MUSE: eBay's Michael Moskowitz
Walking into the eBay offices, I knew that my meeting with world-savvy Michael Moskowitz was going to be one for the record books. Quick-witted and fast paced, it was an exhilarating whirlwind of an interview. To be as poised and articulate without coming off as facetious can be tricky, but Moskowitz has a pleasant demeanor about him, and a knack for making clever jokes.
As Global Chief Curator at eBay, Moskowitz explains to us how he manages to sift through over 800 million items! We found out that eBay has evolved from the "Craigslist of the 1990s" into a true market platform where the most unusual and unthought-of of pieces can be found. Read on to learn more about the evolution of eBay, Moskowitz's historical rise to his current position, and of course, some witty banter.
Labeling Men: Michael, you are quite the Renaissance Man. You have a background in everything from foreign policy to launching your own menswear line and starting your successful startup. How have all your past experiences molded your vision for eBay?
Michael Moskowitz: You know it’s interesting. I think that all of them in a manner are eerily reminiscent of...There is a space - although I have not been there and this is certainly not the time to go because of irredentist movements in the Upper Nile - in Antiquity called Abu Simbel. On a specific day of the year all of the buildings line up in perfect linear order as the sun comes through them. And it wouldn’t have made sense on any other day. So somehow I think mysteriously, all of the things that I’ve done before in my career have uniquely guided and formed how I approach the world.
Labeling Men: Tell us about your process of merchandising eBay’s extensive catalog.
Michael Moskowitz: Well, we have at any given time 800 million items on this website. But that’s not a number that most human minds can grasp. Have you ever been to a soccer, baseball, or football game?
Labeling Men: Yes...
Michael Moskowitz: In the last five years, what have you been to?
Labeling Men: In Brazil I saw a soccer match, the local soccer team.
Michael Moskowitz: How many people were in the stadium?
Labeling Men: 30,000.
Michael Moskowitz: That’s it?!
Labeling Men: [laughs] It was a very local team. It wasn’t the World Cup.
Michael Moskowitz: I mean, certain parts of Brazil 30,000 people come out to a building on fire, let alone a soccer match! But all right, multiply that number by 10 in your mind. Imagine what it would’ve been like being around 300,000 people. Then multiply that by ten again, and again, and we’re still not getting close to understanding the numbers in question. So when trying to catalog something, we have to make the infinite seem approachable and make the ordinary seem special. That’s often done with comingling or a rich ad mixture of the expected and the entirely unexpected. Somehow this rich heterogeneous mileage of unlike elements constitute gateways for exploration. Same way that you end up in sort of the worm-like endless atmosphere of a Wikipedia diving. That [Wikipedia] is a two-dimensional site, but you have the sensation of it being three-dimensional because you click and it’s almost like you’re moving through the ‘z’ axis outside ‘x’ and ‘y’. There’s a sense of the ‘z’, and I think that you can get there on eBay. When you notice anything in the world that you and I inhabit…corporate domain, museum, anytime you’re inspired you walk through a store window, you want a deal, you go over to a friend’s house...and you’re not going to go make an offer to take a family heirloom. But if you like that thing - Chris Rock talks about it in one of his comedy routines - that if a guy likes a girl and the girl is dating his friend, he doesn't say, “THAT girl must be mine,” he says - and this is universally trying for guys- “I’d like a girl like that someday.” That’s not often how women are because they’ll say, “I want THAT man.”
Labeling Men: [laughs] Hey!
Michael Moskowitz: And they’ll [women] break up a relationship at any cost. Again, it’s Chris Rock saying it, it’s not my perspective! I am echoing his remarks from “Bigger and Blacker”... that or from “Bring the Pain”... one of those two. Labeling Men: All right…
Michael Moskowitz: What I’m saying is you never want to do anything that would compromise your own exceedingly high ethical standards. You don’t steal, you don’t cheat, but how else are you supposed to get things that live forever and for the rest of human history in the Met? [whispers] They’re available on eBay. That’s how you get these things. Labeling Men: That’s what we have to do. So how are you going to change the current perception of what eBay is verses your vision for it? Michael Moskowitz: There’s a lot of work to do. Part of that is, and I’m pleased to say, the president and any good CEO only has two responsibilities. Whether that’s a company of five people or a company of 50,000. We have 35,000 plus another 40,000 contractors; it’s big. Yet there are only two responsibilities. One is keeping the lights on and the other is having an unequivocal clear vision of where we are headed. Devin Wenig has both. He has the ability to do well. When talking about the different traditional characteristics of power, one of them is having charisma. You know, you can’t ever really cohere people around a certain figure unless they have this ability to exhibit and demonstrate charismatic leadership. Devin has that. That’s why I’m here. Number one is following his lead and number two is distilling, not defining his intent, but distilling his grand vision into pieces that are actually approachable. So in my case, that is helping to catalyze a paradigmatic shift in public perception of this brand and business. Not one person at a time, but sometimes one product at a time, sometimes one experience at a time, sometimes one encounter at a time. The amazing thing is that courtesy of my travel calendar, our product, the company’s reach, and the places where we get permission to play, there are a lot of opportunities to be able to begin to shift these perceptions. And we can do just that by showing them something that will wow, showing something that will delight, and telling a story in starkly human terms. Appealing to their hearts, not just their minds, as a value-based shopping destination. It’s much more than that.
