Q&A: Meet the man who brought eBay to Europe

Michael Van Swaaij, former vice president of eBay Europe and ex-interim chief executive of Skype talks Meg Whitman, saving startups and doing business in Russia.

by Gabriella Griffith
Last Updated: 28 Nov 2013

So Michael – how did you end up working with eBay in the early days?

I used to work in media for German music giant BMG and it was my job to look at what would happen to media in the future. I started to look around and found things like America Online (you’ll know it as AOL) and set up a joint venture bringing it to Europe – I ran that for a while and then started to look around for what would be next. At this point I stumbled across a startup in the Valley called eBay. I gave them a call and said ‘you should bring this to Europe.’ They replied saying ‘no way we’re just about buying collectables – it’s a very American thing.’ But I persuaded and joined them as head of eBay Europe.

So we have you to thank for eBay here in Blighty then?

Yes, you can blame me for that! We set up the eBay International HQ in Switzerland – which is where I’ve been for 11 years now – it has become home.

So how did you wind up at Skype?

After we set it up I spent four or five years building the business up and eventually I was asked to become chief of strategy. At that time I was reporting to Meg Whitman, (then eBay chief executive, now spearheading HP’s turnaround) and when we acquired Skype, she asked me to go in take charge and sort out the company.

So how long did you spend as chief executive of Skype?

It was only a short while, I was interim chief executive and spent around eight or nine months there turning it around. Meg asked me to stay on as operational chief executive but I said no – it was based in London and I was quite happy in Switzerland – I offered to be chairman instead.

Did Skype have some specific problems you needed to address when you went in?

It was your typical case of a fast growing startup – just organised quite badly internally. Typically in startups decision making is very quick because communication comes directly from the founders. But when you start scaling and expanding all over the world, that way of working gets harder and harder.
At Skype, things had ground to a halt and user growth was stalling – at some point in a startup’s life it needs to become more mature and organise accordingly and that’s what we did. It was a great idea and a great service but at a certain point you need to run things differently – especially when you want to conquer the US.

Do you still speak to Meg?

Once in a while yes – but she’s very busy with HP...

And so tell us about your latest investment in Crunch Accounting.

I invested in Crunch Accounting, a Brighton-based startup, in 2010 and have just joined as chairman. I was so impressed by the founder who set out to do something very bold in an area that needed disruption.

For most small companies, accountancy is expensive and – when everyone rushes for accounting services at once come January – not very good quality. Crunch said ‘we can make this cheaper and higher quality’. Revolutionising a service industry is still bleeding edge and screaming out for more efficiency. The guys recently asked me to become chairman and help them to scale.
It is a good example of a UK based company truly innovating – not just copying what others are trying to do. It’s fascinating and people should be proud of it.

How many boards to you sit on now?

At the moment just two actually – HouseTrip and Crunch. HouseTrip is Europe’s answer to AirBnB and it’s doing really well with some major investors.

So what do you look for in an investment?

Two things.
A company and team which has figured out how to be transformational in a particular sector (Crunch is a good example) and come up with something better value. Or a company which is bringing something to a developing market which that market doesn’t already have. It’s all about development and transformation.

What do you make of the European startup scene compared with other geographies?

Most of the big companies come out of the US – it is simply a huge market – and you find a similar thing in China. Europe suffers from fragmentation, which makes everything more difficult. It’s difficult to raise money, there are different languages and rules to deal with. Because of this there are a lot of companies in Europe becoming local heroes and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Israel is one exception to this – because the country has such a strong focus on tech and less consumer-based businesses they do quite well and are good at launching global businesses. But I don’t think it’s something Europe needs to fix exactly – I think it should keep doing what it’s doing and eventually it will get better and better – look how much the tech scene here has already improved.

What has been your most successful investment to date?

So far…maybe one in Russia called Wikimart – it’s a cross between eBay and Amazon and is doing extremely well. With very little money it has managed to break even and change an industry – which is very difficult to do.
Working in Russia does throw up some structural challenges – things do not work the same there as they elsewhere but you have to remind yourself, where there are challenges there are also opportunities. I have found the same thing when investing in a startup in Indonesia. Each investment helps you to learn...

Do you have any other big investment plans on the horizon?

I’m actually not an active investor – I decided to retire after eBay but I keep getting pulled back in as people approach me with things! It’s a nice existence and not as intense as it used to be. I would say to other investors and angels ‘the ideas and the teams are out there – go find them and support them’.

Retirement in your mid-forties - not a bad deal at all. Thanks for your time Michael.

Michael Van Swaaij - CV

BMG - director new tech - 1994-1995
AOL Europe - regional MD - 1995-1999
eBay - VP/MD Europe - 1999-2005
eBay - Chief strategy officer - 2005-2007
Skype - CEO Sep-2007 - April 2008
Skype chairman April 2008 - Dec 2009
Crunch Accounting - Chairman - 2013 -

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

How redundancies affect culture

There are ways of preventing 'survivor syndrome' derailing your recovery.

What they don't tell you about inclusive leadership

Briefing: Frances Frei was hired to fix Uber’s ‘bro culture’. Here’s her lesson for where...

Should you downsize the office?

Many businesses are preparing for a 'hybrid' workplace.

How to make your team more accountable

‘Do as I do’ works a lot better than ‘do as I say’.

Black talent isn’t hard to find: It’s just you

If you want to attract the widest range of applicants, you need to think about...

Drowning in data: The case for the business generalist

Expertise and algorithms are overrated. Try using your brain, says this Harvard academic.