Technology

Beantown's eBay Circus


At eBay Live! in Boston, it's one part trade show, one part how-to seminars, and 100% love fest for the shopping site

A man with a long gray ponytail walks toward the escalator, looking as though he just stepped from a carnival. A lanyard hangs heavily from his neck—weighed down by the dozen, maybe more, Crayola-colored pins and ribbons affixed to it. Near the middle of the rainbow chain, resting somewhere near the man's stomach, is a large ID badge: Michael Mills, Partyvegetable. PowerSeller.

Most weekends, Mills would stand out from the crowds filling the taupe hallways in the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. But this weekend is eBay Live!—the annual conference for buyers and sellers who make a living using the auction giant to hawk their wares. About 10,000 people gathered in South Boston for the event. And Mills, the owner of a used photography equipment store on eBay, looks right at home. "I said that I wasn't going to go all out with the pins," he says with a shrug that sways the loaded lanyard. "It's my first time here."

EBay (EBAY) executives see "Live" as a weekend-long celebration rather than just three days of how-to seminars on everything from payment processing to online marketing. Live is eBay's chance to show off the community that makes its living off of eBay and has helped the company grow into a $6 billion global online bazaar that earned $1.25 billion last quarter from the transaction fees it charges sellers on its shopping sites.

International Love Fest

Though most of the sellers come from the U.S., many come from Europe and Asia. Eli Shimony flew 14 hours from Israel, at a cost of about $5,000, in hopes of meeting eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Shimony, who sells security equipment and global positioning systems, hopes that eBay will expand with a site in Hebrew. He currently sells on the U.S. and Britain sites. "My vision is that eBay's site will be in Israel," he says.

Live is also a chance for eBay to restore some of the love lost after a series of fee increases it imposed on sellers during the past few years, in part to encourage them to price to sell rather than leaving site merchandise waiting for the right buyer, at the right amount. To underscore that point, eBay announced a decrease in fees to help sellers get through the traditionally slow midsummer season.

The convention floor at Live is part sales extravaganza, with dozens of booths from companies looking to attract eBay sellers with e-commerce products, and part three-ring circus. There are brightly colored beanbag chairs, games, and prizes. VeriSign (VRSN), which was showing off a new payments security device in its booth, had a knife juggler.

We Will Rock You

Nothing epitomizes the big-top atmosphere of the event more than the Thursday night keynote addresses from eBay's top executives. Leading up to the speeches was a multimedia event reminiscent of a Polyphonic Spree concert—part church revival, part upbeat musical, part variety show. After an all-eBay employee, all-male band, dressed half in drag, finished their rendition of Aquarius' Let the Sunshine In, rewritten to evangelize eBay's "power of us" slogan, the crowd was so excited it seemed the Rolling Stones, or at least, Lenny Kravitz, had just performed.

But who emerged from behind the curtain? The wizard behind this whole Oz-like atmosphere: Meg Whitman, eBay's chief executive. She stepped on stage wearing the kind of outfit one might don for a family barbecue: casual khaki slacks and the dark blue shirt worn by nearly all eBay employees during Live. "As many of you know, eBay Live is my favorite time of year," she says, smiling warmly as though she means it, despite the fact that nearly every moment of the conference is filled with something for Whitman to do or someone for her to see, shake hands with, or hug.

Many in eBay's community see Whitman as something of a rock star. As CEO, she is eBay's chief evangelist, and thus something of the chief marketer for the company's online business. For many sellers, eBay's success is vital to their own. Without the site, sellers like Mills wouldn't have a readily accessible market for the previously owned 35mm film cameras and darkroom equipment he sells mostly abroad, primarily to Eastern European countries. "I used to work for a neighborhood camera store, but U.S. photographers have gone digital and the store wasn't doing so well," says the Birmingham (Ala.) resident. His three-year-old online business, however, has "been really great."

Tight-Knit Community

Without eBay, John and Teresa Diyaolu would feel similarly cut off from their core markets. The couple, from Phoenix, sells designer clothing, such as True Religion Jeans under the title Investordiva4u. Their 13-year-old daughter, Ria, tells them what items she thinks will be hot sellers. "If they can't sell it and it fits me, I get it," says Ria, adding that, unfortunately, they sell nearly everything.

If one person could embody the eBay love fest that is eBay Live, it wouldn't be Whitman. It would be Bob Bull from Dewey, Ariz. Bull is an avid eBay user who has never missed an eBay Live—though he doesn't have an eBay store. Bull, who came to the conference in a bright yellow vest covered with eBay buttons and ribbons from various eBay Live events over the years, simply gives other eBay sellers and buyers free advice on how to build a better eBay business. And, no, he doesn't work for eBay.

On his Web site, bulls2.com, Bull explains why he does what he does: In 1986 he came down with multiple sclerosis, which confined him to a wheelchair. "I felt really useless until I found eBay," says Bull, who used to collect Swarovski Silver Crystal and Beanie Babies using the site. "Now I feel productive again, being able to help others. It gives me great pleasure."

Holahan is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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