Labeling Men: Okay, so cultivating a story?
Michael Moskowitz: Cultivating a story is one piece of it, the other piece of it is having experiences that leave behind a memory. Memory matters more than the merchandise. The third is working with partners who you can see the world through their eyes. So if a friend shares with you whatever they did over the course of a specific day, that’s great, but there are different kinds of storytellers. Certain people can rhetorically recall a tale and there are visual storytellers like the auteur filmmakers, where they have a way of sharing with you or imparting an experience that will leave you forever changed. After going and seeing “The Pianist” - I’m a Jewish guy, I’ve seen Holocaust movies my whole life - I was inured to that period of history until they deliver a story through the perspective of one man and you follow his single descent into that horrifying nightmare. The idea is that, here is a different way of telling a story that personalizes it. In fact, the movie has sparingly little violence by comparison to other WWII movies and that’s part of what makes it more powerful. It’s just the horror of the ordinary. That’s how you tell a story. And when I talk about storytelling I don’t mean, “78 words or less,” I don’t mean 2 minute videos or some kind of short film. I mean any manner that emulates that primordial act of sitting around a campfire and trying to recount what happened that day. Even using pantomime gestures and grunting, we just have more sophisticated varieties in the modern world. That’s sort of the design principle for how we execute activations, how we pursue engagements, how we deliver experiences to the consumer online and off, how we partner with outside groups and emerging brands, how we profile the people who are on site, and how we personalize the products that are sold to and through eBay.
Labeling Men: Do you have ideal client in mind?
Michael Moskowitz: We have to do a better job of getting younger people who have grown up in an era where, with eBay starting in 1995-96, there were sparingly few other places to shop online. There was a category on Yahoo! that we’ve killed off and won. Amazon launched around the same time. Interesting how 10 years in there were still only eight million websites on planet Earth. That’s in 2004! And there were no apps. In 2015, oddly there were fewer websites around today than there were just last year. Last year there were more than a billion. This year there are 952 million, according to the Webbies. And there are millions of more apps which means that every fraction of a second is fought over viciously for your attention, every sliver of a human beings attention is now increasingly precious real estate and territory. Which means that the stakes have risen. It’s tougher. It’s not about the ideal consumer for us. Everyone and their mother, both literally and figuratively, shops on this site. But the person that I want on this site are the people that once came and have wandered away, I want to grab them back. And we do that by delivering a beautiful product, simplifying the experience, connecting them with the things that they want, love, and need most, and by creating moments of surprise and delight. We do this by eliminating pain and reminding them that when it comes to satisfying hearts with every whim and desire, I believe there is only one place on the planet where you can buy these things at these prices. And that’s what’s really so special.
Labeling Men: We saw the collaboration recently with Pharrell Williams. Can we expect other future collaborations within the entertainment industry?
Michael Moskowitz: Yes, some of those names have yet to be made public. But specifically in the arts during the late ‘80s early ‘90s, fashion went through a period that was almost unprecedented in its history. It was formerly the exclusive preview where only a select few families who had the means to buy haute couture clothing could. Ready-to-wear was small, but suddenly it explodes and designers become celebrities in their own right. Fashion was inseparable from media, from music, and from everything that people cared about in that period of time. What’s happening today is that the art world is going through a moment that is precise analog. Like Miley Cyrus considering herself a visual artist, and I don’t mean like Prince as an artist, but an “artist,” not a bi-word for “musician.” And Snoop Dogg is painting - he’s painting! There are lots of other things that are going on where there is profound crossover from the world of contemporary art into pop culture. That’s something that we’re neither ignoring nor passing idly by. We’re embracing it. So there’ll be a lot more interesting collaborations with notable, recognizable contemporary artists throughout this fall, each [artist] using this platform in a dramatically different fashion. And it’s not part of the campaign and we’re not incentivizing them, because they’re already doing it! It’s just that in the same manner that Marc Jacobs shops on eBay but doesn’t talk about it, Prada shops on eBay but doesn’t talk about it...these artists do talk about it. We’re just going to give them a louder mega phone so crowds can hear and see it.
Labeling Men: Great, we can’t wait to see that! So excited for that. You have spent time all over the world, London, Israel, California, Europe and everywhere in between. What are some of your personal travel essentials, your go-to items? Michael Moskowitz: Iodine because you never know when you’re going to run out, bandages because I’m a bleeder, prayer beads because I’m superstitious and like to feel protected, a duster called a semi-trench because I want to blend in. Although I feel like some trench coats have a negative connotation...so I’m talking “True Grit” and “Sartorialist” kind of trench, not “The Matrix.” I was saying before, if only you could judge someone by the content of their character the world would be a better place. The lamentable reality is that we all use shorthand, meaning we judge people by what they wear or how they present themselves and, given the kinds of places that I often find myself, I don’t want to be maltreated. So one of the things that I sort of brandish, both for protection and convenience, is a really great bag. I don’t mean to sound braggy with all the labels in this article, but you have to have really nice luggage. Have a great watch and a great bag, because then at least when you’re dressed like religious zealot en route to the gym, they don’t think that you’re there for [laughing] fatal intent. They know that you’re just like a wandering boho.
