Happy Birthday, eBay Express

Birthday Presents

eBay Express

I’ve continued to shy away from posts about eBay and eBay Express in the past year.  Somehow, it feels inappropriate to comment too deeply about my former company.  But tomorrow (April 24th) is a special day for eBay Express, and I thought it would be wrong not to acknowledge it.

Happy Birthday, eBay Express!

On April 24th, 2006, eBay Express officially launched it’s beta site to the world.  In actually, the site had been running internally as of March 20th, but we officially made the DNS entry available outside of eBay for it’s beta debut.  (Actually, we originally thought it could take up to 48 hours for the DNS to propogate… it turned out to take 5 minutes, which led the site to actually go live during the launch party on Friday, April 21st.)

It may not be obvious from the outside, but eBay Express was exciting for a number of reasons:

  • Mission. eBay Express had a real mission – to build a best-of-class, retail buyer experience with the value & selection that buyers love about eBay, but with significant improvements in convenience & trust.  This high-level goal led the founding team to craft several principles which guided every decision and led to an incredible passion across the team and the company.   Principles like, “Always ask what’s best for the buyer.” and the concept of making the platform “backwards compatible” with existing seller business process, were kept consistent across the site.
  • Innovation.  Never before had eBay committed so broadly to investment in new technology & systems designed around a holistic end-to-end business & experience.  In each and every area, leveraging the principles of the site, we re-examined the best technology eBay & Paypal had to offer, and in many cases invested heavily to break through a number of long-standing roadblocks to platform innovation.
  • Entrepreneurship. eBay Express was an important experiment for eBay, which has a long history of acquiring new businesses, but less experience in building them.  eBay Express was a significant test for the organization and for the business.

It’s two years later now.  Much of the technology that we developed during eBay Express has informed new designs for technology for the core eBay business.  Many of the principles of eBay Express have now also been transferred to the entire eBay markeplace.  In fact, if you read through the transcript of Lorrie Norrington’s speech today, a vast majority of it echoes strongly with the original vision.  Of course, it differs in one important way: one of the basic tennants of eBay Express was that we were building a different site so that we didn’t have to change what buyers & sellers love about eBay.com.

One of the founding team’s greatest fears with eBay Express was the long term ability of eBay to invest in building a new business in a very tough market.  Amazon spent almost an entire decade interating on their model for third-party fixed-price sales on Amazon.com.  Of course, it is very successful now, but it’s easy to forget the amount of capital and the number of missteps that Amazon endured in the process.  I continue to be extremely proud of the incredible sales growth & volume that the team generated in just their first year (and even into their second!).

When I worked at Apple in the 1990s, one of the lessons I learned was that it is very hard for a large business to invest in new markets when it’s core business is suffering.  It seems like ancient history, but when Steve returned, Apple focused first on stemming the bleeding in its core Mac market with the Think Different campaign and the iMac years before it debuted the iPod & iTunes sensation.  To this day, Apple’s success is a pairing of its new businesses and its old.

eBay’s priority now has to be it’s core eBay marketplace business, and that’s why you see tell-tale signs of cutting back on investment in ancillary businesses.

There were plenty of lessons learned from eBay Express – things done right, things done wrong.  But that’s not really the purpose of this post.  The purpose of this post is to say “Happy Birthday” to the site while I still can, and give a brief shout out to the original founding team who got pulled off every other “top” priority at the time:

Special nod to MD, LR, AH, SM, RV, CF, RV & ES for their support, and to the entire Express team.  eBay Express will always be special to me.  And of course, there is the ever growing list of eBay Express alumni on LinkedIn.  🙂

P.S. Just in case she’s wondering, yes, Rebecca, 4/24 is first and foremost your birthday in my heart.  Happy Birthday, Rebecca!

Amazon Marketplace + DVDs + PayPal Shipping = Easy Selling

So, this blog post is about an experiment I did selling on Amazon this weekend.  Of course, it’s not the experiment I wanted to run, but that’s part of the story.

