Help Me Count the Money: eBay’s Product–Market Fit Story

I’m reading The Perfect Store: Inside eBay by Adam Cohen. The book, which was published in 2002, recounts eBay’s early days through 2001. eBay’s story is a remarkable example of the power of product–market fit.

Frustrated that markets favored the elite and weren’t efficient, Pierre Omidyar created an online auction in his spare time. Over a long Labor Day weekend in 1995, he wrote the code for AuctionWeb and launched the site as a free service. To keep costs down, the site was hosted as part of a website dedicated to Omidyar’s freelance consulting company, Echo Bay Technology Group—eBay for short—for $30 a month.

By the end of 1995, traffic was increasing quickly. In February 1996, his hosting provider forced him to upgrade to a business account for $250 per month. His fun hobby was becoming expensive, so he started charging sellers a percentage of each sale (i.e., a take rate). Envelopes of dollars and coins began showing up at his house, and by the end of that month, customers had sent him more than $250. He was profitable his first month!

In March, Omidyar took in $1,000; in April, $2,500; in May, $5,000, and in June, $10,000. His hobby was bringing in more than his day job, so he quit. So many envelopes were coming in that Omidyar hired someone to open them and make deposits. Think about that: his first hire was someone to help him count the money.

In 1996, the first full year of existence, AuctionWeb recorded $350,000 in revenue. In 1997, the name was officially changed to eBay, and revenue reached $5.3 million. In 1998, revenue soared to $41.7 million, and the company held an IPO that September. In just three years, the company went from a side project to a publicly traded company with tens of millions in annual revenue and millions in annual profit.

eBay was cash-flow positive immediately and never needed capital to grow, but Omidyar lacked experience in scaling rapidly and struggled to recruit talented people despite the company’s remarkable growth and financial success. In June 1997, the company raised $5 million from Benchmark Capital. But eBay never touched Benchmark’s money; it just sat in the bank account. Benchmark acted as a behind-the-scenes partner, filling the eBay founder’s gaps with its own relationships and wisdom accumulated from a portfolio of investments and years of experience.

Omidyar stumbled onto a painful problem and solved it in a way that was tremendously valuable to consumers and businesses. Customers rewarded him by happily paying for the value they received. eBay made many mistakes along the way, but the problem was so painful, and the market grew so quickly, that the company was wildly successful. eBay’s first few years are an example of the best thing that could happen when you find product–market fit: customers rip the solution out of your hands!

eBay is almost thirty years old and has been a public company for two-and-a-half decades. As of this writing, its market capitalization (i.e., valuation) is roughly $26 billion.