Labeling Men: Going off of that, can you tell us a little bit about your personal fashion style?
Michael Moskowitz: I’ve been known to call it “transcendental transvestite.”
Labeling Men: [laughing] Would you like to elaborate on that?
Michael Moskowitz: I don’t want to elaborate. Draw whatever conclusions you will - Transcendental Transvestite. Labeling Men: Okay. What are some go-to items for a fashion forward man to have in his apartment when moving to NYC?
Michael Moskowitz: Great blankets, exceptional blankets. You can have spare furniture, but pick with the utmost prejudice. It’s not about price; it’s about radically simplifying your environment and almost making it Sparan, unless you have the resources to really spruce it up. You don’t have to though. Get a gorgeous blanket which you want to envelop yourself, that you could cheaply get on eBay, like a cashmere blanket that is a must have for every man. This is because that’s where a woman’s or man’s mind will wander in terms of wanting or desiring a moment of intimacy with you. The second must-have would be a really wonderful - not that I have one, but now that I think about it you should - vase. Because it suggests that you should get yourself flowers on occasion, because when you wake up and you smell it and see it that can sort of establish a new precedent for that day. It’s a nice decorative object that can cost nothing because they’re not hotly collected at the moment. You can find really wonderful, decorative vases that improve the overall spirit of a spread. Third, you have to make a big investment in your bed because no matter how pathological you are when it comes to your work calendar, you’re still going to want to spend in upwards of probably one-third of your life in it. That would be a wise choice. And for a city that demands more of you psychically than any other spot on planet Earth, you need to have restorative sleep time. My apartment is anything but Spartan, yet I still gravitate to live that simpler life. So, fourth would be a beautiful armoire because they’re inexpensive at $250 or $300 bucks. A student at a college can afford it. Getting it into your apartment can be an entirely different ordeal [laughs]. But everything that you own can go in it and it’s still a beautiful decorative object to have in a room of any size. Even if you’re living in a studio, in a tiny pillbox studio, it can all go in there. It’s the kind of furniture you’ll have your whole life and when you look back 30 or 40 years in hindsight you’ll remember that was sort of the origin story of your life. I could say the same thing about trunks except you can't get beautiful trunks for anywhere near that price.
Labeling Men: Going back to eBay, what advice would you give to a novice navigating this site? Michael Moskowitz: Get inspired and then go deep. eBay can be an education. If you think that you’re a watch-guy and the only label that comes to mind is a Rolex, the fascinating thing about eBay is that the sub-search category of similar searches will reveal watches that you’ve never heard of, but that you need to know about. And you can research within the context of the site, or on Wikipedia. eBay is a destination site to begin that journey. Get excited about expanding your horizons. It’s like the same rules that apply in bed - be adventurous.
Labeling Men: That’s good advice. What are the future plans for eBay’s evolving interface? How will it engage its consumers into new times of shopping experiences that will set it apart from its competitors?
Michael Moskowitz: What we do know, as a matter of public record, is that these experiences across mobile, tablet, and web will increasingly mirror one another. They’ll be appropriate each for their own use-case, but there will be a greater sense of continuity between the three. I think there’s a clear awareness as R.J [Pittman, Chief Product Officer at eBay], Devin [Wenig], and myself have plotted out, the expectation that people commonly have is for revolution. You want it today. I don’t think Obama ever promised for a revolution. I think he promised hope and then he had to relentlessly deliver against almost unfairly high expectations over time. It took a while to turn the U.S. economy around. When you’re dealing with a company of this size, with this number of listings, with this number of years in the market, and with this kind of legacy, it takes a while to change things. So we’re talking about an evolution, not a revolution. I think if you were to mark a line in the sand from the time that I started until today, and I’m not taking any responsibility for this, I attribute it specifically to Devin. Devin, who brought me here, Devin who brought R.J here, Devin who brought an entirely new team of leaders. This is a vastly evolved site from where it was two years ago. Just imagine what we’ll be in another two years. It’ll be unrecognizable relative to who we were in the past.
Labeling Men: You answered all of our questions perfectly. One last thing, can we get a photo of your religious zealot-going-to-the-gym-outfit?
Michael Moskowitz: Sure.
[Editor’s Note: Still waiting on that religious zealot-going-to-the-gym-outfit photo].
Visit eBay.com for all of your shopping needs, and to check out Michael Moskowitz's work as Curator.
Interview by Rachel Vasvari
Additional Reporting by Nisim Frank & Gwen Leogrande