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“Our passion to trade and trade is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.”

eBay Bible, page 3

The Film

A journey
into the eBay world

A film by Stefan Tolz and Marcus

The world as a global department store: Five amazing stories around the globe, of winners and losers, action and hope, success and promise – and an enlightening excursion into the heart of the Ebay headquarters.

Over 150 million people are users of Ebay, the world’s largest auction house on the Internet. Every day, hundreds of people join them, ready to change their lives to make their fortunes in virtual trading. For more than a year, filmmakers Marcus Vetter and Stefan Tolz have accompanied people in realizing their Ebay dream: In Borna in Saxony, on the Isle of Skye in Scotland or in a village in the Mexican desert – everywhere the idea of a direct market where everyone can trade with each other at any time is appealing.

In California we meet “Uncle Griff”, the legendary host of the eBay Radio Show and author of eBay Bible, who embodies the PR strategy of the company like no other. The camera follows Griff during Ebay Live, the annual world congress of the “community”, and gives us an insightful look behind the scenes. In Hangzhou on China’s east coast, the successful Jack Ma and his company Alibaba have long since overtaken the Chinese offshoot of eBay – and now want to compete with the Americans worldwide.

Traders’ Dreams interweaves personal eBay stories with a global economic crime novel in a surprising and entertaining way. It’s about the philosophy behind the “eBay system”, about the promises eBay and others are making global business out of local flea markets. What about the realization of the fabulous dream of a system where everyone can win?

“Everyone has an equal chance. All you need is a technical infrastructure to connect a computer and have access to the worldwide network. It doesn’t matter how old you are, whether you are educated or uneducated, in which country you live, what you believe in, what colour of skin or nationality or what sexual orientation you have… None of that matters.”

Jim Griffi th (‘Griff’), host of the ebay radio show and author of the ‘ebay Bible’.


Trader´s Dreams

2007, 83 min


With over 120 million Internet users, China is the second largest and most dynamic Internet market in the world. The auction industry leader is Alibaba’s Taobao platform. eBay, which only reached around 3% of Chinese Internet users, closed its own portal in China at the end of 2006 and has been cooperating with the Chinese Internet service provider Tom Online since then.

Jack Ma founded his first Internet company China Pages at the end of the 1990s with a loan of $2,000, the B2B online marketplace Alibaba.com in 1999 and the Taobao auction platform, which was developed on the eBay model, in 2003. In 2005, Yahoo bought 40% of Alibaba shares for $1 billion and incorporated its Chinese branch. Today, Alibaba has more than 15 million customers worldwide and operates Alipay, China’s most successful online payment system. Jack Mas’s private assets are estimated at 500 million Swiss francs.

Image: Jack Ma, Alibaba / Taobao


Traders’ Dreams tells the story of people from different countries who change their lives to become rich and happy through the worldwide auction fi ber on the internet. They follow the promises of an American company that turns local flea markets into global business and sells its expansion strategy as an economic democratization of the world: The power of all of us.

In Germany, Scotland and Mexico – with side trips to corporate headquarters in China and the USA – filmmakers Marcus Vetter and Stefan Tolz accompany people who are trying to make the eBay dream come true for themselves. Their experiences, their defeats and their successes are the material for a surprising and entertaining voyage of discovery into the seemingly limitless universe of global Internet trade.

Many ideas of the New Economy have disappeared as quickly as the share prices of the dotcom companies that created them. But eBay has not only survived, it has grown continuously into a billion-dollar corporation and the world’s largest auction house on the Internet. More than 150 million people now use the company’s colourful portals as a trading platform. The fascination that eBay evokes goes right across all cultures.

What some of us only know as a flea market or collector’s exchange has long since become a purpose in life for many of us. With perfect marketing, eBay has already persuaded half a million people around the world to establish themselves as so-called power sellers. Every day, hundreds of new small business owners join them, hoping to make their fortune on eBay. They bear the risk themselves, and there is a profit guarantee, via the listing fees, only for eBay.

