This won’t be a long post, because Nicholas Carlson at Business Insider did all the heavy lifting, but I want to write something about it quickly, because it really is a good story about how challenging the established system can sometimes have amazing results. Here’s the full story, but here’s what you need to know: eBay was struggling in the late 2000s; it seemed like a dot-com relic. Meg Whitman was gone and John Donahoe was in as CEO. Profits were falling. They were acquiring start-ups, though, among them a company called Milo, which morphed into eBay Local — basically order a product from a local store and get it delivered in under 1 hour. Jack Abraham, still in his 20s, was in charge of that team. In February 2012, Abraham was invited to a meeting with Donahoe (a group meeting) on the topic of innovation in the company; Abraham’s idea had long been to turn eBay’s homepage into something equivalent to Facebook or Twitter — basically, a streaming news feed of items you might be interested in and brands you like. eBay 2.0 would be shopping online in the same way we now consume information online.
Here’s what Donahoe said at the end of the meeting:
Finally, at the end of the meeting, Donahoe came to a decision: “Alright,” he said, addressing Abraham and Palmer, “you guys have carte blanche to do this. Any resources you need, any money, any human capital, you’ve got it. The only thing that I ask is that you don’t tell anyone about what you’re doing.”
eBay is a big company, though — 30K employees — with a lot of levels and hierarchy. Abraham knew that to implement the idea successfully, they needed to do it quickly — before it got drowned in a series of meetings and PowerPoints and other conflicting projects. So … what did he do? Off-site? Corporate retreat? Work on Saturdays at a bar? Kind of, but not really.
Abraham figured going to a far-away location for a limited time would accelerate the project. He thought about how JP Morgan used to take business partners out on his boat and tell them they had to reach a deal before coming back on land.
Within moments, the two of them were at a laptop, scouring eBay’s internal site for offices around the world where they could work completely under the radar.
They came upon an eBay office in Sydney, Australia. A nice location was important: It would make it easier to persuade some of eBay’s best employees to cancel two weeks of their lives for a secret project with no shortage of obstacles in its path.
Abraham rounded up a team of six via text message that evening, and booked six flights to Sydney for the next day. The flights were booked on eBay’s internal corporate travel system, but had no approval or finance routing — it could easily backfire. Then, after the entire team showed up at the airport (whew) and they made it to Sydney (whew), they had other issues.
Landing in Sydney felt surreal. Since they had nowhere else to go, the group decided to head to the eBay office in Sydney and find a conference room.
Unfortunately, no one at the eBay office knew they were coming.
“Are you here to see someone?” the receptionist asked suspiciously.
Abraham leaned over the desk. “We’re actually here on a secret mission from John Donahoe,” he told her conspiratorially, “and we’d just love it if we could get a conference room for a few days. Could you possibly help us out with that?”
The receptionist looked at him blankly. “Who’s John Donahoe?”
The story winds on from there about challenges they faced in Sydney and how they worked through them, including pictures of them hanging out by the Harbor, etc. It’s very cool. Here’s how it ultimately ends up:
As he sat down across from the CEO, Abraham knew he was going to have to explain where he’d been for two weeks. Donahoe didn’t know about the trip yet, but people around the company were whispering about it.
“So,” Donahoe began, “that was a really interesting meeting that we had a couple weeks ago. How’s the planning going? Where are you in the process?”
Abraham smiled. “Actually John, immediately following that meeting, we recruited a team of six people, flew to Sydney and spent two weeks working on it.” Abraham opened a laptop with the prototype of the new eBay.com already loaded, and slid it across the table.
“And here it is,” he said.
Donahoe leaned forward to look at the laptop screen, and started clicking and scrolling around.
Since 2009, eBay’s market cap is up $50 billion. They launched Abraham’s project — interestingly, he himself doesn’t work there anymore — in October 2013, and it’s been heralded as a massively important part of the integration of a “new eBay,” with a homepage that gets about 120 million views per month.
Like I said, read the entire story (link’s in the first paragraph). It’s great stuff. But the broader lesson? Sometimes it does pay to be bold and not play by the corporate hierarchy and rules; sometimes, the payoff can be close to $50 billion. For every middle manager who’s ever set up another 1-hour brainstorming meeting at 2pm on a Wednesday, this story should be required reading. Get out of the comfort zone — or even the office zone — and go big, and often you can have great results. Sometimes I do think the entire culture of American business is centered around covering your ass — legally, worrying your people aren’t good enough, etc. — when in reality, if you just open the floodgates a little, greatness could happen. (Education can work the same way.)