With all the press last week about eBay's big layoffs you may have missed the best article on eBay I have ever seen written in the mainstream press. Instead of regurgitating the layoff press release, the article digs into the cultural issues that are at the root of eBay's malaise. The author, Victoria Barret, pinpoints the consultant mindset that permeates the company as being at fault for much of the current problems, and I heartily concur.
I was one of the senior managers on the "eBay 3.0" team that the article mentions, and through that process I got to see first hand how dysfunctional eBay had become. When the team presented our ideas to the executives, John Donahoe said that it was his "best day at eBay so far." After the presentations, the marketing group, which had championed eBay 3.0 to begin with, based the entire 2007 advertising campaign around the ideas put forth. But some within the product group never really bought into it and it was those individuals who, I suspect, ensured that the budget allocated for eBay 3.0 product changes never materialized. The eBay 3.0 team handed executives a roadmap, one they said was great, but they chose to continue on the same meandering, directionless path as before. Products still were built by consultants after pouring over reams of data, but data can't tell you what is going to happen -- that takes insight, intuition, and courage.
The Forbes article also includes a great quote from a "former strategist," who says: "eBay is run by smart people who don't use eBay and spend hours debating the data about how other people use eBay." I can attest for the truth of this statement, and I think it is absolutely damning. When walking the halls at headquarters, you used to see cubicles decked out with stuff bought on eBay. Not anymore. Indeed, one of the most elaborate such decorations, a 4 foot long eBay logo made out of Legos, is currently being auctioned off on the site by an employee who was laid off last week.
Where has the eBay spirit gone? The biggest single cause is that eBay has, over the last few years, increasingly relied on outsourced developers (who rotate into San Jose on shifts) and H1B employees. These are good people, but because of the temporary nature of their work at eBay there is less reason to become emotionally involved in the company. There is also no effort to instill eBay culture into the employee base (including contractors and outsourced workers). For too many at eBay, working there is just a job.
One of the ideas that I had voiced many times was to add each employee's eBay user ID in the company web directory. When eBay bought Skype, it added everyone's Skype ID to the directory, making the omission of eBay IDs all the more striking. This small change would give those who don't use the site nowhere to hide (and come to think of it, eBay IDs should probably be added to public announcement board posts too). "Oh, Bob, I see you haven't sold anything for six months... are you sure that the changes you are suggesting to the SYI page are a good idea?" Working at eBay without using the site is like being a chef who won't eat what they cook.
I agree with much of eBay's current strategy. The investments in trust and safety are long overdue, and growing the fixed price inventory available through eBay makes sense. But the eBay website user experience is still terrible. There is no product visionary in a leadership position at the company - no person who has the knowledge and the ability to look at the day to day process and say "this sucks!" and then follow through to fix it. There is no one person who can manage the user experience in its entirety and say "no!" to dribbling out changes week after week. A strategy is great, but if the company doesn't have the ability to implement it right then that strategy is just a bunch of words. eBay needs its product visionary. eBay needs its Steve Jobs.
When I announced I was leaving eBay, John Donahoe set up a 1 on 1 meeting with me before I left. During the meeting John listened intently to what I had to say about eBay in general and eBay Desktop (my product) in particular. A point that I emphasized is that eBay needs better product leadership -- a point mirrored by the Forbes article. I like John and I respect him, and he has been left in a terrible bind by those he replaced, who neglected eBay for years. At the end of the meeting John asked me to "be a good eBay citizen." I have taken that to heart. I am an eBay citizen, and citizens need to speak up when things are going wrong. The time for real change at eBay is now.