eCommerce Lessons from 5 Industry Giants – Amazon, Gary Vee, Canva, eBay & Alibaba

February 13, 2018 - Ben FroedgeeCommerce lessons header

A recent photo of the not-so-glorious early days of Amazon inspired us to share some eCommerce lessons from leading industry giants with you. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that some of the most successful leaders started from a small desk at home. Thankfully they’ve shared some of their inspirational lessons along the way.

What do Amazon, Gary Vee, Canva, eBay, and Alibaba have in common? They all started with a vision, and more importantly. they could all be you. Even the most motivated and dedicated entrepreneur can learn a thing or two to help take their online business to the next level. One of the greatest things about the world of eCommerce is the opportunity for people to create a company that advances not only their own lives, but also employs other people and serves the larger world. 

We often look at the finished product and instantly see it as an overnight success. However, what we tend to overlook easily are the humble and unglamorous beginnings. The crummy first office, cramped living rooms consumed by work, beat up looking desks cobbled together, the back rooms, junk food, and sleepless nights. 

1. Amazon

In 1994, a 30-year-old Jeff Bezos founded He used his parents’ life savings to start what would become the world’s biggest bookseller. Since then, Amazon has moved into nearly every consumer market imaginable, and now has a market cap of $685 billion. And, Bezos himself is worth around $100 billion.

When he needed desks for himself and his first employees, Bezos went to the Home Depot across the street. Realizing that doors were much cheaper than desks, he got to work knocking together a few DIY desks. To find out how to build one of Bezos’ original door-desks, Amazon’s blog has instructions. In his mind, buying a more expensive desk wasn’t going to help the customer, so it wasn’t the right thing to do.

First Amazon office how ecommerce giants started

Bezos’ original Home Depot door/desk.


Jeff Bezos first Amazon office how ecommerce giants started

Whiteboards and improvisation: The keys to success.


Jeff Bezos original Amazon office how ecommerce giants started

Long hours were a staple for Bezos in Amazon’s early years.

eCommerce lessons from Amazon

  • Do what’s best for your buyers, and they’ll keep coming back to you.
  • Learn to improvise and work with what you’ve already got.
  • Make sure you can visualize your strategy, and keep your eye on the end goal.


2. Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk created an empire. When his family immigrated from Belarus in 1978, they shared a New Jersey apartment with several other families. His business experience started by taking flowers from neighborhood yards and selling them door-to-door. His taste for entrepreneurialism didn’t stop there; he quickly transitioned into making thousands of dollars trading baseball cards as a young teen. His also worked for $2 an hour bagging ice in the basement of his father’s liquor store.

But, as soon as Gary found out about the internet in 1994, he immediately knew he could use it to sell the thing he knew best, wine. He convinced his father to have a website built and rebranded the store as Wine Library. In six years, he increased company revenue from $3M to $45M by 2003.

He was among the first to jump on almost every significant digital marketing trend, from email to video content. In fact, he built much of his success using a daily wine vlog he called Wine Library TV. Since the success of Wine Library, Gary has blown up.

He founded digital marketing agency VaynerMedia in 2009. The firm helps Fortune 500 businesses create and execute digital marketing strategies. He also owns a sports agency called VaynerSports, publishing company called The Gallery, and has investments in multiple startups and charities.


Gary Vaynerchuck how ecommerce giants started

Gary and his father Sasha, in a Wine Library stockroom.


Gary Vee in Wine Library TV how ecommerce giants started

Wine Library TV featured 95% more spitting into buckets than his current videos.


Gary Vee meeting how ecommerce giants started

Wine in the meeting room is an obvious bonus with Gary Vee as the boss.


Vaynermedia how ecommerce giants started

From bagging ice to your name in lights…not bad!

eCommerce lessons from Gary Vee

  • Be willing to do whatever it takes.
  • Always look at what’s coming next.
  • Never stop learning.

3. Canva

Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht, and Cameron Adams started Canva in 2007. Starting out from the living room of her family home when Melanie was just 19, Canva began as Fusion Yearbooks. 11 years later, Fusion still exists, but Canva is clearly the front-runner.  Canva employs more than 100 people and is worth an estimated $1B.

