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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: