Fast Company

Innovation Wednesday: Meet John Donahoe, eBay's new CEO

This afternoon eBay made it official: Meg Whitman's stepping down, and John Donahoe's stepping up. No surprise, of course. When Whitman brought in Donahoe in 2005 to run marketplaces, which generate about 70 percent of the company's revenue, the move had succession plan written all over it - in indelible ink.

John Donahoe

"I've known Meg for 25 years," he told me when I visited eBay a few months ago for a story in the magazine. Donahoe worked with Whitman at Bain & Company in the 1980s and prior to eBay served as worldwide managing director. "In our conversations [about joining eBay] the tipping point was the sense of purpose and mission," he said. "If I'm going to dedicate my energy to some form of work, I want it to be something I care about. The whole business model of eBay is around this premise that people are good. It's this marketplace where strangers who never meet can have transactions hundreds or thousands of miles apart for items of high value."

As president of eBay marketplaces for the last three years, Donahoe has proven his mettle by leading a series of sweeping and urgent changes to the company's core business, which I described here the other day. In late 2005, he began looking to hire a CTO who could “take eBay to the next level.” Given the site’s size and complexity, there weren’t many candidates with comparable job experience. Then he met Matt Carey, Wal-Mart's CTO.

On the surface, Donahoe and Carey are the ultimate odd couple, as different as an e-commerce site and a big-box retailer. Donahoe, 47, attended Dartmouth, earned his MBA from Stanford, and combines boyish good looks with a slightly patrician air. He's 6' 5" and lean, with sandy hair. A regular in the 6 a.m. Pilates class at eBay.

Carey, 42, is shy of six feet, bald and graying, with a slight paunch and an Oklahoma twang. He's an avid hunter who exudes humility. As a boy, he learned about computers from his mother, a former IBMer in systems information, and later graduated from Oklahoma State University in his hometown of Okmulgee. In 20 years at Wal-Mart, he helped build the technical infrastructure behind the world’s largest retailer and one of the most data-centric businesses on the planet.

Despite never buying or selling anything on eBay, Carey had already experienced firsthand the challenges of tremendous growth and maturation that the company was struggling with. A half hour into the job interview, Donahoe excused himself and called a colleague: “We have to have this guy.”

Since then, Donahoe and Carey have been remaking the site to attract and retain buyers. "If we're honest with ourselves, our user experience hadn't kept up with the competition," Donahoe told me. "In the first ten years eBay created the market. Now we're positioning ourselves to innovate off our core platform. This is not a project. We're never done."

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4 Comments

  • Joshua Feinberg

    This got me thinking again about eBay's autonomy... something that's crossed many peoples' minds over the last several years. Thinking ahead 10 years (2018), or perhaps even as little as 5 years from now, will eBay just be eBay? or will it by necessity need to more aggressively get into search advertising like Google, Yahoo or Microsoft?

  • Jay Tatum

    I appreciate the forward-looking/forward-thinking of this article. What impresses me most is the fact that these guys recognize innovation as the constant entity of change. Imagine building innovation on the existing platform before they have useed it up! Continuous quality improvement embodied in a couple of guys just doing business matter of factly.

  • Joseph Allan

    This got me thinking again about eBay's autonomy... something that's crossed many peoples' minds over the last several years. Thinking ahead 10 years (2018), or perhaps even as little as 5 years from now, will eBay just be eBay? or will it by necessity need to more aggressively get into search advertising like Google, Yahoo or Microsoft?

  • Joseph Allan

    I appreciate the forward-looking/forward-thinking of this article. What impresses me most is the fact that these guys recognize innovation as the constant entity of change. Imagine building innovation on the existing platform before they have useed it up! Continuous quality improvement embodied in a couple of guys just doing business matter of factly.