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Michael Phillips Moskowitz, eBay Chief Curator & Ed. Director, Interview
TWELV Magazine had the pleasure of connecting with Michael Phillips Moskowitz, the Global Chief Curator & Editorial Director at eBay. Michael ranked in Fast Company’s top 100 creative people of 2014 and after speaking with him, we now completely understand why! Clearly a busy and ambitious man, Michael not only works with eBay but he also has a myriad of innovative projects going on simultaneously. Juggling his artistic, philanthropic, and fashionable passions between business meetings and phone conferences, the entrepreneur is absolutely someone to take note of – we can’t wait to see what is next for him!
To hear more from the man himself, check out Michael Phillips Moskowitz’s interview with TWELV!
------ Michael Phillips Moskowitz's INTERVIEW ------
1. What were you like when you first started out in the professional world? How did your professional career begin?
Michael: I started my professional career as a Middle East analyst—or an aspiring analyst, working at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and later at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford. I was ambitious. Hungry. Determined. None of which constitute advantages in an academic setting. Maybe I was too eager. Too hasty to (try and) get ahead. I wasn’t collegial enough with my peers, or sufficiently cautious with my superiors. Nobody likes an overly eager Icarus. Which reminds me: I failed to dress the part in D.C. I was about as understated as an elephant at an ashram.
2. At which point, which moment, in your career did you finally feel that you were successful? Was there ever a turning point for you?
What constitutes success? If you happen to know, do tell. I know not a thing about it. But I did meet a man on a kibbutz in coastal Israel several weeks ago, maybe my age or several years my junior. He was a clean-shaven surfer type, imperturbably calm, cherubic. He was, is, undoubtedly one of the older souls I’ve ever encountered. Whether or not I believe in reincarnation is immaterial—I’m certain this fair fellow is on his 70th or 71st circuit on earth. All bright smiles, broad expressions, but just a few choice words. Is he successful? Whatever he is, he has life figured out. His method? His approach? His recipe? One part Siddhartha, a sprig of Vito Corleone (Brando, not De Niro), and a generous dose of “The Dude” (à la The Big Lebowski). He’s all peace, no pipe. Maybe I’ll get there. Maybe in the next lifetime.
3. Have you always been drawn toward creative businesses, or the creative aspects of business?
Not originally, no. I thought I wanted to be the next Dennis Ross, Clinton’s Middle East envoy. Then I worked as a research assistant for the ambassador and realized that even he didn’t want to be Dennis Ross. Not all of the time. I took that to heart and took a different path. I sometimes miss the intellectual rigor of the policy world, but my career prospects within it were dim. I was a repressed, closeted creative—I’m far better off in the business world, and twice as likely to (someday) create impact in the Middle East through entrepreneurship and enterprise. Let me be clear: The contours of the region’s conflict simply blur into oblivion when it comes to business. Most people—not all, but most—simply wish to prosper. And when the “issues” are shelved, even temporarily, in favor of the exigencies of business, things get done. The entire opportunity landscape can (and just might yet) look dramatically different if we take a radically technocratic approach. But that’s a separate matter. Look for more on this score from me in years to come.
4. How did you get involved with eBay?
I founded a startup in 2012 called BUREAU OF TRADE, a shopping and discovery experience for men at the intersection of content and commerce. Our business was acquired one year later by eBay. We were fortunate—and I’m forever grateful to my team, my investors, my advisors, and to Devin Wenig for making it possible.
5. How would you describe your role as eBay’s Global Chief Curator?
It’s a combination or cassoulet of roles and responsibilities: provocateur, evangelist, lab worker, consultant, futurist, archivist, and cheerleader. My original mandate was, “to help catalyze a paradigmatic shift in public understanding of eBay as a brand and as a business.” That was the ask and intent of our CEO, whom, as you know, I respect and deeply admire. Devin is the one who made this possible. He and I also share the view that I may be the company’s first global chief curator, but I won’t be its last.
6. How do you describe the current climate in online shopping? Do you think online shopping is the future of all shopping? Why or why not?
The climate is stifling. The landscape, crowded. Commerce as a category is unprecedentedly competitive. Congested. And frankly, it is less interesting or pleasurable than in years past, on account of the dizzying array of options. Endless choice isn’t a boon. It’s a bane. Who ever said that “infinity” was easy or attractive was wrong. What most people want is the right thing, at the right price, at the right time. Deep personalization. Not 50 cool “maybes” but the one superlative thing. And that’s where we’re working hard to win at eBay. To get this piece, precisely right. I’m confident that entrepreneurs will continue to prototype, iterate, fail early, fail often, and in some cases fail forward trying to develop new, real, meaningful, memorable, even addictive offerings. I’m already seeing early evidence of future breakthroughs, but for the moment, many consumers are defaulting to the sites (and physical stores) that they know, like or love, and trust most. Curation alone isn’t the answer. Storytelling alone won’t be our savior. We need an entirely new, more evolved tool kit to excite and satisfy discerning consumers.
