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Growing Strong

Bill Cobb reveals how eBay has managed to become an entrepreneurial force, and why it isn't even close to slowing down.


A few months ago at a celebration dinner at eBay Live!, I headed outside to get some air. Blocking my path was a crowd of people clamoring to get William C. "Bill" Cobb, president of eBay North America, to autograph their schedules, conference cards and even T-shirts. For a moment, I felt like I was a reporter for Rolling Stone at a rock concert. I had witnessed something similar last year as eBay president and CEO Meg Whitman entered a room. This comes as no surprise to legions of eBay users who are obviously grateful to the eBay corporate managers and employees who have helped them realize their entrepreneurial dreams.

Cobb oversees marketing, strategic planning and business development for all eBay's North American businesses. This includes, eBay Canada and eBay Motors. He joined eBay in 2000 as senior vice president of global marketing and then became the senior vice president of eBay International, where he oversaw strategic planning, development and operations for eBay's businesses and investments around the world. Prior to joining eBay, Cobb held a number of key positions at PepsiCo and Tricon Restaurants International, a PepsiCo spin-off, where he was responsible for marketing the KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell brands internationally.

The eBay employees I've talked to rave about Cobb, who is an active eBay trader himself. Several months ago, I caught up with Bill, and we talked about how far eBay has come and where it's headed.

Rieva Lesonsky: Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, eBay has made a big transition, morphing from essentially an online flea market to the world's largest retail marketplace. What was the turning point?

Bill Cobb: The principles Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman of the board, started with still serve us well today. It was all about trading. eBay enables buyers and sellers to come together and creates value on both sides.

I'm not sure there was one turning point. One surprising part has been the explosive success of eBay Motors. Based on first-quarter 2005 numbers, eBay Motors has more than $12.9 billion in annualized gross merchandise volume. This includes cars, motorcycles, parts and accessories.

The central notion of enabling people to trade is still intact. And now there's an incredible sense of community. Along the way, we've created tools to help both buyers and sellers. And eBay serves hobbyists as well as entrepreneurs. [A study by ACNielsen released in July, after my interview with Cobb, indicated that over 724,000 people reported that eBay is either their primary or secondary source of income.] We recently launched some new programs--Seller OnRamp, Reseller Marketplace and ProStores--

to further assist eBay business owners. And our Customer Care program is there to help sellers as they evolve their businesses on eBay.

Lesonsky: Time magazine recently said that Meg Whitman "has a vision for a new kind of company." What is the vision for the next 10 years?

Cobb: An obvious change will be the further expansion internationally as trade crosses borders. Currently, cross-border trade on eBay is approximately 15 percent.

We don't sit around and say, "Where are we planning to take the company?" We follow the leader here: the eBay community. We're going into a variety of areas in the small-business arena to help small businesses trade with other small businesses.

The fun part is to see where the people take you. In 2004, the fastest-growing category was Health & Beauty. We recently launched Want It Now, [where buyers post requests for hard-to-find items]. There's something magical going on [when you can] connect buyers and sellers more directly.

Lesonsky: eBay has become a "must-be" place for small-business owners. What makes eBay so vital, especially for new entrepreneurs? What's the smartest thing a startup eBay entrepreneur can do?

Cobb: eBay is a transparent marketplace. You must listen and respond to the community. For example, we started the Seller OnRamp Program, which provides one-to-one consultation, education and training to help our sellers. All it takes is a phone call to walk you through. And many of the customer support people are PowerSellers [an elite level of eBay sellers]. If you already have a business and want to expand, eBay can be an additional sales channel. You can set up an eBay Store.

You can get a business up and running pretty quickly on eBay. The functionality of PayPal [an online payment system owned by eBay] helps. Over 75 percent of eBay transactions in the U.S. are paid through PayPal.

Lesonsky: In the past few months, more competitors have been aggressively targeting eBay. What are you doing to fight back?

Cobb: [Recent] fee changes were a catalyst for us to do some things we hadn't done. We had fallen into corporate-speak. Now we talk in a conversational language. We enhanced customer support. I've become visible on the Community boards. We're going back to our community roots.

Lesonsky: Why, in your opinion, is eBay still the number-one choice for online entrepreneurs? And is it harder to expand and grow now that you've become a cultural icon?

Cobb: When you consider the entrepreneurial value proposition--the amount of buyers, traffic, eyeballs, the innovations and the tools--the eBay brand stands for something. All that takes an investment. eBay is a value for people. It draws people. We remain relevant, interesting and fun.

It's not more difficult to grow. We want to make sure we're still appropriate. We need to be accessible so people will come. And we will continue to listen and respond.

Lesonsky: Do you think online sales will replace the brick-and-mortar store for smaller entrepreneurs? Will the Wal-Martization of America continue to drive smaller businesses from the shopping centers and strip malls onto the net?

Cobb: The internet affords smaller entrepreneurs who are being squeezed out by big businesses with a big opportunity. eBay is leveling the playing field, enabling all businesses to have the same chance to compete.

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