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Maynard Webb Headshot

The "Spirit of And": Part 2

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Miracles don't only happen on the ice -- they happen every day in the workplace.

I've been lucky enough to experience several in my career. When I went to eBay in 1999 the company was battling some significant technology issues. Many people said I was crazy to join in the midst of such turmoil. Certainly during those dark days at eBay, no one believed it would evolve into the world's largest online marketplace and transform the world of e-commerce. But the real miracle I witnessed was not eBay's rise to greatness, but rather the many moments when I saw teams unleash their potential and brilliantly solve what was previously deemed impossible.

At the time, eBay's site was not architected to handle the company's sudden growth and the site kept crashing. At its worst there was a 22-hour outage that nearly destroyed the company. Based on the users response and the stock activity, it was clear it was a challenging time.

There was a traditional way these issues were handled: Stop everything, and figure out exactly what was bringing down the system. No changes. No new code. No innovation until the system was stabilized. But in an online world that old model didn't make sense. Why did a company have to choose between stabilization and innovation when we really needed both? I realized we needed reliability and we needed new features that could increase volume. We had previously seen the dangers of making the wrong choices when eBay froze product development for three months to stabilize and we fell far behind our development plan. In those few months, Yahoo went into Japan and built the market, where they still have a dominate market presence today

This time we turned our back on the old fashioned way and embraced the "Spirit of And": we committed to stabilizing the system AND making it better (we also refunded sellers who had live auctions at the time the site went down). As we restored trust with users and our partners, we also earned a better relationship with Wall Street.

I saw a tech team achieve greatness against the odds again when we had issues with getting search to scale at the massive rates we were bringing in new products. It would take 24 hours to index description listings before they went live, angering sellers who were paying for the service. In addition, the infrastructure updates cost the company millions. Solving this technology puzzle was not eBay's core competency, so the management team looked to buy a solution rather than build it. We approached Google and Yahoo, but ultimately, given the uniqueness of our needs and the urgency of the situation, decided to build it ourselves. The developer team knew their mission and didn't have to be driven hard. They were self-motivated and inspired and engaged to create change. That self-direction--as opposed to command and control--made all the difference. What should have been a 12-18 month project was achieved in two months. Our solution allowed us to get listings up in minutes and it also saved us millions of dollars.

My most favorite miracle at eBay though, was what the team accomplished in response to 9/11. Moments after the attack I got a call from eBay's Trust & Safety division: someone tried to auction rubble from the Twin Towers on our site. It was our policy not to allow sellers to profit from disasters, but we realized there was something bigger that could be done rather than just stopping the vulture postings. That afternoon Governor Pataki called and asked if we could auction items that were given to the State of New York and then send the proceeds to charities. What about doing something more compelling, we asked? What about firing up our community of sellers to help set up an auction and raise money for victims of the disaster?

We had never done a project like this, which we soon named Auction for America. We needed to get toll-free 1-800 numbers and create the capability for people to answer the calls. (Previously we had relied on emails.) There were also tax considerations and government regulatory issues and approvals we needed. And on top of that, the coding itself was ridiculously complex. Based on how we used to operate, this would have taken us six months, but we didn't have that kind of time. And as it turned out--as the team showed us--we didn't need it.

We worked night and day, literally, for four nights. Maybe that sounds hellacious, but it wasn't. In that time we built a fully functioning auction site. Jay Leno donated his motorcycles and Bo Derek donated her bathing suits. By letting go of the old way of doing things and unleashing the potential of the team and the community, we raised $25 million.

Every day I am inspired by what's possible. People thought it was impossible to walk on the moon, or get fingers to grow back, or talk to anyone in the world in real time through the computer. I've been fortunate enough to learn from some of the best "and" entrepreneurs. "And" the results are impressive: Omar Hamoui dropped out of Wharton to start AdMob AND transformed an industry in 18 months (and had two industry titans fight over his company in their quest to dominate mobile). Marc Benioff quit an executive post at Oracle to change the enterprise software industry AND was a pioneer of a phenomenon now known as cloud computing.

There's a false notion that success is a zero sum game. To win in our careers we have to give up family. To work hard we have to sacrifice sleep. To accomplish we must take (or borrow or steal) from somewhere else in our lives. It's just not the case. Working harder is not a sustainable solution and it's not how people meet their destiny. It's time to get more creative. Instead of choosing one thing we love over something else we love, we must ask, "how can I do both?" And, then, we can find solutions. (Perhaps by eliminating something we hate, like commuting.)

There's never been a better time to change the way you think. Replace every "I can't" with "How can I?" It might sound like semantics, but I promise it will bring whatever you want to accomplish much closer to becoming a reality.

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