The Unknown. Part 2

by on Jul.02, 2011, under Communication

Skoll held the title of president until Meg Whitman came on board, according to Skoll and Omidyar’s wishes. Along with conceiving strategy and development, Skoll has assumed responsibility for eBay’s burgeoning customer support operations until management hires someone else. If Omidyar is the visionary, Skoll is the strategist. He shaped eBay’s business plan while the two were still working out of their living rooms in the summer of 1996. The fact that eBay has been profitable from the get-go (a $4.5 million infusion from Benchmark Capital in June 1997 remained untouched in the bank) testifies to Skoll’s business acumen and frugality.

“Jeff is the unsung hero at eBay,” asserts Bob Kagle, a partner at Benchmark, which owns roughly 20 percent of the company. It’s no surprise that Kagle should sing Skoll’s praises. Benchmark’s initial investment in eBay is worth more than $3.66 billion, making it the most lucrative venture investment of all time. “He took what was an idea and some consumer interest and really built it into a business, and he put the infrastructure together to support its growth, including pricing models,” says Kagle. (The model is simple: Members pay an upfront fee to list items, plus a sliding percentage of the selling price.)

Steve Westly was one of Skoll’s favorite lecturers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (and an executive at WhoWhere?) before his former student plucked him in mid-1997 to head up business development at eBay. Westly was impressed early on by Skoll’s “simple and compelling” business model and his “incredible rapport and relationship with eBay users.” When eBay was getting off the ground, Skoll and Omidyar wrote hundreds of emails each day to members, and both still respond to many personally.

Giving it away
Skoll’s concern for community and his entrepreneurial drive are rooted in his Canadian upbringing (traces of which are revealed when he pronounces “about” as “aBOOT”). Raised with his sister in a suburb of Montreal, he was encouraged by his socially conscious parents to care for others; he recalls helping neighbors lay out sandbags during spring floods.

While still an undergraduate studying electrical engineering at the University of Toronto, Skoll started an engineering consulting firm. He edited the Stanford business school newspaper before graduating in 1995. His favorite theme to write about? Life is short, so live your dreams. Skoll says that if his wealth has changed him, it has allowed him to act on his social concerns. “The company is based on community, and giving back to the community is an important thing,” he says. He created the eBay Foundation, a charitable organization established from pre-public stock worth more than $50 million. The foundation, run by company employees, doles out grant money for community-oriented projects. The grants are drops in the bucket for a company with a $17 billion valuation, but it is more than most Silicon Valley companies are doing. Taking the moral high ground, Skoll pointed a finger at Yahoo!, Netscape, Excite, and others for not sharing more of their wealth.

Being a billionaire isn’t all easy. “People who’ve known me all along treat me as they always did,” Skoll says. “But it’s a little disconcerting to have people who don’t know me, particularly money managers, accountants, people soliciting for whatever services. That part’s a little weird.”

Friends and industry associates insist Skoll remains down-to-earth despite his billionaire status. “Jeff could literally afford to buy the World Trade Center, but he definitely has no ego,” says Robert Hutter, another Skoll housemate and a venture capitalist with Fundamental. “To no degree has this gone to his head. It’s extraordinary…. I think he’s just working even harder after getting rich.” Hutter himself is getting richer thanks to being a “Friends of eBay” recipient of some eBay stock at the $18 offered price.

How will Skoll cash in? He readily admits that he views his lucrative stint at eBay as a “stepping stone” to fulfilling a larger dream he has harbored for many years: writing novels. A kiss-and-tell novel about Silicon Valley? “Not at all,” he laughs. “It’d be a historical fiction, like James Michener meets Ayn Rand, but without the hit-you-over-the-head morality play of Rand.” He wants to someday live in different villages throughout the world and explore universal themes of distinct cultures. “It’s a small world,” he says. “You have to take care of other people – that’s what I want to say.”

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