The marketplace giant has a culture of entrepreneurship that inspired at least 15 women to start their own businesses. Here are lessons from six of them.
BY LYDIA DISHMAN8 MINUTE READ
If you’re looking to buy anything from an apple slicer to a zero turn mower, chances are good that you’ll find it (used or new) on eBay. And while you can type “entrepreneur” into the search bar and discover a plethora of pithy inspirational gear, you won’t be able to find the secret sauce that’s turned at least 15 women from eBay employees into successful startup founders.
The massive marketplace captured attention not long ago for encouraging intrapreneurship so existing staff could innovate and create new ways to grow the business. However, when Fast Company talked to several of the former eBay employees-turned-entrepreneurs, we learned that there were other factors that inspired them to launch their own companies. Here’s what they told us.
COLLABORATION, NOT COMPETITION
Two and a half years ago, Kristina Klausen, an eBay veteran of over 10 years, made the leap to start PandaTree, a language learning platform for children that allows them to talk via live video with a tutor using the company’s proprietary language curriculum. The company has since raised $2 million in funding and doubled the number of customers quarter over quarter growth (although she declined to give exact figures).
Klausen contends that spending over a decade in a variety of roles allowed her to build a formidable set of skills required to start a business. But she cites other reasons for the inspiration. “One was [eBay founder] Pierre Omidyar,” says Klausen, “It’s hard not to be inspired by his success. He wrote the site over a long weekend and grew it into a groundbreaking company.” Klausen points out that eBay went on to create access to economic opportunities for entrepreneurs all over the world (Fashionphile and Nasty Gal are just two of the examples of how selling a few items on eBay grew into multi-million dollar operations) and Omidyar’s commitment to creating a level playing field always came through. This played into the idea for PandaTree because it would not only develop future global citizens, but it would also give tutors economic opportunities.
“The nature of having a marketplace [at eBay] was that it fostered real collaboration between employees,” she recalls. That camaraderie extended into the early days of Klausen’s startup when she tapped other former colleagues’ knowledge and experience on everything from cracking Facebook marketing to refining her pitch. Klausen notes that while many of these female founders started businesses that cater to families, they are generally not in competition with each other. “The other women have all been there,” she says, “so we help each other out.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF CURATION
Mauria Finley spent six years at eBay, three of which were at PayPal, where she led new ventures and the team that launched PayPal Mobile. She went on to lead the lifestyle shopping categories at eBay before moving to product management organization for the buyer-facing site. “At eBay, my group had an amazing charter,” Finley explains, “our job was to think about each category of e-commerce and figure out how to win against Amazon.” Although Finley knew it would be tough to match Amazon on price and convenience for commodities, she spied an opening for categories where consumers are looking for curation, help with discovery, and service.
So when she thought about founding her own company, it was important to play to that competitive edge. “At Citrus Lane, we offered a monthly box that introduced moms to great products for their kids,” says Finley. The company grew quickly to $12 million in revenue and after three years was acquired by Care.com for $48.6 million.
But the entrepreneurial itch was still strong, so Finley started Allume last month with $3 million investment led by True Ventures and angel investors she worked with at eBay and PayPal. “We match busy women with personal shoppers who shop the entire internet to find them amazing clothes. Clients talk directly with their stylists via text messaging and clients are in control of what they order,” she explains, “We are a marketplace business model, not a subscription box model.”
BUILD AND LEAD
Elena Krasnoperova worked at eBay Inc. for nine years between 2003-2010, and again in 2011-2012 after the company she joined was acquired by PayPal. Like the others, she held a variety of positions from business analytics to operations. Krasnoperova launched two businesses, both of which are still running. In 2014, she started SimplyCircle, a parent communication platform for schools used by more than 2,000 schools across the country. This past May she launched Calroo, a productivity app that helps busy parents coordinate their family schedules and logistics.
Krasnoperova says she tapped her extensive professional network from eBay to raise capital for SimplyCircle. “I also leveraged my eBay/PayPal network to recruit employees (the first three employees were all eBay/PayPal alums),” she says. Although she’s bootstrapping Calroo, Krasnoperova says she’s leveraging her eBay network again to raise funding for the next phase of growth.
