Way back in 1997, John Slocum created the very first software tool for eBay sellers: AuctionAssistant.
Over the past twenty years John has not wavered from his niche of creating desktop-based, feature-rich software for eBay sellers.
After eBay bought his first company in 1999, John spent ten years writing software as an eBay employee. When eBay let John and his team go in 2009, John set up his own company again and carried on writing software for eBay sellers.
That company is SixBit, and it’s going strong today. With nearly twenty years in the business, John’s history and knowledge of eBay, and software for online sellers, is unsurpassed.
Now, surrounded by so many cloud-based applications fighting for users, SixBit has held firm as a desktop tool for eBay sellers. But, in a way, that’s coming to an end – because SixBit is adding support for selling on the Amazon marketplace too.
I caught up with John to find out more about his long and remarkable history with eBay. I wanted to find out why he started down this path in the beginning, why he still prefers desktop-based software, and why SixBit is now adding support for eBay’s biggest rival.
Andy: What was your reason for creating AuctionAssistant way back in 1997? Were you selling on eBay yourself?
John: At the time, I was working. I had a day job. I found eBay online while I was buying Beatles memorabilia, because I’m a big Beatles fan. It so happened that my father-in-law was an antique dealer. I got to thinking, “Wow, he should be listing some of his stuff on this site called eBay!” So, I started helping him list.
My in-laws would come over for dinner, and after dinner we would list items on eBay. But it would take two hours to list ten items. I thought, if we’re going to keep doing this I can’t spend my nights listing his stuff all the time. I have to write a little program that will help him do it.
As it progressed, I thought maybe somebody else would want to use this too. I finished AuctionAssistant over my Christmas vacation and, on January 1st, 1998, I put it up on eBay to sell it. I got a pretty good response from that and it took off. It got me quite busy working and improving the program. That was AuctionAssistant Classic, the original version.
Very quickly I realized that there were people doing this for a living. To me, selling online just seemed like it was a little hobby. But since there were business people making a living out of it, I realized I needed to create a real business application, so I started rewriting the first tool I wrote. That’s when AuctionAssistant Pro came out. It took me probably a year and a half to get that done and that’s about the same time that eBay approached me.
How did eBay approach you? Was it right out of the blue?
Actually, it wasn’t eBay that approached me first. It was a company called Vendor Hub, which was the precursor to Andale.
Vendor Hub approached me and wanted to purchase the company. They had gone through a round of funding, and had five Stanford MBAs. I think they basically just wanted to swallow me up and take my users. So I went out to visit them, and it was really intimidating. They had millions of dollars in startup capital. I saw the writing on the wall and thought, “this is the end of the road for me.”
In the midst of working everything out to sell my company to Vendor Hub, I got a call from Jeff Jordan of eBay. I was supposed to sign with Vendor Hub on the Friday, and this was the Thursday night before. Jeff was just introducing himself and asking how we could work together, but things quickly progressed.
So my lawyer stalled on the signing with Vendor Hub and on Monday I was out with eBay. I met with Jeff, Meg Whitman and a whole bunch of other people. By Monday afternoon, I had an agreement with them. I’m glad it worked out that way because eBay was the best course forward for us.
As the very first eBay seller tool, did people quickly understand the point of AuctionAssistant, or did they think it was strange that someone would develop software to sell on eBay?
They were actually clamoring for it. People needed something because back in the early days – before there was any API or any sort of file manager to help facilitate the process – people were doing it by hand. Everybody wanted something that would help them list faster.
It sold itself. We simply had a little tagline at the bottom of listings which said that it was listed with the help of AuctionAssistant. And I listed it on eBay itself, that was my only form of advertising. I think back then I used the $99 Featured Auction so it would appear on the front page of eBay. So I did that for a little while, and after that it was all word-of-mouth. They latched onto it really quickly.
What was eBay and the wider world of ecommerce like in 1999?
Back in the late ‘90s, that’s when everybody loved eBay. eBay was, for a lot of people, a way for them to start a business out of their homes and make a lot of money.
In the early days, before the competition increased, you could be the only person selling whatever it is you had and quickly make a lot of money with a simple ad and a not-so-great process behind you. You could be shipping things out every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Your customers would get their orders a week or two later, and that wasn’t a big deal because you were the only one doing it. Competition wasn’t there.