The Thurm family from Borna in Saxony is trying to counteract unemployment with a new business idea: They found an internet agency to auction goods from local small businesses on eBay. They attend eBay seminars, get advice from the online university, make business plans and test packaging materials. The sons of the family don’t always agree with their parents, but a solution is always found – whether at the costume shop or the regional shopping basket. Now they are curious whether all the patient work, the countless telephone calls, the ever new product ideas will pay off one day not too far away…

On the Scottish Isle of Skye, power seller Spike spends whole nights in front of his computer to buy and sell on eBay – a sideline and hobby at the same time. Archie Campbell, who runs a Bed & Breakfast nearby, draws ships and ocean liners in his spare time with great attention to detail. Could this hobby possibly be turned into money via eBay? What is the price for such a picture?  Spike gives advice, but Archie’s wife Kathie is rather sceptical. Jo Wade, the postwoman, also prefers to go shopping on the mainland twice a year. But she is curious about eBay: After all, the number of parcels on the Isle of Skye has increased considerably due to eBay…

In the village of Mata Ortiz in the desert of northern Mexico, people live mainly from pottery – their artistic vases are a real sales hit on the US side of eBay. Larry Deming from Tularosa is the most successful power seller in this field and regularly travels from house to house to pick up his goods. A telephone line was recently installed in Mata Ortiz. Now the artists are considering selling their vases on eBay themselves. But how do you approach such a project? Who is in charge of the website? The potters of Mata Ortiz don’t have to wait long for business-minded consultants…

Borna, Isle of Skye, Mata Ortiz: Everywhere the “spirit of eBay” – the age-old American dream that everyone can make it if they only want to – is raising hopes and ideas. Jim Griffi th embodies this philosophy like no other. As an eBay man of the first hour and popular host of the eBay radio shows, “Uncle Griff” sits in the heart of the eBay headquarters in California, right next to the company’s top managers. He is the author of the eBay Bible, the bestseller manual for the eBay community. With Griff as the showcase for a healing world styled in every detail, the gigantic marketing concept with which eBay promises not only financial success but also human warmth and inner fulfillment is revealed…

But the eBay empire is shaking: In China, Alibaba, the Internet company of the shrewd manager Jack Ma, has allied itself with eBay competitor Yahoo and is involving eBay in a fierce price war. After eBay was forced to withdraw from the Japanese market a few years ago, it is now threatened with defeat in the most promising of all territories. Alibaba sells the fierce competition as David’s brave fight against Goliath – and has itself become an almost unpredictable power…

What is behind global trade on the Internet? What is dream, what is reality? What are real chances, what is mere marketing? Marcus Vetter and Stefan Tolz have created an enlightening and entertaining film about a global phenomenon of our time, in which appearances collide with reality.


Pierre Omidyar founded eBay, initially under the name auctionweb. The company is based in San José, California. The profit of eBay has regularly doubled in the early years, in 2006 it was 1.12 billion US$ worldwide, with a turnover of 5.97 billion. According to company reports, one digital camera every 50 seconds and 13 excavators are sold on eBay every day in Germany. There are 12,000 power sellers and more than 50,000 eBay shops registered.

Image: Alibaba / Taobao Callcenter, China

“eBay never had any real competition. For us, it’s a sport. Like a game against Michael Jordan… There’s a Chinese proverb: ‘Know yourself and know your competition’. We know each other and we know eBay. eBay knows itself – but they don’t know us.”

Porter Erisman, Press officer alibaba.com

Dreams of wealth and happiness

Stefan Tolz and Marcus Vetter about the film

Around the globe

Stefan Tolz: What appealed to us was the challenge of finding a narrative implementation for this popular theme and making an exciting film out of it. Traders’ Dreams was not intended to be a film for computer freaks, but to describe human experiences that touch emotionally. We were interested in a parable on globalisation, in the colourful world of eBay, which has already been exported from America to over 30 countries. We wanted to see what lies behind the promise that eBay brings, behind the hopes and dreams of wealth and happiness. We wanted to follow this around the globe with this “toy” eBay, which is “played” around the world and which can stand for completely different things in different countries.

Time signal

Marcus Vetter: For me, the eBay euphoria is a time-type phenomenon. Many people suddenly see here a possibility to fulfill their dream of independence. In Germany, the belief in successful start-ups through eBay was so great that even the employment offices have set up support programmes for corresponding Ich-AGs. But is it really that simple? What consequences does it have? With the different stories of our film we wanted to try to put this complex topic together like a puzzle.

Our Mexican story, for example, tells of how the potters of Mata Ortiz make these beautiful vases by hand. But where is the fair price? In the end, the trade in vases is much more lucrative than the arduous process of making them. Should the producers now become dealers themselves? What are the consequences if everyone is only committed to the trade and making things is no longer lucrative? Such are the questions the film asks, whereby we do not give ready-made answers, but rather want to encourage thinking, spinning and questioning.


