Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Early Days of eBay

I get really peeved when people misrepresent eBay's rise to prominence. It all has to do with people who complain that the alternative sites are not doing enough to draw in buyers. Many people claim that eBay rose to prominence by advertising. This is not true. People complain that alternative sites do not have name recognition and that eBay had great name recognition from near the beginning under the name "eBay." This is also not true.

Google has archived the Usenet database (even all those insane alt.books.nancy-drew posts live on), so we can take a trip back through time and see how eBay rose to prominence. The founder, Pierre Omidyar, used the Usenet groups to spread the word. We can also see that eBay was not known as eBay.

In order to find the old word-of-mouth advertising, I ran an advanced search restricted to the second half of 1995 in order to locate Pierre's messages shortly after eBay's creation.

AUCTIONWEB: Interactive Web Auction

The above message was posted on September 13, 1995. The URL is, but notice that the site is called "Auction Web." I remember it by that name. We did not call it "eBay." I also recall that the main URL,, was a portal that linked to the auction part and then to Pierre's other business.

Here is one from someone else on September 12, 1995.

Auction Web

Here's another:

AUCTION: Pickett Slide Rule

Everyone called it "Auction Web." Back in my first few years on eBay, I printed out copies of all of the auctions that I bid on or won. Here is a scan of one of them.

Look how the page does not say eBay anywhere, and the name at the top is Auction Web.

In the early days, the internet was very small, and "Auction Web" did not have to run television ads. We found Auction Web fairly easily. The site grew very fast, because it was the only one with auctions. The site which is first is the one which gains the most success.

Yes, eBay did grow by huge amounts once it began advertising on television. However, eBay was already getting huge by the time it advertised, which I believe was around three years after the site's inception.

Some people think that if alternative sites sink large sums of money into advertising then the alternative sites are guaranteed success. Not so. In 1999, Amazon launched Amazon Auctions and spent a lot of money on advertising. I am pretty sure that I recall television ads.

I signed up to sell in the Amazon Auctions, and my auctions closed at higher prices than similar ones did on eBay at that time—at least during the time that Amazon advertised. It was great: Amazon's auctions had lots of buyers because of the ads. The problem is that once the ads ended, the buyers left, and nothing sold. Amazon Auctions no longer exists.

Advertising is very tricky and must be done at the right time. did some high dollar advertising recently. Ever heard of it? Probably not, unless you heard the same ads that I did. For a couple of days earlier this year, Upillar had a well-known radio talk show host advertise the site. Let's see how that worked out.

Upillar had a big jump in traffic, and then the traffic has now fallen almost as low as the previous level. That must have been a bunch of money wasted. Let's compare this to Bonanzle's traffic over the same time period.

Upillar's peak traffic at the beginning of this year solely due to advertising is where Bonanzle was at in early 2009 without advertising. Bonanzle has continued to grow, without advertising. Yes, Bonanzle needs to advertise, but the owners are so far playing it safe by not squandering large sums of money to no purpose. Once Bonanzle reaches a certain level—whatever that might be—then advertising will pay off big time. I think the magic number is 500,000 users. Bonanzle is currently approaching 300,000 users.

Alternative sites are better off building a strong foundation than in wasting large amounts of money in advertising. Advertising is important, but the money should not be wasted. People who need to sell in order to survive are better off staying on eBay where the traffic is higher. People like me who have a primary source of income not connected to selling online will do fine on the alternative sites.

As I have already reported, I am now as successful on Bonanzle as I once was on eBay. If I were selling the same amount on eBay that I am selling on Bonanzle, I would qualify for eBay's power seller program. This was not the case last year. I had quite a few slow months on Bonanzle, but I was able to let my items set in my booth until the traffic finally increased enough for me to get sales.


Brandi said...

I love Bonanzle! In the approximately two weeks that I have had my booth active, I have already sold more books in those two weeks (value wise) then I did in two months on Ebay. Also, it works really well for me because the books I try to sell are ones that I have upgraded or had to buy in large lots to get a good price. So while they used to set in a pile waiting for some Ebay fairy to come magically list them, they are now selling slowly and providing a little cushion for my other purchases. I despise Ebay's long listing process and the fact that they charge to include more then one picture, therefore I would put it off for a very long time. I'm thrilled with the way things have been going so far. I can just speak for myself though... a low volume/low inventory 'seller'. :)

P.S. I wish comments had an edit ability.