You see, I wanted to run an experiment using Amazon’s new For-Sale By Amazon and EasySell products, which Randy Smythe has been blogging about.  I’m interested in them, because, in theory, we often discussed on the eBay Express team what directions we would have to move in to support selling of fixed-price, new-in-season products in the future, and Amazon FBA looks an awful lot like one of those ideas.

In any case, I can’t tell you about Amazon FBA yet because a bug in Amazon’s seller on-ramp flow is preventing me from upgrading my account.  I contacted Amazon’s customer service by email, and got an incredibly poor reply.  Fortunately, Amazon now has click-to-call support, and that worked beautifully.  The Amazon customer service rep was very apologetic, and knew about the issue immediately.  It’s not fixed, but I’m confident they are working on.

(In case you are wondering, the bug is that when you try to upgrade to Amazon Marketplace 2.0 BETA, you get a login screen where someone else’s email address is pre-populated and not-editable – which pretty much locks you out.)

In any case, I can say one thing:

Amazon Marketplace + DVDs + PayPal Shipping is a pretty darn good system for selling DVDs.

Here is why:

  • Amazon listing process has the best elements of Half.com.  Type a UPC and condition comment, then pick a price based on Amazon current stats, and you are done.
  • Amazon has ample DVD buyer demand.  Something eBay has, but Half.com doesn’t.  (Something we tried to rectify by adding Half.com inventory to eBay Express).  So if you price at the low price, you sell in 24 hours, even for titles that aren’t particularly hot.
  • PayPal shipping makes fulfillment a breeze.  Just enter the sale data, and get a printed postage label ready to go, with tracking info!  All for a great price.

In case you are wondering, it is in-fact possible to print postage with PayPal on non-PayPal transactions.

It’s the same way eBay let’s you print postage for Half.com transactions – the base PayPal Postage form, available as long as you have a merchant account with PayPal.   I do all my shipping, both e-commerce & personal, with it.  In fact, I have a second tray in my laser printer, filled with peel-and-stick label paper, just so I can easily print and stick postage on my packages.  It offers Media Mail, First Class, Priority Mail, and Express options…

PayPal has a lot of features that they built specifically to support the eBay marketplace.  Historically, PayPal did not see these as a third-party opportunity – after all, what other marketplaces were there?  But 2008 is not 2003, and PayPal should expand their efforts around their marketplace products.  A lot of sites are adding transactional third party inventory, and PayPal has already solved many of the problems related to these transactions.

I would love a link from Amazon to just print postage with PayPal.  I would love to have the form pre-populated, and to be able to tap into the money from the sale to do it.

I’m not saying that Amazon would go for this, since they want to own fulfillment.  But the right integration between Amazon & PayPal could address those issues by linking Amazon’s fulfillment ecosystem to PayPal for supporting third party shipments.

In any case, I still use eBay for almost all my selling, and Half.com for textbooks.  But for DVDs, I haven’t been getting great prices lately on my auctions, and the listing process is just too long right now for individual items for something that’s only going to get $5-$10.

Now, if eBay finally starts showing Half.com DVD inventory on eBay.com, I’ll be back in a flash. 🙂

Karl Wiley Joins Motif as President of US Operations

Caught this on my Google News Alert today from PRLog:

Motif, Inc., a leading global knowledge-based BPO services provider announced today that Karl Wiley has joined the company as President of U.S. operations. Mr. Wiley will be responsible for all of Motif’s U.S. based operations, including corporate strategy, sales & marketing, key account management and M&A. He will be focused on driving accelerated growth for Motif by attracting new clients, expanding into additional industries and service lines, and growing activity from Motif’s current client base.

Mr. Wiley joins Motif after more than six years as an executive with eBay. Most recently he served as the Chief Operating Officer of MicroPlace, eBay’s start-up initiative providing a retail investment marketplace in the Microfinance industry. Prior to that, he was the general manager of eBay’s $5+ billion Technology and Media categories, and led eBay’s B2B wholesale initiative. In these roles, Mr. Wiley was responsible for strategy, consumer marketing, product management and customer service, and managed eBay’s relationship with many major branded retailers and manufacturers.