“My first three roles at eBay/PayPal all start with build and lead,” Krasnoperova points out. As an intrapreneur, she was building teams from scratch to solve problems and find opportunities. When she returned to PayPal she was part of several of the company’s “firsts,” including building the supply chain for PayPal Here’s hardware and its first joint venture with Softbank. “Even though eBay and PayPal were already very large and very successful companies when I worked there, the entrepreneurial (and intrapreneurial) spirit was very much alive,” Krasnoperova notes. “Executives like Simon Rothman, Jeff Jordan, Dana Stalder, Michael Dearing, and David Marcus empowered me to think and act as an entrepreneur,” she recalls, “so building my own companies was a natural transition.”
ALL ABOUT THE MISSION
Stephanie Tilenius was at eBay for nine years between 2001-2010 and her last role was senior vice president of eBay Marketplaces, but she also spent time working at PayPal. “We always said PayPal would be bigger than eBay someday and now it’s true,” she observes, “PayPal is now bigger than eBay, Goldman Sachs, and AMEX.”
After a short time at Google and KleinerPerkins, she started Vida in 2014. Her father had gotten sick and was dealing with four chronic conditions at once which Tilenius and her siblings were trying to help manage. “I had a passion for IoT and mobile telehealth and couldn’t help but think how these technologies could assist in helping someone like my father,” she explains, “Nothing like Vida existed, so I felt I had to build it.”
Maynard Webb, eBay’s COO, did invest as an angel early on, but Tilenius says that the $28 million of venture capital she raised didn’t all come from within the eBay network. However, she too, notes that she felt like an entrepreneur within the organization during her time there as well as by the global community.
“I was inspired by the consumers and businesses that were using eBay to live out their dream, put their kids through college, make a living doing what they love,” she says. “I feel honored to continue in that tradition with Vida, where we are helping people transform their lives through better health.” Tilenius says currently more than 40,000 individuals have used Vida to prevent, manage, or overcome their chronic conditions. “It’s all about the mission,” she says, ” it’s what keeps me going.”
NETWORKING EVERY STEP OF THE WAY
Ritu Narayan spent three and a half years as group product manager for the seller platform at eBay before she launched Zūm in 2016. “We are backed by Sequoia Capital,” says Narayan, for which she also credits her eBay network for making investor introductions, as well as for recruiting and finding vendors and service providers. So far, according to Narayan, the business has grown 300% year over year and with a very capital efficient model of growth.
She says that eBay’s culture of innovation, hackathons, and product demo days influenced her during her tenure. “My choice [of business] was very largely influenced by my background in marketplaces at eBay and the impact I had seen it can make it at both the user and seller side,” she observes. “I used my experience to solve my own and 53 million families’ problem in the U.S.: how to find safe, reliable, and flexible rides for their children to schools and activities while still at work.”
MAKE A MEANINGFUL IMPACT ON PEOPLE’S LIVES
Lorna Borenstein can remember during her four years at eBay that she launched eBay Canada out of her guest room with a newborn. “My parents were thrilled,” she quips. A number of years after that she founded Grokker in 2012. The on-demand network allows employees to tap into wellness programs through video, experts, and community. The digital subscription service expanded to on-demand through leading cable-TV providers such as Comcast and Sky in the U.K. Led by a team that is half women today, Grokker is available as a total wellness solution for enterprise clients in 172 countries.
“I financed the first six months of Grokker and then reached out to individual investors I knew from my eBay days, including Josh Kopelman, who was a close friend from eBay and founded First Round Capital, and Vinod Khosla, who I met through an introduction in the early 2000s from Maynard Webb, eBay’s then-CTO,” she explains. Although these introductions and connections helped Grokker raise $22.5 million, Borenstein says being part of a founder-led company was really inspiring.
“Back when I joined eBay, I was interviewed by cofounder Jeff Skoll, who was still working in the office every day,” she recalls. “His clear passion for the business he created, even after he had become a multi-billionaire, spoke volumes about what truly drives an entrepreneur: your personal vision for having a meaningful impact on improving people’s lives,” says Borenstein. In eBay’s case, it was about democratizing commerce, she says, but in Grokker’s case, it is about enabling physical and emotional well-being for all. “Same driver, which is the impact on helping people,” Borenstein says, “but different application.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.