Canva allows anyone to create beautiful graphics and images without design experience. Perkins created Canva down to her personal frustration with tools such as InDesign and PhotoShop. When asked what drove the creation of Canva, Perkins said:

“I was giving other students lessons in these programs outside of class and found myself writing long instruction manuals to do the simplest things. It seemed insane to me that it took 22 clicks to export a high-quality document.”

Perkins eventually dropped out of college with a semester left on her degree. But, she doesn’t seem too concerned about returning to school.  Let’s face it; she’s doing pretty well for herself without a degree. Besides, 22 clicks is ridiculous!


Canva first office how ecommerce giants started

Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht in the living room that launched Canva.


Canva first million users how ecommerce giants started

Founders celebrating 1 million users


Canva office today how ecommerce giants started

Canva’s Sydney office team


Canva founders how ecommerce giants started

Success has its perks. But is there a couch?

eCommerce lessons from Canva

  • Create something that people need
  • Make sure it’s better than anything else on the market
  • Find manual, time-consuming tasks and simplify them


4. eBay

One of the largest, oldest, and most well-known names in eCommerce, eBay started in 1995 in the San Jose living room of Pierre Omidyar. At the time, it was called Auction Web.

Auction Web started as a way for Omidyar’s wife to expand her collectibles hobby. Within a few months, running auctions cost him several hundred dollars a month, so he started charging. He soon made enough to quit his job. eBay now has a market cap of $42B, and Omidyar himself is worth around $8B, still owning 10% of the internet giant he founded.

eBay has since become a driving force in eCommerce. Art, clothing, Beanie Babies, a Gulfstream jet, and virtually anything else you can imagine has sold on the platform over the past 23 years. Countless other giants have been a part of the eBay universe, including Skype, PayPal, StubHub, Magento, and BigCommerce.


Pierre Omidyar eBay first office how ecommerce giants started

Omidyar and the very, very 90’s starting point for eBay


Pierre Omidyar and Meg Whitman how ecommerce giants started

Omidyar and Meg Whitman, the CEO who took eBay from 30 employees to 13,000


eBay HQ today how ecommerce giants started

eBay operations have moved slightly beyond the capacity of a living room.

eCommerce lessons from eBay

  • Build something you need; others will need it too.
  • Adapt to stay ahead of the competition.
  • Integrate with apps or partners that will add value to your customers


5. Alibaba

Jack Ma created the first giant of Chinese eCommerce. After being rejected by a college, and the police force, oh yeah, and KFC. He failed the college entrance exam twice before finally being accepted. After graduation, he would go on to teach English at a local university for just $12 a month.

Ma discovered the internet on his first trip to the United States in 1995 as part of his first business Chinese-English translation venture called China Pages, which failed. He searched for beer and found no Chinese results. This told Ma that there was a giant void waiting to be filled.

His second attempt at bringing Chinese commerce to the internet started in his apartment in 1999. Ma gathered together a group of friends and convinced them to invest in his second business venture, Alibaba. Today the company is worth a staggering $480B.

What can you take away from Jack Ma and Alibaba? Here’s a quote from Ma that says it all:

“We know well we haven’t survived because our strategies are farsighted and brilliant, or because our execution is perfect, but because for 15 years we have persevered in our mission of ‘making it easier to do business across the world,’ because we have insisted on a ‘customer first’ value system, because we have persisted in believing in the future, and because we have insisted that normal people can do extraordinary things.”


Jack Ma classroom how ecommerce giants started

Ma’s greatest strength as a teacher was his ability to connect with students.


Jack Ma apartment meeting how ecommerce giants started

The apartment meeting that started Alibaba and changed international commerce, led by a man turned down for a job at KFC.

Alibaba HQ how ecommerce giants started

Alibaba’s main corporate office today.

eCommerce lessons from Alibaba

  • “We will make it because we never, never give up,” ~ Jack Ma
  • When the going gets tough, it’s time to dig in and persevere
  • Always keep the needs of your customers at the forefront of everything


Keep going

Whether you work from your living room, a homemade desk, or even for those who have their name on a building, Pixc wants to say thank you. Thanks for being here with us, and thanks for driving the world of eCommerce forward.

Share your workspace with us. Post a picture and tag us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. We’d love to see where you do business. When you’re the next Gary Vee or running the next eBay, Amazon, Canva, or Alibaba, we’ll be proud to say we were part of your journey. Either way, we’re already proud! Keep hustling!

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