Karl was one of the great eBay Category Managers.  I first worked with Karl when he was part of the Business & Industrial team, which turned out to be an incredible pool of leadership talent.  At the time, Karl was the primary driver & business sponsor for product support for wholesale lots at eBay. For me, it was one of the first projects where I felt like I was truly working on features that were driven by the eBay selling community itself, and not from just internal motivation.  I learned a lot from my efforts with the B&I team, and even after the category management for wholesale lots was disbanded, I still ended up leading the course on Buying & Selling in Lots at eBay Live in 2004 & 2005.  Packed rooms, both times.

Congratulations, Karl, and best of luck with your new venture.

One minor quip, of course, is that it’s time to update your LinkedIn profile

A Kindle Program I Could Get Behind

John likes his Kindle. I love to read. I feel like I should be more excited about it, but I’m not.

I think the problem is that I’m emotionally attached to my library. I surround myself with my books. They remind me of what I’ve read, and even in some cases, who I was when I read them.

Unfortunately, while I’d love to flip through some of them more frequently, the physical form gets in the way. I know I would love to have all my books in electronic form, the same way that I have my CD library now on my iPod, or my DVD library on my AppleTV/Mac Mini.

I caught this article today about the Kindle, and I decided to put out there a plea for a program that Amazon could put on that would immediately convert me over:

Let me send you my books. Yes, my physical books. When I send you them, give me download access to the e-book form, for my Kindle. Let me trade you my paper for electrons, in high quality form.

Take my books, and either sell them through your marketplace, or donate them to libraries and schools. Spread them to others so they can enjoy them.

If I could get my existing library converted over to a form for the Kindle, I’d gladly give you my future purchases. I can rip a CD. I can even rip a DVD. But I can’t rip my books.

I’m guessing the royalties for the book publishers will be a problem. But likely not insurmountable. After all, there is some money on the table here, since the books can be converted into some small amount of dollars. And think of the marketing data you’d have on me once you knew in detail the hundreds of books I already own.

Just a thought.

eBay Rolls out Best Match

eBay has started rolling out Best Match in earnest on the core eBay.com site, and boy is it getting noticed.

First, here is the original post on eBay that announced the test of Best Match as the default sort in five major categories, dated January 16th. Just a few days ago, really.

I caught this blog post over the weekend from Randy Smythe, and realized that I had a few things to say about the launch of this test.

The first of which is congratulations to the eBay Finding team. The launch of this test represents an inevitable step towards the future of a search engine on the eBay.com site optimized for the best possible buyer experience. For all the back-seat driving and Monday morning quarterbacking that they receive, very few people understand the complexity of the problems that the eBay Finding team has to tackle.

The second thing I have to say here is get ready to drink from the firehose. This move is bigger than anything I can think of in the history of the eBay buyer experience, and it’s going to test eBay and the eBay community in new ways. There is no playbook for this type of change, there is no simple pattern match. There is going to be a lot of churn, a lot to learn, and lot of quick action & analysis needed to make this successful.

It might not seem obvious to outsiders how big a change this really is. But believe me, it’s huge. There is a $60 Billion economy that is all predicated on the way that hundreds of millions of buyers search through and find billions of items for sale on eBay. That’s roughly the Gross Domestic Product of the country of Vietnam.

To explain why this change is so dramatic, let me explain a bit of the background behind this change. Let’s start with how eBay search works today.

eBay search has a history of being extremely literal and transparent. Until changes were made in the last few years, eBay search would literally do only the following:

  1. Look at the keywords entered by the buyer
  2. Look at the title keywords of every listing on the site
  3. Return only the listings that had 100% of the keywords entered by the buyer
  4. Sort the listings by “time remaining”

When I worked on the eBay Finding team, it was always surprising to me how many active eBay users I would talk to, both buyers and sellers, who assumed there was “something more” to the way eBay returned items. In fact, I would sometimes ask potential product managers, interviewing at eBay, to describe how they thought the eBay search engine worked. I would get the correct answer less than 10% of the time.

