Holding court in a motorized scooter loaded down with an oxygen tank, Bob Bull is eager to talk about the online auction and how it's kept him alive despite a trio of bodily ravages-multiple sclerosis, emphysema and heart disease-by giving him a purpose. Following a brief stint as a trader dealing in the odd combination of Swarovski crystal and Beanie Babies, that cuddly iron pyrite of the late 1990s, his mission has been to help novices navigate the massive auction, largely through a website where he dispenses advice on topics like how to photograph jewelry.
"I've been eBayed," he says.
Living, breathing human-interest stories like Mr. Bull abound at "eBay Live," an annual event that in this, its fifth year, sold out with more than 15,000 eBayers in attendance. The company bills Live as a place where buyers and sellers pick up tips and network with other buyers and sellers. In reality, it's a carnival-esque hybrid of pep rally, trade show and business conference dominated by self-made business owners, freakishly obsessed enthusiasts and combinations thereof. To an outsider, it's a chance to gawk at a cross-section of one of the most sprawling and unruly marketing experiments out there, a global community that's 200 million members strong, each with a varying degree of financial and emotional dedication to a mother brand and sales channel that's increasingly responsible for entire livelihoods.
It's a living
EBay says that more than 1.3 million of its members now make their livings off the site-and that's translated into a more sophisticated audience. In becoming a global yard sale supporting a growing long-tail economy, eBay has thrown millions of new brand managers into the world, each concerned with raising his or her site above the clutter and selling on something other than price. Actually (and mercifully) they don't use marketing lingo like "clutter," but they are bent on making sure you pick their tchotchke site over their neighbor's-and then come back for more.
"What I've noticed this year is the maturation and evolution of eBay sellers into serious businesspeople," says Jim "Griff" Griffith, eBay's dean of education. "That population used to be a small percentage."
Bob Bull interrupts his tale at various points for two reasons: to be photographed with the many fans who approach him and to break down in tears. He does the latter when the story of how he got to this year's event overwhelms him: When word got out that the 70-year-old couldn't afford to make the trip up from Dewey, Ariz., a concerned cadre of eBayers took up a collection to get him there.
One of the many people who asks to be photographed with Mr. Bull is Carol Fung, a 32-year-old from Kuala Lumpur who sells rubber stamps to graphic artists, mostly in the U.K. On this, her first trip to the U.S., Ms. Fung and her friend Chris Chan, upon arriving from their 20-hour trip from Malaysia, used the maps and guide to the inter-casino monorail posted on Mr. Bull's website.
One striking aspect of their situation is that both women see that the best chance for growing their businesses hinges on branching out within the eBay community-that is, offering other services to buyers and sellers. Their reason for coming to eBay Live is to investigate the possibility of creating a service for eBay users in their country. They are vague about details, other than to say it has to do with payment options, a common hot-button issue given the amount of fraud that occurs in online commerce in general.
Ms. Chan, a 29-year-old former architecture student, has seen the market for goods such as old Transformer toys and Astroboy gear become entirely saturated. "I've reached a critical mass as a business," she says. "And I know that eBay China will beat prices down, and I don't want to devalue the items I sell. We both see expanding through eBay's education programs as our best bet."
The other striking thing is Ms. Chan's reasoning for getting involved in eBay after she graduated from university in Australia. "I didn't have any interest in going into the workforce. I wanted to do something where I had absolute control and I could do what I wanted to do."
EBay is full of people who have made a similar choice. More than a few times at the seminars, classes and workshops, eBayers who tell of their plans to convert a hobby into a full-time career are met with an eruption of applause, giving the class the feel of a 12-step program whose goal is not sobriety but commercial independence.
The difficulty of letting go for these entrepreneurs is a common theme. Mike and Barbara Siedlik, a Columbus, Neb., couple, have the problem of how to allocate time on their six businesses-some bricks and mortar, others on eBay-which include a sign store and a bird and garden shop. At an eBay Live class on marketing, Ms. Siedlik blurts out: "Sometimes I feel like I'm fighting an elephant and I'm not getting too far."
Afterward, they say they've concluded that the likely answer to being overextended and struggling with finding good help is to trim back operations and maybe turn a store devoted to restoration parts for Oldsmobiles into a hobby. And there was one more conclusion: "We'll probably sell more on eBay," says Mr. Siedlik.
It's probably safe to assume that, in his rise through the ranks of the U.S. Postal Service, Postmaster General John E. "Jack" Potter never pictured himself on the stage of a small stadium in a giant hotel touting a shoebox-not even "a new co-branded Priority Mail shoebox"-as a notable innovation. This is the guy, after all, who dealt with the post-Sept. 11 anthrax attacks. Yet, on the opening night of eBay Live, here he is, rolling out a shipping-friendly shoebox.
And the thousands of eBayers in attendance are loving it.
"You told me you've been selling a lot of shoes," he intones, clearly enjoying a rare public moment that doesn't involve a postage-rate hike. More cheers.
That the Postal Service, not quite known for its customer-service prowess, gives a hoot about what these small- and tiny-businesspeople-many of whom are whooping and hollering and clacking together balloons that make a tremendously annoying sound-want is evidence of the much-remarked-upon eBay effect that's flattened the playing field for small operators.
It's also a testament to Meg Whitman, eBay's CEO, who stands just feet away looking casually awkward like only a dressed-down chief executive can when sporting the same power-blue polo shirt and khakis worn by the other 719 employees in attendance.
She's just given her vision of eBay's future, summed up in the sound bite "the power of three," referring to eBay as well as PayPal and peer-to-peer phone service Skype.
She didn't mention challenges in Asia, or the threat from Google, or past discord over increased transaction fees or a flat stock price. By this point, you don't have to be an analyst to see how eBay will try to evolve. Skype, whose acquisition prompted much skepticism, will offer a way for members to execute bigger-dollar, more complex transactions-the kind of deals that make you want to hear someone's voice before signing off. And PayPal, of course, especially with its mobile application ("I've become addicted," Ms. Whitman says), offers the best-known web-based purchasing option there is.
After Ms. Whitman concluded, Bill Cobb, president of eBay North America, strides to center stage, where he unfurls eBay's two newest products. EBay, he says, will now be allowing its members to document their category expertise on blogs and wikis.
To an audience more familiar with Web 2.0 trends, it might have been big news. For all their reliance on the internet for business purposes, the bulk of the eBay crowd is content to stay out of the social and technological pioneering aspect of the web. So this audience-a group that had been massively entertained by a comedian juggling Ping-Pong balls with his mouth-is absolutely silent. If Mr. Cobb is nonplussed, he doesn't show it and, after mentioning that the blogs and wikis would be the topic of classes, moves right on to his next announcement: a partnership with a social-bookmarking service that will essentially offer a new marketing platform for collectors and enthusiasts called My Collectibles.
Applause thunders and, from deep within the storm, a woman can be heard gasping, "Oh my God. Oh my God." Mr. Cobb, clearly pleased, looks out at the thousands and says: "What we've built is like another society."