Jennifer White said...

It is annoying that Google won't let us edit our published comments. I suppose that could be good, in cases where people want to spam. That must be it! I deleted your removed comment, which sounds kind of odd.

I'm glad Bonanzle is working out. You've got some really good prices on some of your books, so everyone needs to remember to go to Bonanzle and check out the books.

The booths I have favorited are on this page:

My Bonanzle Profile Page

Brandi's is the first one listed.

I am confident that in the near future that Bonanzle is going to start having a lot of traffic. I am going to keep working at bringing people to Bonanzle. Those of you who sell series books on eBay should give Bonanzle a shot, in addition to listing on eBay. The process is so easy, and we save so much in fees!

Bill said...

Yup yup! While Bonanzle already does a limited amount of advertising, there will undoubtedly come a day -- probably not too far in the future -- where we will have the core established to the point where a large scale advertising campaign generates as much revenue as it costs. But to do that, we need our product to be 4x more interesting to buyers than marketplaces that charge their sellers 4x more, since those marketplaces can generally afford to pay far more for advertising since they're passing that cost on to their sellers.

In the meantime, we'll just keep growing at a medium but steady pace as we sustainably increase the usefulness of our product. Works for me!

Henrietta said...

Great article, well researched and what a blast from the past your old auction sheet is!

Jennifer White said...

Thanks for stopping by, Bill. I have full confidence that you will pick the right time for a large advertising campaign. Bonanzle still has as much momentum as it did when I registered, and it will continue to grow.

Something I did not mention in my post is that people have complained that people don't know how to spell Bonanzle or say it. As pathetic as it sounds, I did not know how to say eBay until I finally saw a television commercial. It should be obvious that it is e-Bay like e-mail, but I did not know that.

It doesn't matter whether people know how to say Bonanzle. It is pronounced in the obvious fashion, buh-nan-zel, but who cares? It also does not matter whether people know how to spell it. I have a repeat customer who continues to purchase from me by entering "Bonzale" into Google and then arriving in my booth. Google has already figured it out, and I assume that Google uses the misspelled queries in its database in order to guide people to the right site. Lots of people are really bad spellers, and Google has to allow for that. It is all good in the end.

By the way, if you want a really good laugh, type "" into your browser's web address line to see where you end up. Amazon has bought the URLs of some of the common typos for

Lian said...

I sure remember discovering Ebay early in 1997. I think I joined a little after you did Jennifer. I started trying to finish up my Dana Girl collection and mailing off those money orders at least every other day. Paypal may be pricy, but it sure is convenient if you remember how much time you had to take to go buy the money orders and send them off in the mail.

I was surprised to see a high up Bonanzle rep here. Glad you came by - Jennifer has been one of your biggest supporters and because of her many of us have set up booths on Bonanzle. I am pleased with my sales but of course want more.

I hope it's Ok to put here that my booth is running 10% off for a few weeks. I'm trying to clear out some books and would love to do some haggling if anybody would care to do so. Go to Jennifer's Bonanzle favorites and look us all up. I'm lelliott or Lian's Vintage Series Books. Thanks.

Jennifer White said...

Back in those days, we did not have My eBay or anything to make transactions easier. I remember writing the item # and name of the auction down on a piece of paper with my total and enclosing a check or money order for the transaction. The transactions took a lot longer since at least several days went by before the seller received payment and could mail the items.

It's fine to mention your 10% off sale, and I hope some people check it out.

By the way, many people refuse to spell eBay right when they discuss it in various forums, because they are afraid that the more times eBay is mentioned that it gives eBay more power. They use names like GreedBay, FeeBay, and others instead of the real name.

I spell the name correctly because I want people to be able to find my posts with the correct spelling, and it is not a coincidence that many of my eBay posts also mention Bonanzle. There are many ways to lead people to Bonanzle.