This system had some clear and obvious benefits. It’s simplicity meant that it was transparent to sellers and buyers, at least, in theory. Sellers would, in theory, experiment over time to find the right keywords to use in their listings. Buyers would also experiment. Over time, assuming that eBay was a fairly efficient market, sellers would provide listings with keywords to match the keywords that buyers would use. Supply would meet demand.

Sorting by time remaining had some natural benefits too. For an auction that ending soon, the differences between zero bids, one bid, and more than one bid are stark. One bid guarantees a sale, two bids puts you on a fast path to an efficient price. There was inherent benefit for sellers and for eBay to see auctions that were ending soon get exposure to a disproportionate number of buyers.

So, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, right? Well, the good news is, the search system was good enough to grow eBay to the giant it is today. The bad news is that it had some fairly obvious shortcomings that became unsustainable over time.

There were a few obvious ones that almost anyone who used eBay ran into. Inexperienced sellers, just casually listing, had no idea what keywords to put in their titles. Pitty the poor seller, trying to sell their $1500 PowerMac G5, if they instead called it a “PowerMac G-5”. Inexperienced buyers also had no idea that searching for “Apple Macintosh” would bring back radically different results than “Apple Mac”. eBay didn’t know how to match keywords to categories. A search for “DVDs” wouldn’t just take the buyer to the DVD category – it would literally return all listings that had “DVDs” in the title. eBay didn’t even understand plurals! “DVD” would bring back very different results than “DVDs”.

eBay started addressing these issues in earnest about five years ago. They slowly rolled out improvements like transliteration (plurals), as well as some experiments with “generic keywords” like DVDs.

Why slowly? Well, the problem is, tinkering with a multi-billion dollar economy is, to lack a better word, scary. It’s scary because you have millions of sellers who have already adapted to the old search engine. You have billions of dollars of purchasing at stake, which means a 1% blip in finding efficiency can mean the difference of tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the company. And last, but not least, it’s scary because it’s hard to objectively find a measure of success that everyone can agree on.

How do you measure the success of search? When a buyer does more searches, is that a good thing or a bad thing? If a buyer views more items, does that mean you’ve done a good job showing them relevant items, or a bad job because they have to click through a lot of items to find one they want?

This gets even more complicated when you take into account the financial relationship between eBay and its sellers. eBay gets paid basically two ways: fees paid up-front when listing the item, and fees paid when an item sells. As a result, sellers pay eBay an up-front amount assuming a certain amount of visibility for their item. eBay does not guarantee impressions, clicks, or sales, but over time, sellers get used to the rough economics of their activities on eBay. They learn which keywords, which categories, which items get them enough clicks and sales to make their business works. That’s how they decide when and where to pay eBay it’s fees.

In any case, those changes merely affected the results that were returned by eBay’s search engine when the buyer performed a search (Step 3). It didn’t affect the sort order, which determines which items are on the first page of a buyer’s search results.

Unfortunately, changing the sort order was just a matter of time. “Time Remaining” is a very good sort for auction items, but it is almost meaningless for fixed price items. Over time, as eBay grew, more and more items on eBay were fixed price. In fact, if you include eBay Stores, eBay has had vastly more fixed price items than auction items for some time. What’s more, all the Step 3 changes mentioned above added more items to the search results, making it even less likely that you’d get good results on your first page.

If you are familiar with internet search, then you know sorting your items to provide the best possible results on the first page is incredibly important. And a meaningless sort for a majority of your listings is just not going to be sustainable without sacrificing a significant amount of your buyer experience and sales.

So, this rollout of Best Match is a big deal. Best Match does not change the results that are returned by eBay for a given keyword, but it does change what appears on that first page. It is a new way to sort items. And that, by itself, is huge.