As more sellers started competing, and were doing it more efficiently, it ended up weeding out a lot of weaker sellers. eBay had to change to accommodate all of that, and as the competition increased, a lot of people went away from eBay very disheartened and upset and sad. Things got a lot more competitive and the love affair with eBay went downhill.
After you sold your business to eBay in 1999, you created Seller’s Assistant in 2001 and Blackthorne in 2005. Were they a natural progression from AuctionAssistant or something really different?
They all built upon their predecessors. When I relate the story, I say I’ve written the same program four times. Each time, I’m taking advantage of the knowledge I’ve gained from what users want and how I would’ve done things differently.
AuctionAssistant provided a quick and easy way to create listings. You could choose a theme and then just provide the text – here’s my payment options, here’s my shipping information – then we would create a nice formatted listing and set it up on the site. That’s what people really liked, that’s why people really sought us out.
AuctionAssistant had an effect on the molding of eBay, and it soon became the norm to have a listing design. eBay even adopted their own listing template themes. We experimented with sound earlier, too. But we got a lot of complaints from people who would pull up a listing and chastise us for making them listen to it!
After AuctionAssistant there was AuctionAssistant Pro. eBay renamed it to Seller’s Assistant about a year and a half after they bought us out. After that, a total rewrite was done for eBay Blackthorne, and that was the last product I did for eBay.
All the programs have similarities, but each time they got bigger, better, and took advantage of newer technologies.
How did SixBit emerge?
When eBay originally purchased us, I had an 18-month obligation to continue working for them. I think their vision was to have online tools that would eventually replace the offline applications, so for years we had our own little niche, but our products never really fit in with eBay.
When they created the online tools Selling Manager and Selling Manager Pro, they wanted to transition existing Blackthorne users to them. eBay let Blackthorne users use Selling Manager and Selling Manager Pro for free, in an effort to move them over. But the transition never really came about because our users were loyal and they didn’t want to leave.
Around 2009 eBay let me and my team go, but they hired the customer service representatives back through a subcontractor. It left the development team without jobs, and for us it was definitely disheartening. We were all very proud to work for eBay, so it was devastating when we found out they were letting us go.
It didn’t take long for us to decide that we were going to write our own software again. At that point, I self-funded the development team, and we started from scratch. There were three of us, and for the first six months we worked from a spare bedroom in one of my guys’ home. We knew what we were doing and that our experiences would help us create another viable product. That product was SixBit.
In 2014, eBay finally canned the Blackthorne software for good. We had seen it coming for a long time, and probably would have never started SixBit if we didn’t expect Blackthorne to go away one day. Becoming the replacement for Blackthorne was a driving force in our development plans and business policies for SixBit from the very start.
Why the name SixBit?
I’ve been a Disney fan for a long time. At Disney World, there’s a show called Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue, and in it there’s a character called SixBit Slocum. I’d been using that name on discussion boards, so when we needed a name for our new software company it came to mind.
SixBit is nice and short, it’s not used by anybody else, and it just seemed to fit the bill.
SixBit has very wide range of features. How would you summarize the most important things that it does?
What we want to do is help eBay sellers (and Amazon sellers going forward) with the entire sales and listing process. I look at three different areas of the program.
The first area is the data-entry process, and we really worked hard to make that as efficient as possible. It’s the most time-consuming job for a lot of eBay sellers. We let them “templatize” things such as their payment and shipping settings, so all they have to do to add a new item is change the pictures and edit the descriptions. We even allow sellers to customize the screen they use to enter listing data, so if there’s any field they don’t use, it can be hidden. They can really build their own entry form.
The second area is tracking listings that are running. Sellers might have scheduled listings that they need to monitor, or they might want to end listings, or revise listings. All of the functionality for doing that is in our listings area.
Finally, when the sale occurs, there’s the shipping management area. We’ve designed our “ship orders” area to be as generic as possible because it does not matter what site you’ve sold the item on, you still have to do the same things. You have to pack it, you have to ship it, send emails and so on. So you can batch print packing lists, you can batch print postage, you can batch purchase shipping insurance. Everything throughout the whole program can be done in batches, and that can be one of the limitations you have with online tools.
