In March of 1999, Amazon.com launched an auction site to compete with eBay.
Behind the scenes, this was a herculean effort. People from around the company were pulled off their projects. The entire Auction site, with all the features of eBay and more, was built from scratch. It was designed, architected, developed, tested, and launched in under three months.
In addition to a fair amount of architecture work, I had the task of designing and coding the account system, everything around registration and login of buyers and sellers.
Rather boring stuff, I thought, and perhaps that was tempting fate. Just a couple weeks from launch, Jeff Bezos decided to reverse a fundamental design decision that required rewriting almost the entire account system.
I was told about Bezos' decision late one Friday afternoon. I designed the new system that Friday evening. I came in at 7am the next morning and started a frenzy of coding. I left again at 11pm, then came back at 7am that Sunday morning. At 6pm Sunday evening, blurry-eyed, I had done all the testing I could stand to do.
The hastily written code seemed solid, but I feared that was wishful thinking on my part. Perhaps to lower expectations, perhaps just crazed from sleep deprivation, Sunday evening I committed to the source repository what I called the "Share My Pain" release.
The next day, to my pleasant surprise, few bugs were found in the new code. Those minor pains and the remaining issues elsewhere were quickly resolved. Amazon Auctions somehow launched on time, an entire business built in three short months.
Amazon Auctions was designed to be a frontal assault on eBay, reproducing everything they had in one fell swoop. Amazon thought its tens of millions of customers would immediately adapt to auctions and small businesses would flock to our site. It was an aggressive move that was foolishly arrogant.
When the site launched, it was technically superior to eBay's, faster, better search, and several new useful features. The inventory was reasonable, but not large.
Over the following months, the site did not grow as rapidly as some at Amazon optimistically projected. Amazon customers turned out to be quite timid about exploring the auction site, fearful of the lack of guarantees and customer service, unattracted to the idea of bidding.
Amazon Auctions stalled. Sellers moved away. Eventually, Amazon just gave up on it. While Amazon Auctions occasionally twitches in its sad resting spot on the current Amazon site, it is all but dead now.
It did not have to be that way. We were building this from scratch, and there was a lively debate inside Amazon about what we should build.
The debate fell into three camps. The main group argued that we should duplicate eBay and assault them head on.
The other two groups wanted a narrower focus. One (which included me) argued that we should optimize for medium-sized and large businesses instead of small sellers, stealing away the top end of the market. The other argued that we should focus on dominating auctions of books, music, and video -- the core product lines of Amazon -- and leave selling beanie babies and other oddities to eBay.
The "head on assault" crowd won, and then ultimately lost. Over the last several years, Amazon eventually migrated its strategy to versions of what the other two camps advocated. Amazon now allows third party sellers (mostly medium and large businesses) to sell items on its product pages (not collectibles and oddities).
Perhaps the only way Amazon could develop its current third party selling strategy was to experiment and learn along this circuitous path. But I cannot help but think that it could have gotten to this place faster had we been more humble back in 1999.