Interview: Jonathan Ruff – Founder of Jittery

Below is an interview with Jonathan Ruff, founder of Jittery. Some of the questions were sent in by readers, and a few are my own. As I've said before, I'm fascinated to have an inside view of this company from the beginning, and can't wait to watch it grow and see what happens. I don't remember who sent it in, but question #7 is my favorite, and I think Jonathan gives a good answer to it.

1. When did you first get the idea for Jittery? Did you initially write it off as too much work, or were you sold from the beginning?The inspiration for Jittery, the concept of a Buy Offer, hit me in Summer 2003 while looking through eBay and unable to find what I was looking for. I more or less said to myself: "why can't I specify what I'm looking for, and then have a seller fill it?". As I considered the model, it made more and more sense that this was the perfect replacement for classified ads (which are designed for a static print medium). Buy Offers had a number of other benefits, including seller competition instead of buyer competition, and sellers could also use Buy Offers to locate items & replenish their inventory. It doesn't function on lowest price wins, it functions on best item at the best price. It creates more of a complete market, and compliments traditional auctions.

I thought the premise of Jittery and some of the features I had in mind added up to a good business model, and could successfully broaden the auction market. I partially ignored the idea at first, not because it was too much work, but because it took a while to fully consider how to approach the business, what direction to take, how it would make money, and how it would compete. These issues were worked out fairly passively over a few months. I eventually realized that it could succeed, and began working 14 hour days, 7 days a week, for about a year to get it ready. I share the day-to-day operational responsibility with Jittery's co-founder, Louis; and handle the code & development.

2. Was it a Eureka! moment or did it build over time?It started as a eureka for a specific feature, and elaborated into new ways to link buyers & sellers, and expand the auction market in general. There really is a lot that has yet to be done in the ecommerce space. Sometimes it seems that post-bubble, all attempts at innovation ground to a halt in consumer ecommerce. There are so many things, eBay, Overstock, et al. have yet to do, and will never do simply because it would break their business models (e.g. give their customers research access to their entire transaction history, for purposes of better informed buying & selling through prediction). I have no such constraints, and Jittery will inherently not bleed red ink, so I intend to more or less try out anything and everything that I care to, constantly attempting to shake up the sector with new ideas. Starting from the premise: if it's good for buyers & sellers, we'll do it if we can.

3. Lots of eBay users are unhappy, and you have said that Jittery will be more responsive to their needs. Is that true even if it means significant changes from the original Jittery model?The original Jittery model is designed from the ground up to get out of the way of the buyer & seller, while providing a structure for their transactions. In other words, assist people to the extent they prefer, but otherwise stay out of their way and provide as little friction as possible in the way of selling & buying costs in the platform. The greater extent you burden users or attempt to control their communication, the less responsive you're able to be to their needs. Jittery's goal is to build a model that is feature rich, simple & inexpensive to use, and enabling not constraining. Jittery is directed at being an intelligent marketing & transaction platform (and we're not interested in charging fees for transaction features), the Jittery model feature wise is whatever responds best to user needs. The Jittery platform is built with the idea in mind of rapid adaptation, we're not going to attempt to control, restrict, or shape legitimate buyer & seller behavior, we want to be shaped by them.

4. How do you plan to resolve the chicken/egg dilemma – how to attract sellers without a lot of buyers?By de-centralizing the ecommerce platform, and turning blogs into one giant ecommerce platform. Every blog that displays Jittery's BlogPoint suddenly turns their entire audience into potential buyers. Blogs now have a massive audience, I intend to grow Jittery right along with the blog platform. Over the next two years, the blog audience & platform in general will expand even more dramatically than it already has in the last two years. There's no reason transactions need to occur on our site, we can accept bids & link buyers with sellers directly from an external site. The readers of a blog don't need to be members, we accept email bidding. Bloggers can take questions right from their blogs, with the questions directed to their Auction Buddy inbox on Jittery. Bloggers can even display their Buy Offers through BlogPoint; perhaps one of their readers has what they're looking for. We're not afraid of giving the control to the buyer & seller, we're trying to help them make successful transactions, on the basis that they know what's best for themselves. This gives us the freedom to do things no other ecommerce site can or will do. And we're really just scratching the surface. In a week or so we'll be launching a rather dramatic example of exactly how our de-centralized platform can function, with BlogPoint Ads – every Internet user in America that reads a blog becomes a potential buyer for us. We don't need them to ever visit, and that solves one major difficulty.