Not surprisingly, sellers have noticed. Randy’s blog post quotes a seller who has purportedly seen a 40% drop in sales. It’s certainly possible. Best Match will alter the amount of time that listings will have at the top of results. Some sellers might see no change in their activity. Most will see small changes. But there will be a few who see huge swings from their existing metrics.

Most interestingly, it is practically impossible to predict what the outcome will be for any particular seller. To be sure, eBay will guide Best Match to increase overall sales for the site. That means, more items will receive bids and be bought. The economic pie will be bigger for the eBay selling community. But there is no known way to effectively simulate what the outcome will be for any particular seller with their existing listings.

This is a fundamental challenge for eBay. eBay has stated they will focus on improving the buyer experience. eBay will also continue to manage the marketplace to a greater number of sales. However, that won’t change the fact that some sellers will do better under this new system, and others will do worse.

Don’t be surprised to see sellers start to dissect public patent applications for clues on how eBay Best Match works. This is their lifeblood, as much as Google PageRank is the lifeblood for content websites. There is huge economic value in “cracking the code”, and one thing is for sure, the eBay community is full of entrepreneurs who will try to harvest some of that value. Like Google PageRank, Best Match is designed to be opaque. As a result, eBay will make no guarantees about how it functions, and they will actively change it over time to improve it and to prevent abuse.

Also, don’t be surprised when sellers are, in the aggregate, upset about this change. This adds uncertainty to their business, and even though every other site out there is based on relevance sort, they hold eBay to a different standard, and for good reason.

The version of Best Match that eBay is rolling out now has gone through more testing than any new piece of functionality that eBay has ever released. They have gone through numerous versions of the technology, numerous experiments with different factors and systems, and elaborate economic experiments to ensure that it results in higher sales for the marketplace and happier eBay buyers.

And now the real test begins. The eBay Finding team will need to listen, learn & react more in 2008 than they ever have before. It will not be easy, for anyone. But then again, the most important changes never are.

Update (1/24/2008): It looks like this post was picked up in the internal Weekly Gazette inside of eBay. I am, of course, flattered to be highlighted. Of course, I am not an unbiased source, since it was on eBay Express that we first discovered the need to move away from “ending soonest” and “lowest price” sorts, and launched the very first, crude version of Best Match.

Amazon Beat eBay in Holiday Traffic

This is a surprising piece from the New York Times:

For years, eBay ruled the e-commerce roost. Each holiday season, more visitors spent more time and looked at more pages on eBay.com than on any of its rivals, including Amazon.com. It made sense; eBay is a wide open forum for every kind of seller and item, while Amazon has traditionally pushed a selection of products through its network of physical warehouses.

But all that is now slowly changing. Amazon has opened its site to independent sellers, while eBay’s auction model is running into problems with fee-fatigued sellers and buyers wary of fraud and counterfeit items.

Now the latest audience figures from Nielsen Online confirm that the e-commerce traffic crown has changed heads. For the month of December, for the first time, more Americans clicked over to Amazon.com (59,624,000) than eBay (59,374,000).

Despite the slim margin between the two companies, eBay’s visitor count is particularly alarming. According to the Nielsen data, the number of visitors to eBay.com dropped 10 percent from December 2006 to December 2007.

The full article is here.

Now, in all fairness, Amazon’s rise in traffic isn’t all good news for them.  After all, the GMV (gross merchandise volume) on eBay is much higher than on Amazon, which means Amazon is far less efficient at converting traffic into dollars of sales.  In addition, given Amazon’s overall profit margins, it also looks like Amazon takes more traffic to generate a dollar of profits than eBay, by quite a bit.

Still, this is a really significant milestone for Amazon, and a significant warning sign for eBay.  Amazon’s ability to grow into categories through it’s seller marketplace is now hitting it’s stride, and it’s pretty clear that as e-commerce matures, it will be fixed-price e-commerce, and not auctions, that dominate the market.

eBay has a tremendous amount of fixed price capability at its disposal, but the fixed price market is about trust and convenience, not just about selection and value.   Merchandising and product promotion is also crucial, and these are areas eBay will need to invest in heavily.

