In 2006, Pierre Omidyar, the founder and chairman of eBay, moved to Hawaii. He bought a 5,800-square-foot beachfront home in the upmarket Kahala neighbourhood of Honolulu, where he and his wife Pam planned to raise their three children. Unlike the entrepreneurs behind some other big Silicon Valley firms, Omidyar shunned the spotlight. “I do like to fly under the radar,” he told the Honolulu Advertiser in 2009 in a rare interview. “When I walk around town, the only people I want to recognise me and call me by my name are the folks at Starbucks.”
Yet while he tended to avoid the attentions of journalists, Mr Omidyar did have an interest in journalism, and in 2010 he launched his own modest media outlet serving the archipelago: an online investigative news site called Honolulu Civil Beat. The 46-year-old is said to enjoy spending time in the newsroom, hanging out at his desk in jeans and flip-flops, lending a hand to the upkeep of the site. Civil Beat survives on a digital subscription system, but its coverage of local politics is generated the old-fashioned way, by hard-working reporters.
With his latest project, Mr Omidyar is taking that model to a significantly wider readership. This week he announced his plan to launch a global, digital “mass-media organisation”. Although he promised that the as-yet-unnamed website would cover a broad range of subjects, his first three collaborators all hail from the field of national security: Jeremy Scahill of The Nation, the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and – most prominently – Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian investigative journalist responsible for publishing the Edward Snowden leaks.
On Wednesday, Mr Omidyar posted a statement about the project on his blog, and later expanded on his plans in an interview with the New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. Mr Omidyar admired Greenwald’s reporting, he told Mr Rosen, and shared his “rising concern about press freedoms in the United States and around the world.” The proposed organisation remains in its very early planning stages, but it will endeavour to tailor the news experience to individual readers, just as Netflix personalises its users’ viewing.
Mr Omidyar still owns almost 10 per cent of eBay, and Forbes estimates his net worth at $8.5bn (£5.3bn). He has promised to fund his new venture to the tune of at least $250m. Until this week, he has been remarkably successful in maintaining a low profile, but as the owner of a major new media brand, he will instantly become a public figure.
The seed of the idea was sown, Mr Omidyar revealed, after he was approached earlier this year about buying The Washington Post, which was eventually sold to the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250m. The two tech entrepreneurs, who once did battle over internet retail, will now compete to create the future of news.
Mr Omidyar was born in 1967 in Paris, where his parents had landed after fleeing the Shah’s rule in Iran. When he was six they moved again, to Washington. His father worked as a surgeon at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, and his mother taught Persian studies at Georgetown. The couple separated when Pierre was still a boy, and his childhood was peripatetic. He spent two years at high school in Hawaii, where his wife also grew up.
He was already a tech wiz by his teens, when he created software that would format his school’s library catalogue cards. After studying engineering at Tufts University in Massachusetts, he worked for several tech firms in Silicon Valley. In 1995, he wrote the software for an auction site called AuctionWeb, as part of his nascent consulting outfit Echo Bay Technology Group. When he found out the name was taken by another company, he shortened it – to eBay. Legend has it that the site came about because his then-girlfriend Pam, now his wife, wanted to sell her collection of Pez dispensers online. But the first item sold on eBay was, in fact, a broken laser pointer. (The man who bought it assured an astonished Mr Omidyar that he was collecting faulty items.) Three years later, the company floated on the stock exchange and, aged 31, its founder became a billionaire.
Mr Omidyar recently told an audience of non-profit organisations in Hawaii that the success of his semi-regulated online marketplace, run largely on trust, had convinced him that “at the end of the day people are trying to do the right thing”. Since leaving the daily management of eBay in 1998, Mr Omidyar has used his fortune to try to do the right thing, too. He and Pam have donated more than $1bn to good causes.
His ambitious idealism is shared by other early eBay employees, such as Jeff Skoll, the firm’s first president, whose production company Participant Media is responsible for such socially conscious films as An Inconvenient Truth, Goodnight and Good Luck and Lincoln. In 2008 Meg Whitman, eBay’s former chief executive, was named as a potential future US president by the New York Times, although she failed in her 2010 bid to become Governor of California.
In Hawaii alone, Mr Omidyar has invested in renewable energy, organic farming and community building organisations. Concerned that a natural disaster could cut the island state off from the outside world without sufficient supplies, he has funded local sustainable food initiatives.
He also has his own personal stockpile of emergency food at a storage facility near his home. (According to the Honolulu Advertiser, he is sufficiently concerned by the possibility of catastrophe that he bought a remote ranch in Montana, to which he and his family can retreat in an emergency. The original owner of the self-sufficient homestead, which runs on solar and wind power, feared the Millennium Bug would cause a global crisis.)
Civil Beat was not Mr Omidyar’s first investment in journalism. Through the Omidyar Network, he has made donations to news organisations in Africa, and transparency groups in the US. He founded a user-generated “hyper-local” news site in Washington called Backfence, which ultimately folded.
However, his move to create a major news brand puts him in a select new group of media-owning billionaires. In August, Red Sox owner John Henry bought the Boston Globe for $70m. Investor Warren Buffett bought a collection of 63 local papers last year. The right-wing industrialists the Koch Brothers recently declined to buy the Tribune group, but are thought to be in the market for a media property.
Arianna Huffington, who has collaborated with Mr Omidyar on the Huffington Post’s Hawaiian site, told the website Mashable she thought him a welcome addition to the news business. “Given how effective he was at creating a whole new definition of retail with eBay, as somebody who’s in the media space, I’m interested to see what innovations he will come up with in this space, which I think will benefit all of us,” Huffington said.
Of course, the mogul to whom Mr Omidyar will inevitably be compared is Mr Bezos, and whatever he creates will be contrasted with the Amazon founder’s vision for the Washington Post. Between them, the pair may discover which media model is better suited to the modern world: an established brand, or a new, digital-only innovator.
Perhaps firing a shot across Mr Bezos’s bow, Mr Omidyar said this week: “News organisations that have been around a while have a lot of traditions and ways of doing things that may have served them for many years but perhaps make them less flexible in the digital era. As an entrepreneur, it just makes more sense to start something new.”
A Life In Brief
Born: Pierre Morad Omidyar, 21 June 1967, Paris.
Family: Married to Pamela; they have three children.
Education: Studied at St Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland, and graduated in computer science from Tufts University, Massachusetts, in 1988.
Career: Worked at Claris, an Apple Computer subsidiary. Co-founded Ink Development, a pen-based computing start-up, in 1991. Wrote the code for, and launched Auction Web in 1995 (renamed eBay in 1997). Pierre and Pam founded Omidyar Network in 2004, a philanthropic investment firm. Now setting up a news organisation fuelled by “concern about press freedoms in the US and around the world”.
He says: “A lot of people don’t just go ahead and try things.”
They say: “A very thoughtful, contemplative, very human person”. (Eric Pape, former Daily Beast contributor)