7. What are some of the exciting changes consumers can expect from eBay as an online destination?
eBay is in the midst of a generational and paradigmatic shift under the leadership of Devin Wenig and his chief product officer, R.J. Pittman. I’m simply trying to help reshape public understanding of the brand and business. What you can expect to see from eBay in the years to come is more of an emphasis on ease, reach, delight, surprise, and humanity across the entire experience. Some big businesses are placing big bets on robots, automation, and “anticipatory tech.” eBay believes that algorithms are only part of the answer. We’re placing bets on human beings—on taste, originality, and ingenuity. And I strongly believe those bets will pay off.
8. We heard that you are working on writing a book, what is the book about?
There may someday be a book, but it's far too early to tell. I'll more likely start with a podcast. The central theme or subject matter: the economies of karma, inspired by much of Professor Adam Grant’s work at the University of Pennsylvania. He's remarkable. I'd just like to leverage his scholarship and capture additional stories—from discipline to discipline, domain to domain, industry to industry—that prove a simple notion: that opportunistically performing mitzvoth, or good deeds, may or may not deliver returns in the short term, but the dividends are profound in the greater scheme of life. It’s not about prostrating yourself before the orthodoxy of the lean startup, or leaning in, but focusing instead on the accretive benefits of being good and doing good.
9. There have also been talks of a TV show centered on the arts. What can we expect from this new venture of yours?
I’m currently part of a show called Threads Unstitched, on FYI, debuting August 8th. It’s devoted to the history of “things.” From the bomber jacket to the flip-flop, denim jeans to twist lipstick, the show profiles and breaks down every fashion staple you can imagine.
10. Where did your passion for art come from?
The earliest childhood memories I have and still cherish are tied inseparably to my grandmother’s house in Palm Springs. A menagerie of a place. It was mesmerizing. A dizzying array of odd art and precious objects. It only recently occurred to me that I’ve recreated it here in N.Y., hoping (although this is an awfully personal admission) to somehow rekindle that same sense of love and unblemished optimism. That’s why I’ve intermingled found objects with a talisman or two, antiques with contemporary art, collectibles from every corner of the globe with objects that span at least the last 300 years of design. It’s certainly worth going back far further, but I haven’t proven quite that adventurous yet. But I should. There’s a bear skeleton from the upper Pleistocene era I’ve been eyeing in Milan, but it may be the wrong choice if I ever intend to find a girlfriend.
11. What was the first piece of art you purchased for your personal collection and why were you attracted to it?
The first piece of credible contemporary art that I ever purchased from a gallery (in this case, from The Hole) was a large work by Misaki Kawai. It’s a starkly simple, large-format, gestural painting. Well, technically a painting; it’s really just a series of marks or strokes on canvas made with an oil stick, but it reveals the steady hand and exquisite eye of the artist. More than other piece in my collection, it plays with the recesses of the mind where dreams and prophecy reside. People’s reactions to it range from critical to comical, but I just love it.
12. Describe a day in the life of Michael Phillips Moskowitz, eBay Chief Curator and Editorial Director.
For no apparent reason, I wake up every morning at 3:45 and again at 5:10. It’s never by choice, but by default, and is obviously the fault of constant travel. I basically open my eyes in state of semi-blind terror, wondering where I am. I then fall back into a “temporal coma” that some people call “sleep,” and attempt to dream about dogs. I rarely succeed, but I at least try. I don’t yet have the luxury of caring for one of my own, so I’m left to dream.
Starting at 7, depending on where in the world I happen to be, I either take a flurry of back-to-back morning calls, then hit the gym and shower, plunge into eight straight hours of meetings in four or five different locations, attend an obligatory social commitment, and then meet a colleague, advisee or journalist for dinner by 8. I sneak home by 10, plow through another several hours of email, and unwind with an art book and at least a small dose of standup. Comedy. Some people escape into Elizabethan poetry or the dreary musings of Sylvia Plath. Not me. I prefer comedians before bed. Lenny Bruce, Stephen Wright, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and rising stars like John Hoogasian. Or clips from the Eric Andre Show. Or Gorburger. THE GORBURGER SHOW!!! Three exclamation points, yes. I love that show and can't wait for the debut on HBO this fall.
13. What exciting philanthropic activities are you and/or eBay currently involved with?
I’m currently playing a variety of supportive or “consultative” roles with nonprofits, including NEW INC (the incubator at the New Museum), Sunnylands in Palm Springs (better known as the West Coat Camp David), the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and several other organizations in New York and D.C.
On the eBay front, we’re in the midst of envisioning a broader, bolder future for the eBay Giving Works program, which has raised $91.6 million dollars to date. I’m hugely bullish on the potential of this program to aid relief efforts across the U.S. following natural disasters, and intend to prove its merits over the course of 2015 and 2016 with the support of key partners in San Jose.
14. In a word (or phrase), what springs to mind when you hear the words:
Life (Style): Elkann
INTERVIEWED & WRITTEN BY: SUSAN SCHELL
PHOTOGRAPHY: CHIAKI KATO