In the olden days (like the 1980s and early ’90s), if you wanted to buy something, you had to actually, well, go outside. It may feel like a strange concept to us, living here in the modern ages of 2015, that there was a time before online shopping, when a man first had to put on his pants before purchasing a new piece of camera equipment. Thankfully for all those lazy humans populating this wonderful planet Earth, Pierre Omidyar changed all that forever.
Pierre learned to code in college, and graduated with a Bachelors’ degree in Computer Science in 1988. He got to work quickly, co-founding a company called Ink Development that made software for early tablet computers in 1991.
In 1995, when he was 28 years old, Pierre thought it would be cool if people could easily buy and sell things online, with real-time auctions that everybody could see at the same time. So, as a side project, Pierre sat down at his computer and coded a simple web app that he called AuctionWeb.
It turned out that other people liked this idea as well. By 1996, AuctionWeb had become such a popular website that Omidyar was forced to pay for increased bandwidth to handle all the traffic, so he started to charge a small fee for each transaction in order to cover his costs. Soon there were so many checks pouring in that he needed to hire an employee simply to open and process all of the checks (of course, this was in the days before PayPal changed the world by making the whole payment process much simpler).
One might say that “receiving too many checks” was a good problem to have. A slightly less good problem to have was the torrent of angry emails Omidyar received from customers complaining about each other. Concerned about this problem, Omidyar sat down and came up with a solution. Instead of responding to all of those emails, Pierre added another feature to his web app that allowed people to give each other public feedback and reviews. He asked his users to please say whatever they needed to say about each other in this public review system, so that other AuctionWeb users would know what to expect when dealing with a particular buyer or seller. Pierre was pleasantly surprised to see that most people wrote good things about each other, and left negative feedback only on rare occasions when it was necessary. This system of public reviews was a great success for AuctionWeb, and allowed it to grow by leaps and bounds beyond its infancy phase.
By 1997, AuctionWeb (now called “eBay”) was hosting millions of auctions every month. Omidyar was a coder, not a businessman, so he hired a management team to run the business. When eBay went public in 1998, Omidyar became an instant billionaire.
eBay was one of the quintessential companies of the dot-com-bubble, and one of the few that survived when the bubble burst. While many dot-com startups were simply riding the wave without actually providing anyone with anything of real value, eBay provided a great service that people needed in real life: the ability to buy and sell things, to browse, to shop, and to do business, from the comfort of their living rooms, without the need for things like cars, stores, going outside, and pants.
Pierre Omidyar changed the way we buy and sell things. He made it easier for people to shop and do business. These accomplishments alone are enough to earn him a place among the ranks of coders who changed the world… but in truth the impact he has made is still proving to be greater than the confines of a single website called eBay. The business model he developed (creating a platform for people to transact with each other, using ratings & reviews to keep people honest and let others know who to trust, and collecting small fees for each transaction) has stood the test of time, and is now being used by other coders to change the world in similar ways. AirBnB used Omidyar’s business model to create a platform for people to rent their apartments to each other. Uber used the same business model to create a platform for people to drive each other around. This “web 3.0” business model has given birth to a new internet boom in our time; one that has spawned a plethora of billion-dollar businesses and is continuing to impact the way we do things on a day-to-day basis.
All this, because one guy decided to sit down in 1995 and create a web app for people who wanted to buy and sell things without having to go outside. Pierre Omidyar is one coder who has truly changed the world.