known consumer parent brand. But, if you use it, you are also stuck with the negative attributes. eBay means auctions to most people. We ended up going with eBay Express because in the end, it was eBay inventory and we expected traffic to flow from the eBay association. It didn’t, and it also didn’t generate any real unaided awareness for us.
  2. Traffic, traffic, traffic. One of the unanswered questions was how to drive sufficient traffic to the new site. We had initial stabs at this problem, but eBay was still in a phase where it believed in buying traffic. TV, Catalogs, Email, Paid Search. It doesn’t take an Internet genius to realize that buying traffic is horrendously expensive, and frankly, ineffective. Our biggest course correction post-launch was a crash course on how the rest of the e-commerce world looks at traffic generation. Figuring out how to drive traffic in volumes to the site, and build organic traffic in the long term became our 24×7 focus.
  3. Inventory and merchandising. It may be hard for most people to believe this, but eBay at the time was incredibly under-developed on many of the retail basics of merchandising, inventory selection, and promotion. Why? Well, because eBay.com isn’t actually a retailer of anything. We realized post-launch that we needed to develop that expertise, quickly, even to the point of understanding sourcing, distribution, and product selection. Having 10 million+ products is great, but it’s no good if you don’t have the right products at the right price.
  4. International. We designed and built the site, from the ground up, to meet the different needs of the US, UK, and Germany. In fact, I even spent time on concept versions for India, China, and a host of other countries. There were some fundamental disagreements about which model would be most effective, so we built a platform to handle them all. In retrospect, we should have done the US only, and only expanded internationally once we nailed the basics. The distraction, debate, and expense was counter-productive, and in the end, a mistake.
  5. Expectations. There was so much enthusiasm internally around the various aspects of the project, and it was impossible to contain expectations rationally. The reality is that building a consumer brand and a billion dollars in sales doesn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t cheap. Look at how long Amazon has been stretching to build it’s third party sales efforts. We believed we could cut that time in half, but rationally, that was still a minimum 5+ year effort. In the best of times, that kind of effort requires a company with long term focus and commitment. And as we all know now, 2006+ were not the best of times for eBay.

Why eBay Express likely doesn’t fit with eBay’s current strategy. If you’ve actually made it this far through the article, you probably already know the answer to this question.

At a high level, economics speak loudly here. eBay needs to focus on its core marketplace business, and for the most part that means that investing people, technology and dollars towards building new businesses has to take a back seat. You’ve seen other announcements from eBay about closing other businesses, and that stems from this simple truth.

More importantly, eBay has decided against the premise of eBay Express. Our entire reason for building a separate site was because we believed that the changes needed for buyers and sellers in a massive fixed-price marketplace were not compatible with the experience of the traditional eBay auction site. As I used to tell buyers and sellers, we built eBay Express so that we would not have to change the auction experience that millions of buyers and sellers loved on eBay.com.

eBay has now decided that it needs to fold the convenience and trust we identified into the core platform itself. So there is no need for a separate site to preserve the original.

How this new strategy will fair is good topic for debate, but for another time. With eBay’s new strategy, eBay Express will now live on as its feature design concepts and technology innovations become the basis for the new buyer experience on eBay. Of course, the team at eBay has made a large number of improvements and changes in the design concepts to adapt them for the needs of the core marketplace, both from a technical and user experience perspective. eBay Express also lives on as a relentless focus on building a great buyer experience, and a recognition that the needs and economics of high volume, fixed-price sellers are different.

In retrospect, I’m a little jealous of the progress Amazon has made with its FBA and API programs since then. These were all part of our long term thinking as well, so it’s nice to see the validation of their success, but it’s never as much fun to see someone else with that success. Maybe, just maybe, back in 2005 before Amazon had it’s run-up in stock price, eBay & Amazon could have merged, and the the eBay Express backend could have been used to power the Amazon marketplace. Easier said than done, of course.

For the 600+ people who had a hand in creating perhaps the greatest technology & product effort in eBay history, please do join the eBay Express Alumni group on LinkedIn. One of the great things about this industry is that we all get chances to take our lessons from each challenge, and then go and change the world again.

Go with peace, my friend.

Update (08/20/2008): Wow.  This post has been really popular.  Over 300 page views already.  Given the interest, I’m digging up some of my earlier posts on eBay Express:

Understanding the Nature of Glass

This is from over a month ago, but there was a wonderful article for all the closet material scientists out there in the New York Times on Glass a few weeks ago.

Here is an except:

It is well known that panes of stained glass in old European churches are thicker at the bottom because glass is a slow-moving liquid that flows downward over centuries.

Well known, but wrong. Medieval stained glass makers were simply unable to make perfectly flat panes, and the windows were just as unevenly thick when new.

The tale contains a grain of truth about glass resembling a liquid, however. The arrangement of atoms and molecules in glass is indistinguishable from that of a liquid. But how can a liquid be as strikingly hard as glass?

“They’re the thickest and gooiest of liquids and the most disordered and structureless of rigid solids,” said Peter Harrowell, a professor of chemistry at the University of Sydney in Australia, speaking of glasses, which can be formed from different raw materials. “They sit right at this really profound sort of puzzle.”

It’s a great article, and a wonderful exploration of an area of material science that most people assume they know more about than they do.

New York Times: The Nature of Glass Remains Anything But Clear

Enjoy.

How LinkedIn Saved My Wedding Photos

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of posts that I originally wrote for the official LinkedIn corporate blog, but decided they were more appropriate for my personal blog.  The first was Should You Be Eating Your Own Dogfood?, about incorporating your own experience into user experience design.

This may not sound like a typical LinkedIn success story, but it’s an important one.  LinkedIn saved my wedding photos.

In all fairness, the great folks at ScanCafe actually saved my wedding photos.  I read about ScanCafe in a great piece in Money magazine earlier this year.  ScanCafe provides a service where you send them negatives, slides, or photographs, and they scan them and return them to you in digital form.  They even have very high end services, like photo restoration or professional-caliber TIFF file support for true enthusiasts like myself.

After reading about ScanCafe, I was intrigued.  Our lack of wedding photos is a tragic story, dating back seven years to a extremely poor choice of wedding photographer.  Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that my wife and I ended up thousands of dollars poorer, with no wedding album whatsoever.  However, as a ray of hope, we did eventually get the original negatives.

Scanning single-cut medium-format negatives is not for the faint of heart.  It can take 5-10 minutes per photo, and that’s without touch-up work.  We had 400 negatives.  ScanCafe seemed like our savior, with affordable rates and support for all sorts of negatives.  But could they be trusted with our only hope for wedding photos?  Our original negatives?

Fortunately, trust is exactly where LinkedIn shines.  I typed “ScanCafe” into the search box on linkedin.com, and was delighted to find out that an old colleague of mine actually works for the company.  I sent him a LinkedIn message, and within a week I had his assurances and help in submitting my order.

Last week, for the first time, ScanCafe posted the results on their online website for me to review.  It was truly an emotional moment.  Wonderful photos and memories captured and restored, and now, with digital images, the freedom to finally share and publish wedding albums.  As we speak, 81.4GB of high quality TIFF and JPG images are on their way to my house.

I don’t think I would have had the courage to send our precious negatives to anyone without a personal reference and assurance, and I never would have known I had such a close contact at the company without LinkedIn.

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