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Pierre Omidyar

Born:   1967, Paris, France
Died:   -

Did You Know?

The first item ever auctioned on eBay was a broken laser pointer Omidyar had bought for $30. Within two weeks, he was amazed to find someone who was willing to pay $14 for it.


Photos: (left) Corbis; (right) WGBH

Online Auctions

This Silicon Valley technologist built an equitable electronic marketplace for Americans to buy and sell their stuff -- and created an impressive economic engine in the bargain.

Future Programmer
Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of the eBay online auction site, was born in Paris in 1967. His Iranian parents emigrated to the U.S. several years later. Like many fledgling computer programmers in the late 1970s, Omidyar learned to write commands in the BASIC programming language on Radio Shack's now-legendary TRS-80 microcomputer. Switching to Apple computers, he would identify with that company's iconoclastic stance, a user-centered David taking on business-centered computer Goliaths like IBM. Omidyar studied computer science at Tufts University, then left for a Silicon Valley job, writing graphics software to run on Apple's Macintosh operating system.

Startups
Omidyar's software engineering career took him through several companies and made him a millionaire before he turned 30. The Internet was booming, and so was Silicon Valley. Yet Omidyar was looking for a project that would satisfy his idealism, not just make him rich. In September 1995, Omidyar hit upon auctions as a fair mechanism for Internet commerce. Sellers could set their minimum prices, and buyers could then determine an item's market value by bidding up to what they'd willingly pay. A novel feedback system could allow buyers and sellers to rate each other, helping minimize fraud by enabling the community to police itself. "I really wanted to give the individual the power to be a producer as well. It was letting the users take responsibility for building the community," Omidyar would later explain.

A National Marketplace
Omidyar's auction Web site, eBay.com, took off. It provided something novel that its users craved: an efficient national marketplace with a strong community built on fairness and trust. A photography student looking for a used camera could choose from models across the nation, and trust that what she bought would be delivered. A vintage clothing store owner could sell to collectors nationwide, not just in his hometown. And a deceptive or fraudulent user would be exposed by the community, and banned from the marketplace. The stock market value of Omidyar's innovative company grew to $2 billion in just three years. And his site's staying power as an economic engine was evident: according to the New York Times, in 2002 over 75,000 people supported themselves entirely by selling items on eBay.


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