eBay Innovation Vice President: ‘Evangelize Early & Often’

By Scott Kirsner |  June 17, 2014

Steve Yankovich joined eBay in 2009, after a stint as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Adobe. His current title is VP of Innovation and New Ventures, a recently-formed group with the mandate to “define and create the future of commerce.” We spoke with him earlier this month. San Jose-based eBay generated $6.6 billion in revenue in 2013. Founded in 1995, the company has more than 33,000 employees.

Q. How did you wind up in this job, and how is the innovation team there structured?

A. I’ve been a startup guy for most of my life. I created the mobile business at eBay, and after a while we decided we had to reorganize much of the company because of how important mobile became. We needed to be screen-agnostic. As part of that, I wanted to try and create the next thing that was like mobile, the thing that transformed the company’s way of interacting with the consumer. So we built this innovation and new ventures group from scratch. I report in to the Chief Technology Officer, but also interact regularly with our CEO and CFO.

I like things to operate in a pretty self-contained way, where you can launch projects or businesses, so we have people with design muscle, and user experience skills, and developers. But they all need to be like MacGyver, able to build things quickly without a lot of resources and able to solve problems. Eventually, we do what’s called ‘graduation,’ and we graduate a project to some part of the company that would be the right custodians to scale, nurture, and feed it.

Q. That graduation process is difficult for a lot of innovation groups.

A. You have to evangelize early and often, and we didn’t do that at the start. We now try to identify who the highest-level person would be who’d be the recipient of a project, even when it’s just a napkin idea. We tell them about it, and mentally get them bought in. We let them know how it’s going, and get them wanting it , as opposed to being a disruption that comes out of left field. An example of something we’ve graduated is GoTogether, which is now part of StubHub [a ticket-resale site owned by eBay]. That was about groups of people deciding to go to an event, buying tickets, and each person paying for their own.

Q. One issue we’re interested in is how companies kill ideas, since ideas that have low-potential can steal resources from those that have more potential.

A. You have to break the normal mold that people work under, which is that every project must be a success. If that’s how you’re going to operate, you’re not pushing the envelope. The biggest problem is emotional attachment. I’m a passionate person, and I like to be excited about each thing that we do. But you can’t treat it like it’s your child. You want to make the wins as big as possible, and you can’t do everything. The key question is, ‘Would you fund this project today if you knew everything you know now?’

You don’t want to constantly be dropping one thing for the next bright shiny object. But bright shiny objects that are going to matter do show up. The day the iPhone came out, did you decide to go create something for it, or did you wait for millions to be sold? That’s too late. When something outside your walls happens, you sometimes need to say, ‘Let’s go innovate with that thing.’

Q. What about metrics?

A. Well, the big one is, ‘How do I make the firm worth more?’ If you all the time have the focus of, ‘How do I make our stock worth more,’ it helps you put a filter on your decisions and your actions that they’re always the right thing, as opposed to your personal agenda, like how do you move up in the organization?

Q. What are some areas you’re working on, or themes you’re thinking about in your group?

A. One area is creating more engagement with the site. A lot of eBay shoppers are looking for something specific, like a toaster. But what we’re missing is people just browsing, having an entertaining type of shopping experience, more catalog-like.

Hardware integration is going to be important to the future of e-commerce. What does it mean that there are Fitbits and FuelBands and wearables and Pebble watches? The devices in our lives are all going to become more and more connected. And you might have cameras in your home for security, which can also see what you own and what is going on there. So in your home, the instant a light bulb burns out, eventually you could have no-click commerce. Why wouldn’t you want it replaced automatically? We talk about that concept as Zero Effort Commerce.

People like to touch glass, and there’s lots of it around us. But today, the glass is a barrier. We’ve been asking how can you turn it into a surface that can do more, taking the best of e-commerce technology and software and melding it with the physical retail space. If the glass on a storefront can show you every shoe in your size, or every shirt, that is super-compelling. We can enable those kind of experiences. With Kate Spade Saturday, we rented front windows in four locations in New York City. These were not necessarily in shopping districts. But we rented the windows, and put in a screen, and turned them into a small store. We did something similar at the Westfield Centre mall in San Francisco. (See below.)

We’re starting to scale that kind of technology in Q4 of this year. It’s an important thing for an innovation group — how do you make a big impact?

Doing innovation in a large company is not always an easy thing. The trick in a large organization is to try to have the scrappiness, the lack of blinders and leashes and governors that large organizations can put on you. But at the same time, you want to be able to recognize and use the power of the large organization.

Below, a video of a San Francisco experiment in bringing online purchasing to the mall, and an infographic on how eBay envisions the future of “zero effort commerce.”

(Click to get the full-size version.)

Finally, here’s a piece Yankovich wrote for Innovation Insights earlier this month.