eBay – What a Strange Name for a Billion Dollar Corporation

Every day millions of eBay users log onto their accounts to buy and sell, and don’t have any idea how eBay got its name. They might not really care, either. Like the person who turns on the TV and just wants it to come on and play their favorite television show, many eBay users probably aren’t curious about the fine points of the company. But it’s a fun story and all true eBay enthusiasts will be interested in knowing the history.

Just ask some friends what "eBay" stands for and you’re probably going to get an answer like "it’s maybe an abbreviation for ‘electronics bay’ or ‘ecommerce bay’ or something like that". But while the "e" could stand for lots of things, if you look up different definitions for "bay" there’s just no way to stretch any of them so they have anything to do with an online auction site.

However if we search way back to 1995, the year eBay was founded, we can find some clues.

An explanation you’ll probably see on the Internet, and even in some books about eBay, says that the auction site was created by a young computer programmer named Pierre Omidyar to help his girlfriend, Pam, increase the size of her collection of PEZ candy dispensers. PEZ, if you are not familiar with them, are little plastic containers with character heads that flip back and push out a piece of candy.

Pam supposedly wanted a way to enlarge her collection, so Pierre came up with an idea for an online marketplace. Since he was a computer programmer, he put together the code which would become the core for eBay.

Just goes to show you can’t always trust what you read on the Internet. According to Adam Cohen in his 2002 book, "The Perfect Store: Inside eBay" that’s not really the way it happened. The PEZ story, which is widely circulated and believed, was created by a public relations manager to further the myth surrounding the company and has been spread widely ever since.

The real story is that Omidyar was simply a smart man, and he wanted to make an impact with an online venture. He observed the operation of buyers and sellers in other markets and decided that an auction website would be a great service to offer.

Ironically, he had never attended a real auction himself. The whole thing started out as a hobby, but the auction site soon was earning enough money so that Omidyar could quit his job and work it full-time. As a computer programmer he did write the original computer code which made the auction site function - in one weekend.

The website launched on Labor Day, 1995 and he called it "Auction Web". Pretty descriptive, right? Well, Omidyar had earlier founded a web consulting company which he called Echo Bay Technology Group. "Echo Bay" because he just liked the sound of it.

There was already a gold mining company who owned EchoBay.com, so Omidyr took the second best option and dropped the "cho" part of "echo" and named his business - you guessed it - eBay. If you go to www.echobay.com today, you’ll see only one simple dark blue webpage with the words, "EchoBay - What eBay could have been!".

The original website operated as "Auction Web" for 2 years, then officially became eBay.com in 1997.

So there you have it. Maybe that will give you an answer for a "Trivial Pursuit" question, or maybe you can work it into a conversation and impress your friends sometime. Just know that when you buy or sell on eBay, you’ll be one of the few to know the real story of how eBay got its name.

photo by Ryan Fanshaw Photography

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