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Several years ago, a book by bestselling author Ken Blanchard claimed the best way to business success was through creating raving fans. Nothing proves that theory more today than the phenomenal success of eBay.
As regular readers of this magazine know, we at Entrepreneur are big eBay proponents. For the past two years, I have been involved with eBay Live!-eBay's annual meeting-where last year more than 10,000 eBayers converged to learn how to improve their eBay businesses; network with fellow members of the eBay community (that is what the eBay corporation and eBay sellers consider themselves-one big, happy community); and swap and trade pins, cards and other soon-to-be collectibles.
I've attended eBay University and been a judge for several of their contests. And I just returned from a trip to Washington, DC, where the company staged a "United States of eBay" event-sending their buyers and sellers out to meet their congressional representatives and discuss issues important to the eBay community. We've written a lot about how you can make money by starting an eBay business or by adding an eBay component to your existing company, as well as how you can save money by shopping eBay for many of your business's needs. This fall, we will be publishing a magazine, a guide to eBay business, in conjunction with eBay.
I'm sharing all this with you because there's a lot that all entrepreneurs can learn from eBay's achievements. Meg Whitman, eBay's president and CEO, recently told me one of the keys to eBay's success: the "power of many." This "many" is "the community of users who have built" eBay. The company thrives, Whitman says, because of the "unique partnership between eBay and its community of users."
EBay is well aware that its success depends on its 45 million active users. All members of the community are equally valued-Sears and IBM get no better deals or incentives than the Missouri eBayer who sells tractors or the couple from Colorado who were able to launch a successful cheese-making business by taking advantage of the steep discounts on equipment found on eBay.
That community-building translates to almost idol worship. I've seen Whitman at several eBay events, and she is always mobbed by her "constituents." She walks into a room, and they rush her as if she were a rock star. It helps that, despite running a $2.17 billion business, Whitman is incredibly approachable. But it also stems from her being in touch, both with the needs of her employees and with the demands of eBay buyers and sellers.
All entrepreneurs have a constituency. But too many of you are so busy running your businesses that you don't take the time or make the effort to find out what they want, what they need or what they're thinking. Most business owners serve two fronts, your employees and your customers. As the economy improves, your staff is beginning to look elsewhere for employment. What are you doing to make them stick around? Whitman believes, "Within some boundaries of reason, accommodating people's individual needs is an important thing." Remember, it's not always money that talks. Employees often seek the intangible benefits that won't actually cost you much but can gain you plenty.
What about your customers and clients? When's the last time you had a conversation with them? I'm not talking about a meeting where you try to sell them something. Instead, try just talking with them about their challenges, frustrations and goals. What do you do that helps them? Is there more you can do for them?
Another secret to eBay's success is, according to Whitman, "focus." Whitman says this may seem counterintuitive-so many entrepreneurs think that to be successful, they need to serve numerous market segments. But Whitman believes businesses "can be bigger by being more focused. Figure out who your customer is and how [you] can best serve that customer's needs." Whitman believes, as I do, that there are still many niches in the market that are underserved. As Whitman puts it, "People think niche is small. Sometimes niche equals big."