Stefan Tolz: We got to know the Thurms from Borna in Saxony during our research at an eBay event. At first it was uncertain whether they would really continue with the power seller idea, so we did more video-castings at eBay seminars. But in the end the Thurms were unbeatable in their honest and open way. When they finally started with eBay, it was clear that we would make the movie with them. In search of a story “at the end of the world” we came across a toy museum on the Isle of Skye, which had auctioned off its new exhibits on eBay after a devastating fire. During my visit there I also got to know the neighbours: Powerseller Spike, Postwoman Joe, the Bed & Breakfast of Archie and Kathie Campell.

When Archie and Kathie heard what I was researching, they wanted to know my opinion whether Archie should sell his ship drawings on eBay. It was obvious that he should ask his friend Spike about this. And that was the beginning of a story…We came across Mata Ortiz in Mexico because the vase making had been described in an eBay company video as a prime example of how eBay can help people in the third world. “Economic Democracy” was the headline. However, when we were in Mexico in the spring of 2005, it turned out that all vases sold on eBay were offered for sale by US intermediaries with substantial profit margins. So it was nothing to do with direct sales, as the advertising film had suggested. During his research Marcus Vetter had met the potters Macario and Ruben, who were very interested in Internet sales. It made sense to work with them to see if that would work. It was a stroke of luck for us that Larry Deming from the USA, a power seller specialising in Va-sen, showed up in town at the time of shooting.


Marcus Vetter: The editing was the biggest challenge in this film. We very quickly had five individual stories that worked wonderfully on their own. But when we tried to tell these stories en bloc one after the other, we soon realized that it didn’t work out. At this point, the complicated process began of interweaving the stories in months of detailed work in such a way that they would form a big whole: How a company set out to make the world happy with its philosophy – “Anyone can become a merchant and forge his own happiness”. And how this promise will affect people, whether the dreams and hopes associated with eBay will come true or whether the great disillusionment will come at the end.

Bargain Hunting

Stefan Tolz: We had looked at many reports, articles and spots on eBay beforehand and found out that the usual “look-alike, look-should-sell” quickly comes to nothing. Almost everyone knows an eBay story, a story about a fraud, an unbelievably good bargain, a lucrative sale. But in our film we wanted to show a story with a development behind our protagonists. We wanted to show the eBay idea, the philosophy behind it. About what not everybody knows. For the Thurms, for example, it’s not just about one great sale, but about the attempt to earn a living with eBay. The stakes are high. Ideas and slogans like “Ebay improves the world” or “People pursue a dream” were our guiding principles, which we rubbed against and followed developments.

Reactions from eBay

Stefan Tolz: On eBay you have to differentiate between the employees of the first hour and the new “rulers” in the group. Even the founder Pierre Omidyar is now shielded by the PR department in the USA. When he makes an appearance, it is usually with agreed questions from eBay moderators. Against this background, it must be said that eBay Germany has supported us very much. We were able to do a video casting at an event in Potsdam, were allowed to shoot the eBay University in Dresden and were finally admitted to the eBay live in California. When it came to China, however, the American eBay headquarters stonewalled despite the intercession from Germany and made it politely clear to us that we would not hear anything from them.

Alibaba and the Chinese Robbers

Marcus Vetter: When eBay decides to develop a country that is still a blank spot on their corporate map, they usually buy up the local competitor without further ado. They also try to copy the American eBay model as much as possible. But this business model has not worked in China. As eBay has kept a low profile in China’s history, we have become more and more interested in the history of Alibaba, the biggest eBay competitor in China. Porter Erisman, Alibaba’s press officer, told us at the first meeting in Hangzhou that he had to go to Hong Kong the next day for a press conference. Alibaba wanted to announce there that its own auction portal would be offered free of charge for another three years – eBay was to be squeezed out of the Chinese market. We immediately changed our travel plans and flew to Hong Kong. Porter was very accessible, we were even allowed to shoot in his hotel room at night when he wrote the press release about Yahoo’s entry into Alibaba. We had free access to Jack Ma via Porter… This press war that the Chinese competitor is waging against eBay, this declaration of war lies in Traders’ Dreamsjetzt like a thriller behind the various individual stories. At first you might be glad that there is someone who puts eBay in its place. But then it becomes clear that Alibaba, as a modified Chinese copy of eBay, is just as profit-oriented and has the same ambition to become the world market leader.


