Pierre Omidyar’s Stubborn Vision

I finished reading The Perfect Store: Inside eBay, a detailed recount of eBay’s early days (through 2001). Pierre Omidyar worked in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s. He saw technology creating wealth rapidly. But that wealth didn’t accrue to the average person—market inefficiencies concentrated it with the well-connected. This bothered Omidyar. He believed the internet has the power to connect everyone on Earth, which would not only accelerate wealth creation but also distribute it more equitably.

Omidyar had a vision: an efficient market that empowers the average person financially, allowing them to take control of their lives. On Labor Day weekend in 1995, his vision for what the world could look like compelled him to act. His mission was clear: create a community-driven online auction.

Jeff Bezos famously said, “Be stubborn on vision and flexible on details.”

Omidyar was stubborn on vision and flexible along the way. He made numerous decisions others would not have but that supported his vision:

  • eBay was a cash register. It was profitable the first month. It raised $5 million in venture capital funding (which it never touched). Despite the abundant capital, Omidyar insisted on everyone being frugal and spending money like it was their own. He called this being “ebaysian.” This was during a time when unprofitable venture-backed companies spent $250,000 on launch parties. Omidyar didn’t spend lavishly because he wasn’t building eBay to flip or be acquired (though he came close to selling a few times). Omidyar wanted an ebaysian team to ensure that everyone focused on the goal: building a company that would last so his vision could become reality.
  • Omidyar was technical and recognized that his business gaps could hinder his mission. He brought on Jeff Skoll in 1996 as cofounder a year after he’d launched. They were polar opposites, but Omidyar respected what Skoll’s skills contributed to the mission. Omidyar assumed that his year’s worth of work was worth 15% of the total company value. He split the remaining equity evenly with Skoll, which surprised Skoll. Omidyar was generous in issuing title and equity, something many founders would not have done.
  • In 1997, two years after launching, eBay grew so quickly that Omidyar realized he himself couldn’t (or didn’t want to) level up fast enough to take the company to the next level. That fall, the decision was made to hire a CEO. Meg Whitman was the most ebaysian and qualified candidate. She started as CEO in February 1998. Omidyar moved aside and let Whitman take charge. He cared about the company reaching its full potential, not his title.

Omidyar’s focus on vision and flexibility in details led him to make decisions most hard-charging CEOs wouldn’t have made. eBay is almost thirty years old and has been a public company for over two decades. It has over 130 million active users globally in 190 markets. Users create 2 billion auctions/listings, which resulted in a transaction volume of $18.6 billion in Q4 of 2023. I’d say his vision is now a reality, and his approach worked well.