Online Shopping Concept

By Cliff Ennico

The future of eBay is becoming a little clearer.

I was privileged both to attend and speak at last week’s “eBay Open” seller’s conference in Las Vegas (formerly the eBay Radio Party), which attracted several hundred sellers from around the country despite the summer heat (one smart thing about hosting a conference in Vegas in July – the audience isn’t about to wander off in 120-degree heat).

Previously, this annual event was a “grass roots” conference organized from the bottom up by a dedicated group of eBay sellers. This year’s event, hosted and run by eBay itself, was the first major seller conference in several years. The overall tone of the event was upbeat, and I can report that eBay is making a sincere effort to “reignite” its seller community after several years of losing these people to Amazon.com and other online platforms.

Presentations by CEO Devan Wenig and Hal Lawton, eBay’s Senior Vice President for North America, repeated the message that “eBay hears you” and will give its seller community greater support in the future, by simplifying the seller-oriented sections of its website and (gradually, over time) relaxing some of the rules, regulations and criteria for terminating sellers’ accounts that many sellers say have been onerous, burdensome and unfairly enforced over the years.

eBay is a unique animal in the menagerie of Silicon Valley companies because it is really two separate “things” working in tandem. The first thing is a Fortune 500 corporation based in San Jose, California with almost 12,000 employees and worldwide operations that has to account to Wall Street and the Government just like other large corporations do. Their employees and executives tend to be highly educated (with management coming from Ivy League universities, top-level business schools and consulting firms), and work in a polished, professional Silicon Valley environment focused on technological innovation and “big company” culture.

The second thing is a community of sellers and buyers (roughly 25 million sellers, 162 million users, and 279 million mobile app downloads) throughout the world that buy and sell things to each other on eBay’s 25 websites. This community tends to be, well, a bit different. One eBay seller (who agreed to be quoted on condition of anonymity) described this community as “a bunch of misfits, and I mean that in the most positive way possible. Many if not most of us are doing this for a living because we don’t really fit in anywhere else. We tend to be very capitalistic, libertarian, self-reliant, and fiercely independent if not outright loners. We are anything but ‘corporate’, most of us don’t have formal business training, and we’re sometimes not too respectful of authority. We’re hard to manage.”

Another eBay seller told me that “unlike Amazon, whose business is selling stuff online, eBay is in the business of understanding and empowering the sellers that drive almost all of its revenue now that they sold PayPal.”

Listening to these folks, it occurred to me that the future of eBay may well depend on its ability to respect and adapt to its sellers’ entrepreneurial culture, while at the same time managing them enough to ensure that they act professionally, ethically and legally when selling online.

A tough balancing act for any company, but despite some grumbling, most sellers I spoke to were genuinely excited about changes that have been put into place since last year. Even more told me there’s been a “genuine, positive and sincere change” in the way eBay is now communicating with its sellers. A reliable source told me eBay plans to make “eBay Open” an annual event. If you are serious about selling on eBay, keep the last week in July next year open – hey, it’s probably the only way you can legally deduct a trip to Vegas on your taxes J.

Many eBay sellers are “serial entrepreneurs”, and I’m always intrigued by some of the other things these people do. For example:

Bill Perlman (www.silverpanther.com), a seller of model airplanes and ships among other things, was a former “Freedom Rider” during the civil rights battles of the 1960s and the only white member of The Freedom Singers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Freedom_Singers), a popular folk group of the era that was the subject of Christopher Guest’s mockumentary film “A Mighty Wind” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Mighty_Wind). Last year he brought the surviving members of The Freedom Singers together and released a CD entitled “Songs of the Movement,” a live recording of a concert at Town Hall in Ashfield, Massachusetts (available at www.ebay.com/itm/SNCC-Freedom-Singers-in-Live-Concert-Recorded-June-2015-Songs-of-the-Movement-/381444769441?_ul=AR).

Vicky Conley (www.hippiedew.com), a seller of marijuana-themed teeshirts and caps from (you guessed it) Colorado, is on the production crew of “The Marijuana Show” (www.themarijuanashow.com), a “Shark Tank” type reality television show for “ganjapreneurs” looking to take advantage of the ongoing liberalization of marijuana laws in the United States. Lest anyone think this is a “niche” program, the show has raised over $20 million in venture capital for guest entrepreneurs and is now streaming on Amazon Prime, www.amazon.com/The-Marijuana-Show-Season-2/dp/B01I2CNIEW).

Cliff Ennico (cennico@legalcareer.com) is a syndicated columnist, author and host of the PBS television series ‘Money Hunt’. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2016 CLIFFORD R. ENNICO. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC. Follow him at @cliffennico.