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Rovatron Self Portrait: a Bid for History  Snipe! Bid for Fun or for Profit: eSnipe's Early Business Model Controversy

While I'm not responsible for taking money, I am responsible for making it when I snipe. I love my job, and thank eBay I do, because eSnipe doesn't make a red cent if I fail. That includes when you snipe $100 on an old Fender Performer guitar that was inadvertently placed in the wrong category just to see if anyone else will bid. Repeat: If I snipe perfectly but you try to get some outlandish deal, eSnipe doesn't charge a thing. eBay snipers make out like bandits. Snipe bandits. It's how I make the big bucks. Sniping is honorable, if a bit on the edge. Sniping is sort of like legalized gambling in a way; some people think it's a bit dodgy, but I ask them this. Suppose you ran across something on eBay right before the auction ended? You weren't using eSnipe or anything, you just happened to find what you wanted 30 seconds before the end of the auction. Do you realize that if you placed a bid you'd be sniping? Anyway.

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The idea of charging only if I succeeded was not an obvious one. We faced a lot of unknowns in those early days of 2000. For one thing, we didn't know how many customers we'd lose. Owner Tom Campbell figured it would be 90%. His much more savvy wife and eSnipe automated design analyst partner counted on losing a mere 50%. (The actual number? 10%, and we gained those back within the first month so. But that's another story.)

How would you build out a business model around the snipe? Lots of people suggested a subscription service, but that would have edged out the low-end eBay sniper. Others, namely Stephen, suggested a fraction of a cent per bid whether the bid won or not. But the final decision was the way it works now: You pay us only if we succeed. Even if my failure is strictly your problem (you forget to update your eBay passwod with us, for example, or bid unrealistically low).

It's Not a Shopping Cart, Tom. Tom, Do You Hear Me? It's a... Sniping Cart?

Here's when being a programmer can be a cruddy job. Even one at the top of your profession, like Stephen. Because he had a devil of a time explaining the eSnipe bid pricing system to Tom, who was the one who invented it. Tom kept saying this all had to be easy, and Stephen kept saying it was different from anything else, and Tom kept saying: how is eBay sniping this way different from buying on Amazon? You, who wrote one of the first Microsoft ASP.NET shopping carts should understand that?

Oh. Oh. Because Stephen pointed out that on Amazon, you know the price of everything in advance. On eSnipe, you don't know the price fo anything until the last snipe is in. This is not a snipe shopping cart. It's a, well, a something else. A basket full of snipes with no price until the product has already been delivered to the customer! Then they have to pay after the fact! Oh, Tom said. And granted more time to work on this odd new concept. So a snipe ain't a book after all.

What if You Had to Snipe Perfectly Day In and Day Out Without a Break?

Put yourself in my shoes. Ah, circuits. I snipe accurately and fast, day in and day out, bidding like a maniac with his pants (circuits?) on fire, sniping my little electronic heart out, even if you're trying for a bargain of urban legend proportions. Surely, programmers among you will say, one can optimize the snipe process?

But of course. Even so, on Sunday I find myself hammering out snipe after snipe to the tune of more than 30,000 bids placed a day. With that many bids, you can imagine there are lots of tech support issues. So they're outsourced to India, aren't they?

Rovatron Self Portrait: a Bid for History  eSnipe Keeps the Snipe In-Country: How You Can Get Great Support Here in the USA

eSnipe doesn't have a messageboard. Maybe they should. But one reason they don't is incredibly efficient tech support, by native-born Americans who speak English, here in America. How can you snipe her and support here too? By clever use of automation. Tom Campbell did all the support himself for the first six months and developed a semi-automated technique of writing email snippets (snipe-its?) for every possible support case, then writing the introduction of the email (and anything not supported by the snipe-its) by hand. It worked well. He then turned over the job to someone who was immensely better at it: Stephen's wife Tristan, who had been a 911 dispatcher before that. (Hello, Frying Pan? Meet Fire). More on snipe support later. Suffice it to say she lets me snipe at night with a clean conscience.