Why eBay’s mobile chief loves them iPhones; eBay schools Yahoo on how to be interesting again

The other day I met with eBay’s mobile chief, Steve Yankovich. In the interview he starts out saying he loves iPhones “because it gets more traction.”

This is developer lock in front and central. eBay is one of the largest retailers in the world. They sell more shoes and clothing than Zappos/Amazon, for instance. So, if they are selling more stuff through iPhones then a raft of developers will continue putting their best developers on Apple’s platform.

You can even see this on Twitter/Facebook apps. I’m using Seesmic and, while it’s quite nice on Android, it runs faster and is more productive on the iPhone.

Listen to the 25-minute conversation with Yankovich and you’ll hear some other things eBay is seeing.

What? We’re decoupling our lives from the laptop or desktop computers. There are a new group of customers who are living almost their entire lives on their mobile phones.

We’re expecting to “try out” products online before we buy them. “Can we see the clothes on myself?” he asks.

I ask him if eBay will buy apps like RedLaser, that lets users with iPhones scan bar codes, or apps like CardStar, which let you hold retailer’s loyalty cards in your iPhone. He didn’t answer the question directly, but did lay out an interesting vision of where eBay will go with mobile in the future.

Around the world they see that there’s different things that matter to different regions. 50% of their mobile business is done outside the US. Emerging markets will eventually be almost all mobile, he says. “We gotta be there.” I talk about why Waze (a traffic app) is popular in Israel, but not popular in San Francisco. He riffs on that point and talks about how they’ll build different experiences around the world than they build for San Francisco.

I ask him whether he would like to buy Yelp or Foursquare, too. He answers that there’s so much to do with mobile to exploit what eBay already has before they get wild and go into totally different markets.

He’s bullish on tablets. “The iPad has been an eye opener for folks. People who are not early adopters are buying it,” he says.

At the end of the interview we talk about how eBay will use the higher resolution screens that are now shipping on high end smart phones like the EVO or the iPhone 4.

Check out his team’s work on the eBay.com/mobile site.



After I met with Yankovich, I went over and had an off-camera conversation with eBay’s CTO, Mark Carges. Now, if you have been following eBay you know they have gotten pretty damn boring in recent years. Worse, they really pissed off a lot of their most loyal users. My ex-wife is an eBay Power Seller and you should hear the stories she told me over the last couple of years of how anti-customer eBay was.

eBay was in a deep hole. Yahoo is in a similar hole. So much so that its CEO, Carol Bartz, is yelling at Mike Arrington, telling him to “f*** off” and give her more time to turn around the company (she did that on stage at the recent Techcrunch Disrupt conference).

So, how is eBay digging out? Ideation software from Spigit. If you don’t know what Spigit is, here’s an interview with Spigit’s CEO where we learn more about that company.

Now software alone doesn’t make a company more interesting.

But listen to what Carges and his new team (some of whom were hired away from Microsoft’s search team) are doing:

1. Focusing on innovation for the first time in a long time.
2. Empowering everyday employees to try things out.
3. Building systems that let employees work with customers to improve eBay.
3. Aspirational messaging to employees and to the press.

So, what does that mean?

When Carges got to eBay (he came from BEA, where he learned how important platforms are) one of the first things he did was look around for places that eBay’s employees could play around and try out “small” projects that would help customers. He found none. So, first thing he did was setup an “eBay garden” where developers could pitch something out and work with customers to find out whether they liked this idea or not, and if they did, how could they make it better.

Each new project there has a “Tell us what you think” link, which goes into a system so they can see what’s the most important thing that customers are saying. Developers need feature priorities. Here the customers themselves set the feature priorities and that also gets everyone onto a mission of making things better. It’s very empowering to hear that customers are actually using your code, Carges, told me and it alone motivates developers. I asked him whether he was compensating developers based on innovation. He told me that the customer feedback is a huge motivator alone, along with executive support. He always tries to provide aspirational messages when talking to employees. Knowing how to please the boss is, he told me, very important, and if executives don’t tell the world how they want to be pleased then things will get political and teams won’t focus on the right things.

So, watch for them on stage to always be talking about where the puck is moving. Notice that subtle shift in how Yanchovich is talking above. He’s willing to talk about where mobile is going. That’s a pretty sizable shift from the old eBay administration. Compare and contrast to Yahoo or Microsoft’s current administration.

Why does this matter to making a company more interesting?

Because it’s the small new projects that tell us how a company is changing to marketplace demands. We like talking about what’s new, not what’s already been built. eBay is boring because it’s a retailer that hasn’t shipped much new lately. That’s changing, look at the mobile page with its “new” or “updated” buttons under all those apps. That’s interesting.

Their garden has tons of interesting new apps. I’ll dig into a few over the next few months and get more interviews. Why? Because eBay has turned a corner and is doing interesting small things again.

I hope Yahoo and Microsoft take notes. I’d like to consider those companies interesting again someday.