Build vs. Buy: What eBay Learned the Hard Way

I’m wrapping up reading The Perfect Store: Inside eBay, which describes eBay’s early days (through 2001) in great detail. eBay’s growth was astonishing. In September 1999, four years after Pierre Omidyar created an online auction in his spare time, the company had 1,500 employees (half of whom had been hired in the last six months) and hosted $5 billion in annual auctions.

International growth was a significant growth strategy, and lessons can be learned from eBay’s experiences:


  • In March 1999, six friends studied eBay and decided to launch a German version. They called it Alando.
  • Alando acquired 50,000 users and 250,000 listings in two months, which indicates that Germans were adopting the internet rapidly.
  • eBay took notice. In June 1999, eBay bought Alando for $42 million in stock.

United Kingdom (UK)

  • UK consumers paid their phone company to surf the web by the minute, an expensive proposition.
  • eBay decided to hire UK talent and build a site from scratch. It launched eBay UK in July 1999.
  • Within a year, eBay UK surpassed its main competition, QXL.


  • Japan was the second-biggest internet market in the world and growing.
  • In 1999, Yahoo offered to partner with eBay on a Japanese auction site. Softbank, a Japanese telecommunications company, was a major Yahoo investor and understood Japan. eBay declined to partner, perceiving the terms as unfavorable.  
  • In the fall of 1999, Yahoo Japan launched its auction site.
  • In February 2000, eBay launched its auction site.
  • In 2001, eBay Japan had 4,000 listings and was ranked fourth in the country, while Yahoo Japan had 2 million listings and ranked first.

By the first quarter of 2000, eBay UK and Germany realized $87 million in combined auction volume, double the volume of European rivals. eBay deemed its upstart European sites successes. Japan, however, was a disappointment and a missed opportunity.

When a company expands outside its core geography, it often evaluates building versus buying. Cultural and other factors must be considered. One that’s important is the growth rate in the target geography: how fast is the number of people experiencing the problem growing?

The UK market grew slowly, so eBay could afford to build a solution from scratch. But in the rapid-internet-adoption markets of Germany and Japan, building from scratch meant ceding market share to competitors who had closely watched eBay’s success in the U.S. and understood their home markets better.

eBay learned from its Japan experience and, in 2001, bought the majority of Internet Auction Ltd, South Korea’s largest online auction. This gave eBay a dominant position in Asia’s second-largest internet economy—but even that couldn’t make up for eBay’s decision in Japan. Without that country, the second-largest internet market in the world, eBay couldn’t have a dominant position in Asia when the book was written. That title went to Yahoo, and so did the revenue and profits associated with it.

eBay CEO Meg Whitman openly regretted not partnering with Yahoo. Opting to build rather than buy meant that competitors satisfied consumers’ needs while eBay was building and figuring out cultural norms. Convincing them to switch after their needs were already being met proved difficult and cost eBay revenue and profits.