Who are the typical users of SixBit? Is it mainly for a particular business size or product category?
We do have a broad range of users. At the low end, our main product is $39.99 a month, but we also have a product which costs $24.99 a month. Those users are hobbyists who aren’t selling on eBay for business, they’re just doing it to make a little extra money.
At the high end, we have small businesses with 20 employees and probably a hundred thousand products listed using SixBit. We don’t have a lot of corporate users, but we have some really good decent-sized businesses.
For the most part, there are a lot of mom-and-pop shops right in the middle – a lot of husband-and-wife teams, and a lot of traditional buy-and-sell merchants who visit the local flea markets and buy items to resell on eBay.
Could you ever see yourself building a cloud-based version of your application?
Our niche is the desktop. If SixBit went away, there would be no desktop-based tool left other than Turbo Lister. We have the best desktop app, and I think that being a desktop app gives us longevity. There are still sellers who absolutely need a desktop application, and so we’re almost guaranteed to get those people as customers.
A big aspect of our program is that the data is stored in a SQL Server database and it’s not restricted, so the user can do what they want with it. We’ve built robust input and output systems, allowing people to input using their own CSV files which they can map to our fields. We also have XML inputs and outputs, which is is more robust than simple CSVs, and a full API so you can integrate SixBit functions into other applications.
Online systems might not have the ability to integrate tightly with other applications the business is using. Then if an online application company goes away, or loses their funding, users don’t get their data back. It’s hard to retrieve data from the cloud so users can move on to another site.
With desktop tools, users can integrate with the data – they own it and keep it. Also, when it comes to online tools, they just don’t get that same level of speed that they can get with a desktop application. If we gave up on the desktop and went online, we would have the same limitations as those other online tools.
Why did you decide to add support for selling on Amazon?
Our intention from the very beginning with SixBit was to be able to list on other sites. Once we were maturing in the eBay area, we started to finish off the Amazon integration. It took us quite a while to perfect the eBay features and fully optimize it, but now we’re at that point where we can start to branch out. I think it’s just the evolution of ecommerce. There’s more venues to sell on.
We’ve lost users in the past because they needed to branch out to Amazon and we didn’t support it. Now, if a new user comes in just as an Amazon seller, all they’ll see is the Amazon functionality. They don’t need to be an eBay seller, and won’t see the eBay input fields if they don’t sell there. We expect and hope to get Amazon-only sellers as SixBit users.
Our Amazon integration entailed adding a search of Amazon for the proper ASIN, and also making sure that the fields we added to support Amazon were importable and exportable. Amazon and eBay take data differently because there are far fewer fields to send to Amazon.
It took us a long time to get the infrastructure in place to support multiple sites, but once we had that, Amazon has been less than a six-month project for us.
eBay are making a lot of changes at the moment. Do you think they are heading in the right direction?
Buyers shop on eBay to get collectibles and the little things they need, but they don’t necessarily go to eBay when they want to buy a new DVD player. eBay may be waking up to the fact that what makes them different is the small seller with unique products like collectibles.
For a long time eBay tried to be Amazon, when their bread and butter is the fact that they have those unique products. If I need a part for a 1982 video game machine, I can go and find that on eBay. I can’t find that on Amazon.
If they offer the collectibles and used goods that you can’t get on other venues, alongside fixed price items, then they can get new buyers to build a habit of going to eBay.
What do you have planned next for SixBit?
Hopefully the next step will be Etsy. I think Etsy might be an even better opportunity than Amazon, and we’ve begun a little bit of work on it already. Etsy sellers, I think, don’t have a lot of robust tools right now. We could offer great bulk listing editing features for Etsy sellers, for example.
After that, we’ll start looking to web stores, because a lot of people who sell on other sites also have their own web store. We’re getting a lot of requests for that.
We don’t get a lot of requests for new features in the core functionality of SixBit, because we have such a good broad base of features already. After we add more channels, it will probably just be a matter of reacting to whatever additional features users want.
Thank you so much John, it’s been a real pleasure to talk with you about your long history in ecommerce. I wish you and SixBit all the best for the future.
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20 Years in eBay Software: An Interview with SixBit’s John Slocum