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HP's Whitman rues 'biggest failure' at eBay Japan

Site crash left fledgling firm unable to crack major market

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HP supremo Meg Whitman has admitted that one of her biggest mis-steps in business (to date) was eBay's failure to make its mark in Japan during the 1990s.

The tat bazaar had only 30 employees and revenues of around $US4 million when Whitman arrived in 1998.

At that time, Japan was the second largest internet market in the world and therefore a prime international expansion target for the fledgling company, Whitman explained to CNBC on Tuesday.

However, eBay “never really got a position in Japan”, she said.

“The story behind that is that we had that very well publicised site crash in June of 1999 … so we had to repair our existing site and therefore miss the window of opportunity in Japan,” Whitman revealed.

“It just taught me, follow your intuition. I had a sense that the technology underpinning eBay was perhaps not going to help us scale where we needed to. But we had so many other things to do and we were growing at 70 per cent monthly growth rate.”

The challenges of running HP today – “a 75 year old company trying to reassert leadership in a tough competitive business” – are significantly different from those of running that start-up “with incredible tail-wind of the internet revolution” back in the late ‘90s, Whitman claimed.

However, her tenure at both has apparently taught her the importance of focusing on customers and partners.

Since her time in charge, the venerable Silicon Valley stalwart has lost its position as number one PC vendor in the world to Lenovo, and the firm has announced plans to cull over 30,000 employees.

However, under her leadership the firm has stabilised somewhat after its disastrous interlude with Leo Apotheker at the helm and made efforts to become more channel friendly.

The jury's still out on whether her turnaround is working, however, and whether Whitman will be saying the same about HP in a few years time as she has about her eBay Japan “miss”. ®

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