Interview with Dave and Ina Steiner, Publishers of Auctionbytes

Dave and Ina Steiner publish Auctionbytes – A great source of news and information for ecommerce and the online-auction industry. AuctionBytes publishes email newsletters and the AuctionBytes Web site, which provides resources for online auction buyers and sellers. We asked Dave and Ina a few questions about Auctionbytes, the current state of the industy and hope you enjoy a little insight into Auctionbytes the publication and the people behind the scenes.

Give us a little background about AuctionBytes
David: AuctionBytes is an independent trade publication for online merchants that we launched in 1999. We publish two newsletters – AuctionBytes-Update, which is a twice-monthly ezine for online sellers, and AuctionBytes-NewsFlash – a 3x weekly newsletter that includes breaking industry news.

Over the past ten years, we’ve added more tools and resources, such as the AuctionBytes Blog – which has become very popular, EveryPlaceISell – a free directory for online merchants, EcommerceBytes – our more general ecommerce newsletter and EcommWire – a free site for publishing press releases.

Why did you decide to start Auctionbytes?
Ina: We started selling some things on eBay in 1999, and realized there was no publication out there serving sellers from a business standpoint. Whether people sold on eBay as a hobby, a business or to supplement their income, they faced the same issues as other businesses – procurement, shipping, customer service, and so on. We began publishing AuctionBytes in our spare time, then part-time, and pretty soon it was both our full-time jobs.

What is your typical day like?
Ina: Research and writing! There’s a lot of phone calling and scanning to see what’s going on, and a tremendous amount of time writing. The rest of the time is spent assigning articles, editing and administration. Because we do so much work at our desks, we also try to maintain an active lifestyle, including walking and biking.

How do you balance working together 24/7?
Ina: Most people are amazed that we work so well together. But we have separate offices with an intercom system. This means we can both concentrate without interruption, but can connect up anytime when issues come up. From the beginning we divided up our roles to make sure there was little conflict. I’m content, and David is business development, advertising and technical. When we make decisions about new projects or strategic direction, we ask ourselves, does it fit in with our role as publishers? We also have the great advantage to being able to talk about our work. I often use David as a sounding board when working on a story, since he’s also engaged and understands the industry.

David: We enjoy working together – we’re passionate about the topic of ecommerce, and we discuss it constantly. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of balancing work and other parts of life, since we’ve been married over 20 years, and AuctionBytes has been a part for nearly half of it.

How are your styles different?
Ina: David is a morning person, I’m an evening person. He tends to be the “big-picture” person, I tend to be more detail-oriented. We balance each other beautifully.

What do you think of the current state of eBay?
David: Confused. eBay doesn’t seem to know the type of site that it wants to be. Fleamarket, Amazon-clone, secondary market liquidator – these are the incarnations that have taken place over a relatively short time period.

The best way I can illustrate eBay’s problems is to contrast it with Amazon, a company that took a lot of heat for their business model for years – including some rather pointed remarks by eBay’s former CEO Meg Whitman. Amazon’s model seemed clunky, because it warehoused and fulfilled the merchandise. eBay on the other hand, simply provided the platform for transactions, and assumed none of the risk that comes with owning inventory. But Amazon stayed on course, despite criticism, while eBay has the appearance of a company throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. And because they don’t communicate well with their users and developers, they keep sellers in a constant state of upheaval, when they should be concentrating on selling and innovating.

Ironically, what eBay has done to its business model may be a very good thing for ecommerce going forward. Because it has clearly advantaged larger sellers on its platform, it’s given a lot of small and medium-sized merchants the incentive they needed to expand their sales channels and brand themselves.

If you had to pick one thing to improve eBay, what would it be?
Ina: I would tackle a lot of things! But the biggest issue would be how to eliminate “buyer abuse,” whether it stems from intentional exploitation or misinformation. Many of eBay’s changes would not be so devastating if they had equally strict policies for buyers. I think eBay is hoping to accomplish this with greater visibility resulting from their Checkout system and integrated payments, but I’m not convinced they will be able to do as good a job as Amazon.com, and they have been too slow in implementation. And some types of purchases don’t fit in with the Amazon model of “guaranteed buyer satisfaction.” I often wonder what would have happened if they kept “classic eBay” and created “new eBay,” but it may be too late for that. I think everyone is hoping another marketplace will fill the void for that “classic eBay” experience.

I’d also add that eBay’s technology platform has to be the source of a lot of frustration for its current CEO. Meg Whitman took a short-term approach to many things when she was CEO, whereas Amazon..com’s CEO and founder Jeff Bezos actually has a technology business on the side in Amazon Web Services – a stark difference, and one that haunts eBay to this day.

David: Trust. And I mean “Trust” as in confidence or dependability. I don’t think many sellers or developers trust eBay anymore. I don’t think sellers trust eBay to make decisions that are in the best interest of a merchant’s business. I don’t think developers trust eBay to work with them and give them enough lead time to adapt to the changes on the site. I don’t think analysts trust the vision that John Donahoe and his team have for eBay going forward.

You are always starting something new, tell us about your latest?
Ina: We do video, podcasting, blogging and Twitter, and we publish AuctionBytes newsletters and EcommerceBytes Insider, but it all comes down to publishing useful, compelling content in a way that reaches readers in a format convenient to them. We also have the Buyers Market classifieds site and the Ecommwire.com press release service to empower sellers, vendors and marketplaces.

But our newest and most innovative offering is EveryPlaceISell.com, a free merchant directory. The more rocky things become for online sellers, the more its value becomes apparent. Sellers can let the world know where they are selling, and if they change venues or expand to additional marketplaces, this is the place they can advertise it – including driving shoppers to their own websites. Sellers can show their online sales history in one place, so shoppers can be more comfortable with a seller’s reputation, and they can track down favorite merchants if they can no longer find them on a particular venue. We’ve got a number of ideas to make EveryPlaceISell.com even more useful for both shoppers and merchants, so stay tuned.

What question do you wish I asked you?
David: How about, “Where do you see ecommerce in 10 years?” If you had asked that question, I would have said:

Ecommerce is a blip on the screen compared to what it will be in a decade. It’s important to remember that eBay does not define ecommerce and neither does Amazon. They’re simply tools that help people transact business with each other – but ecommerce would find a place and a way to happen even if eBay and Amazon didn’t exist.

Look at Twitter, for instance. It had a cult following for about a year, then it just exploded in the media. There’s no formal outlet for ecommerce with Twitter, but if you aggregate people in one place, before long they’ll be trading and conducting business with each other – like a virtual Greek Agora. That’s why so many VCs and developers are interested in social networking. They want to figure out a way to monetize it.

Small and medium-sized sellers may be concerned about their place in the industry right now, but in the long term, they’re going to be fine. They bring a lot to the table with their unique merchandise and the experience they’ve developed from years of selling on eBay. They’ve also become much more nimble, because they never know what rules they’re going to be playing by tomorrow.

Eventually someone is going to come along and successfully aggregate these small niche sites, and that’s when it’s going to start to get exciting – when shoppers look a little deeper online to buy, and the media pays more attention to the fact there there are more than just a handful of retail sites that exist. Its going to be a perfect storm and when it hits, it’s going to happen quickly, and probably not in a way anyone would expect.

Ina: “How can online sellers improve their businesses?” And the answer to that is, put as much control into your own hands as possible. Don’t sit back and be passive, become fully engaged in every aspect of your business.

Change is hard, and with current industry changes and the economy, things are really tough these days. But if you put your destiny in your own hands and remember what you liked about selling online when you first started, you can enjoy what you do and be a happier person.

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