“Our vision is the world’s most customer-centric company. The place where people come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online”
— Jeff Bezos, from the mission statement posted on Amazon.com
As a toddler he attempted to dismantle his crib with a screwdriver. Growing up, he kept his younger siblings out of his room with a makeshift buzzer fashioned out of an old alarm clock. A high school valedictorian, he turned his garage into a science laboratory and rigged a solar microwave oven. Then years later, turning his mechanical aptitude toward computers, Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon, graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering. The rest is history. Although some may argue, it might be safe to say that Jeff Bezos has been the progenitor of internet commerce. And, if he didn’t start e-commerce, he certainly wrote its playbook.
With Princeton degree in hand, Bezos landed in Wall Street in 1986, but not as an investment banker. At the time, the internet, still in its infancy, was increasingly becoming valuable to investing professionals seeking to track market trends. Initially, Bezos worked on networks for international trade, and software for pension-fund clients. Taking a job with D. E. Shaw in 1994, a hedge fund company with an eye on cutting-edge technology, Bezos chanced upon a study that revealed that internet usage was ballooning 2300 percent each year.
It was at that moment that the seeds of Amazon were sown. With his typical riveted attention to detail, Bezos conducted thorough research hoping to unearth a product that could sustainably be sold online. He determined that books, which had too vast an inventory to be sold practically through a mail-order catalog, would be perfectly suited for internet sales. His new business would be christened “Amazon”, a nod to the eponymous South America river and its vast tributaries.
Hatched in his garage, Bezos debuted Amazon online on July 16, 1995, and in just 30 days, books flew off its virtual shelf across the U.S. and to 45 foreign countries worldwide. Two months later, the sales register was ringing up $20,000 in earnings a week. The fledgling Amazon founder and his small team had started a revolution in shopping. A master in process detail, Bezos soon offered a seamless transaction, which included one-click buying, customer reviews and order verification by e-mail.
In just three years, Jeff Bezos had turned the $300,000 start up investment his mother nervously handed to him into a $79,800,000 bonanza. By 1997, Amazon went public and despite the dotcom bust that lasted roughly the next three years, the company remained one of the last men standing. As if to prove his victory, Bezos was chosen as TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year 1999.
In the years that followed, Bezos continued to expand Amazon from being the “Earth’s biggest bookstore” to “Earth’s biggest anything store”, adding clothing, sports goods and a host of other merchandise between 2002 and 2006. By then, Amazon was raking in annual sales worth $10.7 billion.
But Bezos did not stop there. The consummate innovator harnessed his book-loving audience and introduced the Kindle in 2007, the first e-book reader. Taking the world by storm, Kindle became “the number one bestselling product across all product categories on Amazon”, as a company press release revealed. Amazon surfed the recessionary wave, reporting a 68% jump in 2009 third quarter earnings, which totaled $5.45 billion in sales. Landing on Time’s Heroes and Icons list for 2009, Bezos notched up another win.
Of course, the Amazon head has had his disappointments along the way, especially when he wanted to build upon a competitor’s idea. “We watch our competitors, learn from them, see the things that they were doing for customers and copy those things as much as we can,” Bezos commented in a speech at Lake Forest College in Illinois. So, Amazon began holding auctions when Ebay became all the rage and started a search engine named A9 to suction some of Google’s success, both of which did not survive long. “We were investors in every bankrupt, 1999-vintage, e-commerce startup,” he recalled in a CNN interview with one of his trademark belly laughs.
But like most successful entrepreneurs, Bezos knows that to remain competitive you must innovate, adapt and keep the ideas flowing. The Amazon head is known to be persistent, tenacious and a taskmaster, typical traits of a passionate and relentless innovator. A visionary, Bezos saw a better way to sell books. Now he envisions a better way to read books, and a better way to sell just about anything else the vast internet audience wants. For Amazon and Jeff Bezos, what will be next?
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2019