Here’s hoping 2008 is a year where eBay hits some new milestones of its own.

eBay Top Sellers & Detailed Seller Ratings (aka Feedback 2.0)

I’ve been pretty good about not commenting too much on eBay-related topics in the press over the past year.

Since I left eBay in May 2007, I’ve tried to be careful here on this blog with regards to eBay.  It’s hard sometimes, when you read a column online that is wildly off base, to not want to jump in and “set the record straight”.  Of course, when you work for the company, you tend not to do this because it’s hard to separate a personal rebuttal from an official company response.  Ironically, when you leave the company, you also really aren’t free to respond, because it now isn’t your place to fight those battles.

I read an article this week, on Auctionbytes, about the new Detailed Seller Ratings and the relatively low ranking of the Top 25 eBay Sellers, and I felt I had to comment.

In case you are unfamilar, eBay rolled out new “Detailed Seller Rankings” to their feedback page last year, in one of the biggest enhancements to the feedback system since it’s debut.  These detailed ratings allow buyers to rate sellers on four additional dimensions, from 1-5:

  • Item as described
  • Communication
  • Shipping time
  • Shipping & Handling charges

Seems like an obvious improvement to most buyers.  However, no part of the eBay ecosystem is simple to modify, and there has been considerable angst and discussion among top sellers about this new improvement.

I’m not going to get into the debate and issues that sellers have raised with the new system.   I’m not an expert on the system, and I haven’t read all the arguments in detail.  The fact is, the original feedback system did not gather any structured data about the end-to-end service offered by eBay sellers, and this system is definitely a first step in attempting to gather that data.  For a company that wants to focus on a great buyer experience, this is absolutely necessary.

Instead, I want to comment on the article, largely because of its conclusion:

A study of eBay’s top sellers reveals they rank poorly in terms of the detailed ratings left anonymously by their customers, with most falling in the bottom 25 percent of all sellers for such ratings.

… It’s troublesome to see that eBay’s top sellers perform poorly with DSRs, and AuctionBytes believes the data indicates eBay needs to reevaluate the new rating system and reconsider its decision to use DSRs to punish and disadvantage sellers. It should also provide much more information about the results – on an ongoing basis – so sellers have a better understanding of how the new system is affecting purchasing decisions and sales.

(BTW The article looks at the Top 500 sellers, according to Nortica.)

Fundamentally, I agree with this line:

It’s troublesome to see that eBay’s top sellers perform poorly with DSRs

But I disagree with the resulting conclusion:

AuctionBytes believes the data indicates eBay needs to reevaluate the new rating system.

In response to this, let me ask the following question:

What if the top sellers on eBay, as measured by feedback score and/or sales volume, actually are not offering the best customer experience to buyers?

Too often at eBay, I would see these two things confused together.  There was an assumption that the top sellers, always measured by GMV (gross merchandise volume) or Feedback score got that way by being the best for the end customer, the buyers.  However, in order to believe this, you have to believe that you can only build GMV and Feedback with a great customer experience.  What if that’s not true?

What if the DSRs are telling us that eBay’s “top sellers” are actually offering buyers a below average customer experience?

Well, I’m a just an eBay seller now myself.  I don’t do huge volume, but I have almost 800 feedback, and I flirt constantly with being a bronze PowerSeller.  I have an eBay Store, and I use eBay’s Selling Manager.

My DSRs to date are (based on 81 sales with ratings):

  • Item as described: 4.9
  • Communication: 4.9
  • Shipping time: 4.9
  • Shipping and handling charges: 4.7

So it looks like I’m in the Top 25% of buyer experience on these ratings (well, above median for S&H).

What if these DSR’s are saying that buyers have a better experience buying from me than when they buy from one of the eBay Top 500 sellers?