Marcus Vetter: On eBay, the principle that the market determines the value, the price, was expanded worldwide. And everyone is allowed to participate in this capitalist principle. But where are the limits? This question is expressed in the scene with Archie and Spike in Scotland. Spike has so completely absorbed the eBay philosophy that he even suggests Archie to copy the picture small so that it can be sold to Sachsen, Bornabesser and fits better into the living room. Spike, who has become a salesman through and through, puts the artist Archie in a tough spot.

At the end of the film, the potter Macario brings the dangers associated with trading in the anonymity of the Internet to the point from his War-tedie: That through eBay his art has become known all over the world, but that he still prefers the buyers to watch him at work and thus really appreciate it. He remains skeptical. “We’ll see what else progress brings. Now we’ve just learned how to use the phone…”


Stefan Tolz: The most important competition has indirectly become Google. But Google doesn’t want to hurt its neighbour eBay either, because eBay is their biggest advertising customer. But many successful eBay sellers now have their own Internet shops and use platforms like Google to direct people to their shops instead of posting their products on eBay. In Europe, however, eBay has not yet had to fear other platforms. There are exceptions, such as Switzerland, where eBay is behind its competitor Ricardo. But in most countries there are only smaller competitors, and eBay has the leading position.

Yahoo has made it difficult for eBay to expand further with its stake in Alibaba in China and its market leadership in Japan. Therefore, eBay’s current focus is probably more on consolidating and securing new business where it is successful. The eBay auction platform is likely to become more and more of an international conglomerate whose shareholder value determines the corporate strategy – and which may one day be swallowed up by its competitors Microsoft, Amazon or Google…


is present in 12 Latin American countries with its online portal MerdacoLibre.com and has 18.7 million registered users there. 50% of the turnover of goods sold in 2006 was generated in Brazil.

The art of pottery in Mata Ortiz goes back to the Paquimé people, who mysteriously disappeared around 1400 AD. Extensive ruins and numerous shards and finds of highly developed ceramics in the North Mexican desert bear witness to this. In the 1970s, the young Mexican Juan Quezada experimented with mixtures of clay and volcanic ash on the basis of these finds and painted his ceramics in the Paquimé style. The hobby anthropologist Spencer MacCallum became aware of Quezada’s pottery art and arranged exhibitions and sales first in the USA, later also in Canada, Japan and Europe. Today, almost 400 potters work in Mata Ortiz. eBay has become the most important trading platform for the vases and ceramics from Mata Ortiz, with almost all transactions being handled through US intermediaries.

Image: Macario, artist from Mata Ortiz

“We should get together and sell right from here! Straight from us potters to the gringos. It’s almost certain that you can get rid of them on eBay, especially if you can sell to other countries. The thing is: It costs something to put things on eBay, whether you sell or not, you have to pay. You debit directly from your account. You can’t avoid paying.”

Ruben and Macario, potters in Macario

Iamge: Spike and Archie, Powerseller, Isle of Skye, Scottland

“If you’re a trader, and I’ve been a trader all my life, then you must find a market. And here it is! There’s no point in having your own shop. You don’t need one. Ten million people are registered on eBay in the UK. And if you can show your goods to 10 million people, that’s great. That’s evolution. You either get with the program or you stay behind. I’m not a dinosaur. I’m in.”

Spike, Powerseller

Picture: Family Thurm, Borna: Waiting for the first bid

“The situation is not easy. There has been a career break, we have been thrown out of a normal working life with an employment contract and at an age when we actually have no chance of getting back in. We then took some time to look for what could be done about such a situation. And eBay… you knew it existed, but we didn’t know how it really worked.”

Konrad Thurm, founder of the company


with Marcus Vetter

To be successful on eBay, you have to work like on an assembly line

Interview with Marcus Vetter by David Sarkar, 28.07.2007 – Documentary filmmaker Marcus Vetter about his eBay film “Trader’s Dreams”, absurd auctions, addicts, the dream of independence and Chinese eBay competitors

Mr. Vetter, when did you first log in to eBay?
Vetter: It must have been about four years ago. During this time Stefan Tolz and I also had the idea to make a film on eBay. I didn’t know much about eBay back then. But it impressed me very much that eBay had become so astonishingly popular over the years that people all over the world were suddenly able to trade with each other. We wanted to deal with this phenomenon in the film. I had already made a few business films in the years before, for example “Where Money Grows- The EM-TV Story”, because I was simply interested in why buying and selling became so important in our time, while producing became less and less important.

