Meg Whitman: ‘It has levelled the playing field’

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Meg Whitman left a job at toymaker Hasbro to become president and chief executive of eBay in 1998. The value of goods traded on the company’s sites has risen from $740m when she joined to $34bn last year.

“I look back and say, ‘What were we thinking?’ We quit two jobs, moved to California, put the children in new schools. I didn’t think it was going to be anything like it turned out. I thought eBay could be a great collectibles website for the US. I thought this could be a small, quite profitable company.

“We began to understand that what worked in collectibles would work in other markets as well. What eBay does is make inefficient markets efficient.

“The business model is very powerful. We were able to move globally far faster than land-based companies can. The remarkable thing about eBay is that it’s instantly local: 98 per cent of our content is user-generated.

“The other thing I wasn’t expecting was the way the market empowered small businesses. That was a big surprise. I thought this would be the home of big business. But it has levelled the playing field, and made small businesses as accessible as big ones. That was an ‘a-ha’ moment.

“Some categories didn’t work the way we thought they would. We look for markets where there is price and information inefficiency. It turns out that real estate is pretty darn efficient.

“I am startled by the ubiquity of the internet today. It is one of the fastest-growing technologies ever. It’s just remarkable. It has changed the way we communicate, the way we play. E-mail has changed the way business is conducted.

“The timing may finally be right now for mobile access. We thought it was important to have mobile access to eBay and the net five years ago, but nobody used it. That could be changing because of the growing power of mobile phones. In countries like China and India, you may see a shift to primary access to the internet coming through mobile handsets. Moving to 100 per cent broadband penetration will also make a huge difference. You will see an always-on internet that changes the way people behave.

“There is still room for new internet leaders to be created. Of the five biggest internet companies 10 years from now, I can imagine that two or three of the existing leaders will stay on, but that two will be companies that haven’t even been born yet. The internet is an incredibly dynamic environment. You have to respond really fast.”

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