This review originally appeared in The Washington Post.
The Perfect Store
By Adam Cohen
Reviewed by G. Beato
In the summer of 1995, the story went, Pierre Omidyar created eBay.com so that his fiancee could trade Pez dispensers with fellow collectors. Deftly branding eBay as quirky, fun and human, this explanation for how the online auction site came to be was a big hit with the press -- but as former Time magazine writer Adam Cohen explains in The Perfect Store, his new history of eBay, it wasn't actually true.
The real story: After Omidyar failed to get the best price on shares of a high-tech IPO because he wasn't a bigshot insider, he vowed to create a "perfect marketplace" that would produce fair prices for everyone, not just favored buyers. That's a pretty good story in itself, but not nearly as warm and fuzzy as the Pez myth, which a clever eBay public relations manager invented in an effort to attract the kind of media attention that would accelerate eBay's evolution from Internet phenomenom to full- blown pop-culture staple.
In the hands of a writer less smitten with his subject, such PR flimflammery might have prompted at least a moment of censure, but Cohen simply brushes it off as a "small irony" that "a company built on a philosophy of openness and honesty toward its community was finally noticed with the help of a well-crafted lie." Cohen, in other words, is a true believer. And in his eyes, eBay is always much more than just a super-efficient business model with spectacular gross margins: It's a neighborly, self-policing utopia with almost-spiritual underpinnings that can "empower people to change their lives."
In other words, it's sort of like the Amish community, only with Beanie Babies. But from its earliest days, eBay was also a business with global ambitions. And for all of Pierre Omidyar's windy conjecture about level playing fields and "ebaysian" values (honesty, modesty, thrift, etc.), the company ultimately had the same objective as any other greedy dot-com venture: to crush its competition, to dominate its market and to grow into an e-commerce superpower.
As Cohen reports, it didn't always rely solely on idealism and Elvis memorabilia to achieve those ends. For example, when a company called Bidder's Edge created a means for searching eBay and dozens of other online auction sites from a single interface, eBay quickly lost its taste for marketplace efficiency and sued Bidder's Edge into submission. When small competitors tried to create a niche for themselves in the online auction space, eBay bought them out and shut them down.
Cohen is a thorough reporter who skilfully synthesizes the story of eBay's corporate evolution with profiles of more peripheral figures (e.g., the Indiana housewife who started off peddling old videogames but quickly became the biggest supplier of shipping materials to other eBay sellers). In doing so, he covers a lot of ground -- but whenever he's faced with recounting incidents where eBay doesn't come off so well, he fails to muster the same intensity of feeling that he does while documenting its virtues.
On occasion, his desire to cast eBay in the best possible light has comic results. Consider, for example, the time when Omidyar "refused to capitulate completely" to the elitist practice of hyping eBay's future prospects in a pre-IPO "road show" performed exclusively for well-connected institutional investors. To convey his objections to this tradition, Omidyar made the investment bank that was handling eBay's IPO pay for the private jets, first-class hotels and stretch limousines that eBay's executives used during the trip. This, according to Cohen, was somehow "a rebellion against un-eBaysian extravagance" -- apparently flying business class and taking taxis would have been too subtle a gesture.
But there's no crime in being a billionaire hypocrite, and it's not as if eBay has been polluting rivers or conspiring with its auditors to defraud investors. Still, in glossing over and shying away from eBay's many imperfections, Cohen misses the chance to elevate The Perfect Store from an informative, fairly entertaining business history (which it is) into something more ambitious. After all, one of the main reasons eBay is such a fascinating subject is its deeply contradictory nature: It's a close-knit, idealistic community held together by cold hard cash. It's created new livelihoods for some and destroyed the livelihoods of others. It's an inspiring experiment in honesty and trust, and also a fantastic tool for bootleggers, thieves and people who sell old Night Ranger albums.
In the end, Cohen does a good job explaining why eBay has been so successful, but that ground has already been well covered. Had he challenged major eBay figures like Omidyar or current CEO Meg Whitman to go beyond the same old platitudes about listening to the community and providing better user experiences, he might have produced a richer, more provocative book. In its best passages, The Perfect Store suggests the Dickensian complexity of the eBay saga, with its colorful cast of characters and its myriad plots and subplots. Too often, however, it has all the drama of a marketing brochure.
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