On 31 August 2017, eBay's fixed-price marketplace site Half.com will be closing its doors for good. This makes me a little sad, and a lot nostalgic. This site did so much for me over the years, and I tried to do so much for it. It's sad to see it go.
So why am I so emotionally attached to a website? Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, when a cable TV subscription was still way out of my budget and before I had heard of Netflix (circa 2000), I used to watch all my TV shows and movies on DVD. I'd wait a year for my shows to come out on DVD, buy them used, and then sell them used. Half.com made the buying and selling insanely easy and I loved the crap out of the site as a user.
A few years later, as the first dot-com bust left me unemployed and a bit desperate for a while, I was able to use Half.com to sell every DVD, book, and CD I owned in order to pay rent for a month or two. With the huge difference is listing speed, this would have been completely uneconomical to do on eBay. I probably would have had to move back to Sacramento with my tail between my legs and would never have found the wonderful career I enjoy today. This was just the first time Half.com saved my career.
In 2003, eBay announced that it was going to close down Half.com some time in the next year. They apparently saw it as a duplicate of existing eBay functionality. I thought they were completely nuts. After a few weeks of going through the Five Stages of Grief over the news, I finally arrived at Stage 6: Defiance. I could accept that it was going away. But that didn't mean its heart had to die with it.
Ok, sure. eBay didn't realize what a gold mine they were sitting on with Half.com. They didn't recognize the power that a catalog-based marketplace could bring. But I did. And I was unemployed, scrappy, and passionate. So why shouldn't I start working on a business plan to build a new solution that took the best lessons from Half.com and built upon them to create something that could bring to life the unrealized potential of a catalog based marketplace.
That obsession of endless research and brainstorming lasted until spring of 2004, when my unemployment was interrupted by a wonderful new job. At eBay. Having been a eBay user since 1999, this was a dream come true (thanks Mike!). And that dream got even better later that year, when eBay decided not to close Half.com after all and I got assigned as one of the lead front end developers on the project to rebuild the entire Half.com site from scratch on eBay's platform.
Apparently, despite eBay's best efforts to duplicate Half.com functionality on eBay and drive users over to the main marketplace, the revenue from textbook sales and intensely loyal Half.com users was enough to justify keeping the site alive. That conversion project was the biggest project I had taken on as a web developer, and was some of the most fulfilling work I've ever done. It was my own personal Mary Ellen Carter.
This was also the project that first got me interested in becoming a product manager, and where I got to write my very first PRD (Product Requirements Document) for the content management system that runs Half's merchandising pages. Without my manager Rashid supporting my interest in switching sides, and Valerie's endless patience in mentoring me in the ways of Product, I'm not sure I would have known how to make the transition from dev to product.
As a self-taught developer who hadn't even had an email address until I was 23, I was never going to be the best coder in the room, next to kids who had been immersed in the internet since high school or college. But understanding the frustrations that normal non-technical people have with technology and finding ways to make that less painful while building a sustainable business? That I could build a career on. Which makes this the second time Half.com saved my career.
Unfortunately, the cost/benefit analysis that made Half worth keeping alive to eBay's management didn't translate to an appreciation of the potential of a catalog-based marketplace. I pitched the idea again and again while I was there and got only lukewarm reception from the Powers That Be. But I never really stopped thinking about that dusty old business plan I had started when they first threatened to close down Half.com.
Thirteen years later, eBay still hasn't done anything significant in the catalog-based marketplace space. They've created catalogs that they use on the back end to make the listing process easier. But the user experience is still all about finding items, not products, which eliminates most of the potential benefits of catalogs. And so, third party marketplaces like BrickLink (Lego bricks and sets), TCGPlayer (Magic and other collectible card games), and others are dominating their niche categories, while eBay continues to concentrate only on the horizontal “you can sell anything pretty well” model, rather than diving into the vertical “you can sell this one kind of thing extremely well” model. And the collectibles market really doesn't look that much different than it did in 2000.
eBay's investment in Half.com, in the past decade, has been effectively close to zero. CSS positioning wasn't quite reliable enough for production when we did that initial rebuild project, so we temporarily used an insane mess of nested tables for the layout, with plans to replace it with CSS later. The "temporary" code I wrote in 2004 will still be 99% the same when the doors close for good next week. Including my lucky charm <!--Keep Flying--> HTML comment at the bottom of the source code.
Now here we are. eBay has announced that it is closing Half.com. Again. This time I'm sad, but not upset. If they haven't taken Half.com seriously in the past decade, maybe it's time to let it go. And hopefully there's someone else out there, just as passionate about catalog-based marketplaces as I am, who will take the opportunity to finally do something about it.
And, if no one has done so by the time my kids are a bit older and my adventures in Fintech have reached their peak, perhaps I'll dust off that old business plan and give it a go myself.