TR: It sounds like you’re not a classic research division, where there are lots of PhDs off in a building thinking of cool ideas.
EB: That’s what makes it an exciting job for my guys. I don’t want to hire people who want to be in an ivory tower. We want people who are going to invent the technology that’s going to power everybody’s infrastructure in five years.
With that in mind, one thing we’re looking at is how we can apply some ideas from social networking. We’re taking the feedback of our users and using that to actually help the community find what they find most interesting. Have you looked at eBay Express yet? That’s the first iteration of some of the finding work that we’re going to be putting out over the next year.
Normally at eBay you’ll find quite a mixture of things. Let’s enter the search term “iPod nano.” [Billingsley turns to his laptop.] You get earphones, chargers, covers, armbands – pretty much anything except an iPod. But at eBay Express we know [from studying previous users’ behaviors] you either want iPod accessories or you don’t, so those are the choices you get. That allows you to very rapidly zero in on what you’re interested in.
TR: So you’re giving people a solution for the frustration of getting ten different kinds of things when they’re really just looking for an iPod. Are there other frustrations or inefficiencies that you’re trying to help people solve?
EB: We’re trying to get better at understanding the intent of a buyer. The way we see it, if you’re looking for a piece of electronics, you are thinking about very different things than if you’re looking for a glass collectible. You’re thinking about, how does it fit into my living room? Does it take U.S. power? What’s the shipping cost going to be on this thing? You’re going to get a list of products and you’re going to make a comparison between this, that, and the other.
But when you are searching for a collectible, you’re thinking about, what do I already own, and how do I find more like that or something completely different? What’s of value to you may be very different from what’s of value to someone else. We’re trying to get a little further down the road of making those into customized experiences.
TR: Okay. I own an old wooden stereoscope, from 1905. You can buy cards for them that have two photographs taken from slightly different angles. It sounds like you want to make it so that I can click on a few buttons and get a special “Stereoscope Store” to find more cards.
EB: Exactly. But my real goal is to create a platform that allows third-party developers to develop that store for us and that allows them to profit from it. I want to build eBay such that it’s almost a plug-in architecture, and we can allow developers to go in and create these perfect buying experiences within these little niche markets. Because that “long tail” is huge. And we’re only beginning to tap it.
TR: Say more about this plug-in architecture and how it would benefit outside developers.
EB: This is still in early phases, and I’m talking about it openly because I’m looking for the rest of the Internet community to help us with this. I want to enable people to build a business on top of a business on top of a business. I want to bring our infrastructure stack to the entire developer community such that they are no longer limited by having to buy and run their own infrastructure. Ideally, we want to take it to the point where a single developer anywhere in the world can make a living developing applications for a company website and never actually be an employee of that company.