Magazine article New Zealand Management

eBay's Jeff Skoll on Business' Social Revolution

Magazine article New Zealand Management

eBay's Jeff Skoll on Business' Social Revolution

Article excerpt

Stanford Business School graduate Jeff Skoll is best known as the co-founder and first employee of eBay, the world's most popular online auction. He wrote the company's first business plan and in 1996 helped his friend and company co-founder Pierre Omidyar channel and transform Omidyar's flair for ideas and computer programming into a thriving business.

eBay went public in 1998 and Fortune magazine now estimates it's co-founder left Skoll is worth around US$3.8 billion. Skoll, who is just 38, has progressively wound down his involvement with eBay and now commits much of his time and energy to philanthropy. His Skoll Foundation is dedicated to helping social entrepreneurs and recently he used his foundation to set up the Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the Said Business School at Oxford University in England.

Skoll talked to Des Dearlove for Management magazine. He explains why he is so passionate about social entrepreneurship: a combination of business and social responsibility that he believes will be the business and social revolution of the 21st century.

What was so special about the eBay business plan?

The business plan evolved. When we were first starting out, the business proposition we had was really quite tenuous. It is a little-known story, but when we started out eBay was simply intended to be the holding company for a bunch of different online services. One of these was a service we called AuctionWeb, a person-to-person online auction. In those early days we saw disaster around every corner. It was quite possible that the whole thing would fall apart right away.

Our first business plan, the one I wrote when it was just me and Pierre in a room, had AuctionWeb developing as one line of business. We had a second line of business licensing the technology to other companies. We actually did that. We licensed an online auction service to a biotech company that was selling biotech equipment. We also licensed the auction technology to a start-up online travel company that was trying to auction off hotel rooms, plane seats and the like. We were always mindful that at any given moment a bigger company, a Yahoo! an AOL or an Excite, could turn its attention to this space, copy what we had done, and very quickly swamp the numbers we had developed.

It probably wasn't until the early part of 1997, about a year and a half after we launched, that we realised growth was continuing, nobody was copying us and we thought, yeah, we have a chance to make a business around this auction service by itself. And so the next version of the business plan called for us to focus on that service which we re-branded as eBay. We dropped the AuctionWeb name and we went from there.

And the rest, as they say is history. Did eBay, have a social mission from the beginning?

Absolutely. From the very start, the success of the community was the success of the company. One of the things that we were most proud of was that there were people who were buying and selling on eBay that substantially improved their lives. They had access to a level playing field, something they had never had before. Single mothers were able to stay at home with their kids and make a living, disabled folks were able to make a living. Seniors, who couldn't get around too well, could make a living, and they were also able to communicate with a lot of other people.

Because of the way eBay started there was a lot of collector-oriented material being sold on the site. Often the seniors might be experts in a particular field. All of a sudden, rather than being isolated in their homes and unable to see many people, they are able to share their knowledge online with other people who appreciated that.

There was a good combination of heart and wallet right from the start. There was a recognition in the genes of the company of the importance of giving back to the community as the company grew. …

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