5. Let's say that 3-5 years from now Jittery is a huge success. Do you plan to stay with the company long-term or do you have other things you want to do? For several years I've wanted to take on the auto industry with a Dell-like business model. Build car, sell car becomes sell car, build car. Turn the dealerships into distribution points. Allow a high degree of customizability. It would flatten the big four if done correctly, and the profit margins would be extreme. There isn't enough time to try all of the things I'd like to. Ultimately, it would depend on my ownership level in the company. If I still owned a large stake, I'd remain heavily involved. I don't enjoy the extreme repetition & refinement of a singular concept, so my appetite would be one of continual expansion into new products & services. I like work that involves heavy conceptual creativity, Jittery provides that to the greatest extent I've ever experienced.

6. And if Jittery fails? You obviously walk away with some great knowledge and experience, but what's next?It's an interesting what-if. Jittery's cost basis is so low, while having good likely margins (even with charging almost no selling fees), that I could sit here and not make money for a decade and continue to expand it. It's baffling to think of the countless tens of billions blown during the bubble by hemorrhaging dotcoms, but Jittery is a company that will never hemorrhage and will never require millions to fund it. Basically, Jittery will only fail at a point where I decide that it is unable to gain the kind of market traction I would like, it'll never fail due to financial losses. Even then, various components of Jittery could perhaps be spun out as separate entities. I'd like to answer your actual question, but there is no next, there's only Jittery; next is what comes after it were to fail, and that's not a consideration or concern here and now.

7. Let's say I sell a lot of stuff on eBay. I like Jittery's lower fee structure, but eBay gets more hits and I'm exposed to more buyers. What would you say to get me to give Jittery a try?I would tell you that while we have less buyers, your ability to actually conclude a successful transaction will be greatly enhanced through our marketing mechanisms and open communication network. Jittery is the first auction site to enable sellers to easily market to their already existing customer base, to generate repeat sales, without having to cross into the public email network and deal with spam concerns. We control the built-in messaging network from end to end. Once you experience the ability to easily communicate openly with buyers, you'll be amazed you ever tolerated restrictions on such. I would point out that our goal is to enable you to enhance your selling by providing free access to our entire transaction history, so you know what to expect based on past transactions (e.g. what's the average selling price of a 5mp digital camera during the Christmas season from the last three years?). And it's not just a lower fee structure, it's aimed at being a no fee structure: with some recent developments, I think we can launch out of Beta without either a listing fee or closing fee, meaning you can buy & sell literally without fees. It'll make more money without selling fees than it would with them.

8. Some people think that users should define a brand, and others think the company should drive the brand's meaning. Who will determine what the Jittery brand stand for, and will it be "eBay but better," "not like eBay," or something totally different?I should clear up some questions regarding the eBay issue first. I understood when I started Jittery that it would be impossible to evade comparison to eBay. You'll find, I believe, that there are absolutely no mentions of eBay or any other ecommerce site on our Web site. Why? Jittery's success won't be determined through competition with any other existing auction site. In all seriousness, whether they exist or not is irrelevant. There is no other ecommerce site with a business model like ours. The goal of Jittery isn't to be a traditional product auction site, we regard that as a niche category in an exceptionally large, but nearly entirely unexplored market. Jittery features traditional product auctions as an introduction to Buy Offers, but Jittery as it is now, is merely the first stage of a set up for what comes next in February. We intend to dramatically widen the field, on the principle of negotiation.

Jittery will determine what its brand stands for through our actions. A brand is a composite of a lot of factors obviously. But that users know about the brand to begin with presupposes that we reach out to them. So, it does trace back to our actions first. Users shape their opinions based on what they're presented (in the way of marketing, products, et al.). As a statement of what I want Jittery's brand to ultimately stand for, I would say: we want to enable people to easily negotiate for any product or service anywhere and at any time, with as little cost & interference as possible. And when I say enable negotiation, I mean the communication involved as well. We're not afraid of buyers & sellers talking, our business model will allow for 100% of the transactions to occur off-site and out of our reach, if it's desirable by our users. Our approach is to erase the traditional listing / closing fee model, we'll make our money by providing information tools and marketing systems to our sellers, both of which benefit tremendously from open communication and low interference. Basically, we want to make money by helping sellers find buyers, not by charging them merely to have access to the marketplace. It's the Google model applied to ecommerce. We've constructed the platform with marketing & communication channels built into the very fiber of the system, to help buyers & sellers connect. No other consumer ecommerce platform is intentionally structured like this. There are three core pieces: a communication, transaction, and marketing platform. We'll make money by helping sellers find buyers, and that 10% they save on fees can be better spent on marketing to generate greater sales.

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