What was the first item you bought or auctioned on eBay?
Vetter: I think I bought a microphone and some film equipment. I never really bought crazy things and I never felt addicted to eBay. There are people who randomly browse for cheap auctions and strike even if they don’t really need the item; I’ve never been one of them. We deliberately decided against this aspect in our film. We didn’t want to show all the crazy and absurd things you can buy at auction on eBay, but rather specialized in the people who make or want to make a living from eBay trading.

Nevertheless the question: How do you explain that you can auction an air guitar on eBay and someone pays real money for it?
Vetter: Because our society today consists of such things. We are a very saturated society and we try to get our kicks from such craziness. Of course it’s complete nonsense to buy an air guitar by auction, but such absurdities exist and will always exist. I’m free to take part in something like this or not.

During your research for “Traders’ Dreams” did you come across people who messie-like stock up their apartment with eBay achievements?
Vetter: Oh yes, there were a few! In England we met a woman who didn’t know what to do with her eBay stuff and she was in psychological treatment. But we had to drop this story in favour of a Scottish story that takes place somewhere in no man’s land, where the local post only survives because so many people on this Isle of Skye buy on eBay.

It is often said that eBay can be addictive, scientists see several addictions coming together here, including shopping addiction, gambling addiction and Internet addiction. How do you rate the addictive potential of eBay?
Vetter: For many people it has become a ritual to get up in the morning and check the current auctions first. Some even coordinate their appointments with friends with the auctions, or leave a party with friends to get the goods they’re craving. This is borderline and not really comprehensible for me. But I don’t think that eBay can be blamed for this behaviour. People are responsible for their own behaviour, and all adults, because you are not allowed to trade on eBay if you are under 18…

Apart from the addiction aspect, what is your opinion of the eBay concept?
Vetter: eBay as a kind of flea market is a wonderful thing. The fact that you suddenly find things there that you used to have to search for years is fantastic. However, it becomes problematic for me the moment eBay is flooded with Chinese products and only serves as a cheap trading platform. I don’t think that eBay can make people happier in the future in this way. If it is only about auctioning 10-cent products from China and the will to produce own goods no longer exists, that is a sad development.

In “Traders’ Dream” you show among other things the vase production in Mata Ortiz/ Mexico, where almost 400 potters produce exclusively for sale on eBay. For the eBay group this is an example of how eBay can help people in the third world – but you show that the vases offered on eBay are sold by US-American middlemen with a very high profit margin.
Vetter: When eBay propagates that it can help people in the third world in this way, it is very high-minded and in my opinion does not correspond to the facts. Of course the Mexicans in Mata Ortiz would like to use our high-tech culture, but that is not possible because the telephone network was only recently introduced in this place and these people do not speak English well enough to communicate on eBay.com. There is also no postal service in this town that can deliver the goods on time.

Now eBay has propagated again and again that one could fulfill the dream of independence as an eBay seller. How do you see the chances?
Vetter: It is not true that everyone can achieve great wealth via eBay. In the film we portray the Thurm family from Borna near Leipzig in Saxony, who really try everything to get out of unemployment through eBay. They visit the eBay University in Dresden, follow all the advice they are given and really make an effort – and yet they don’t succeed. To be successful on eBay, you have to work like on an assembly line and know the market very well. If the Thurms had not received a Hartz IV in the one year we accompanied them, they would have starved to death. In the end, after hundreds of auctions, the Thurm family only had enough for a new digital camera.

They show how the family wants to auction a Santa Claus costume on eBay, with a hefty starting price of 50€. Wouldn’t you like to jump up as an observer and say: “You’re doing it all wrong!
Vetter: Yes, again and again! Sometimes we really tried to help them and discussed how we could best do this with the auctions. In the end, the Thurm family also shows how you can believe in something as a family. And they radiate a lot of honesty. You have to be honest on eBay because of the rating system. That’s very good, but of course secret deals are still made in the back of the game, with power sellers giving each other good ratings. There are also many tricks in the game. Mr. Thurm, however, has this slyness only verbally. He couldn’t translate this into reality, precisely because he is far too honest. After all, he has been told for thirty years that capitalism is something very bad.