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The Unknown. Part 1

by on Jul.02, 2011, under Communication

Jeff Skoll

Nothing’s unusual about five guys renting a house together and chipping in to buy furniture. But one of them is a billionaire and could buy the whole block, if not the city.

Jeff Skoll, the 34-year-old vice president of strategic planning and analysis for eBay, proudly shows a visitor the 10-piece nondescript furniture set he and his roomies have just purchased at the bargain-basement price of $2,000 for their home in Palo Alto, Calif. The tired Mazda RX-7 sitting in the driveway is what he’s been driving for the past 10 years.

“I never cared much about money,” Skoll says. “It’s pretty ironic, isn’t it?” Is this a case of rich man’s guilt? Denial? Parsimony? Skoll insists it is just practicality. “I’m a single guy who works about 100 hours a week,” says the soft-spoken entrepreneur. With his closely cropped, straight brown hair, beige khakis, and determined, unblemished face, Skoll is a prototypical Stanford MBA alumnus.

“When you own a house you need plumbers and carpenters and the like,” he continues. “I have no time to hassle with that right now.” Skoll rarely even pauses long enough to join his housemates at their favorite gathering place: the ping-pong room. “We don’t hang out with him much at home,” says David Zinman, a housemate and longtime friend, and the founder of AdKnowledge, a startup that helps Internet marketers improve the returns on their Web advertising. “He’s so wound up, he’s just jamming. He might grunt ‘hello’ and then get back to work… He’s the hardest working guy I know on the Net.”

Since he joined his friend Pierre Omidyar in July 1996 at eBay, roughly 10 months after Omidyar conceived the concept behind the online person-to-person auction house, Skoll admits he has not taken a vacation. “I’m trying to get a little more balance in my life. At least that was my goal this year, but I’ve failed miserably so far. Call it a write-off year,” he says, releasing a disarming cackle that periodically breaks his otherwise deliberate – even formal – delivery. “Balance” for Skoll has been reduced to 6 a.m. workouts at the gym, periodic dinners out with friends and associates, infrequent readings of James Clavell novels, and very rare ski rendezvous with his New York-based girlfriend. A Schwinn road bike sits idly in his office. He can’t recall when he last rode it to work.

No indulgences
Just three years ago, Skoll was living off credit cards and wondering how he would ever repay his debts from his time at Stanford. Today, he can afford a lifetime vacation. His eBay stock holdings of 22.36 million shares, or 18.9 percent of the company (as of April 1), are worth $3.1 billion. He is the next largest shareholder after founder Omidyar.

While admitting he got “an incredible deal” on stock options, Skoll stresses that he turned down a $250,000 annual salary at another firm to put his faith in Omidyar’s vision. The duo, who had met in 1994 through a mutual friend, started out with no salaries, then paid themselves $25,000 a year each – before the September 1998 IPO surpassed either of their dreams. “But what we’re doing is something that’s much more than a financial phenomenon. It’s a social phenomenon,” says Skoll.

The incredible – and sudden – wealth baffles Skoll. He seems incapable of indulging himself beyond periodically trading coins and other small items on eBay. He appeared slightly embarrassed when he explained that his first real purchase in years was a new 36-inch, thin-panel Sony television. Skoll is now focusing on facilitating eBay’s strategic direction, orchestrating acquisitions and investments, and incubating new lines of business. “My lifestyle hasn’t changed a bit. I still work seven days a week,” he says. “I’m quietly in the background trying to build a company.”

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