The Great Leaders Series: Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon.com
BY Josh Spiro
Jeff Bezos is an e-commerce pioneer who started Amazon.com to sell books, and expanded into just about everything else.
Jeff Bezos is one of the founding fathers of e-commerce, and part of a select group of entrepreneurs in that field who managed to survive the dot-com bubble without losing control of their companies. Today, his business, Amazon.com, is an Internet goliath that sells everything from books to laptops to gift baskets. Most recently, the company has acquired Zappos, the online shoe retailer, and unveiled the Kindle, the first e-reader to become a breakout hit. This risky move into consumer electronics shows that Jeff Bezos, having pioneered online retail, is not yet ready to give up the pursuit of innovation.
Bezos' mother gave birth to him while she was still in her teens and his stepfather left Cuba for the U.S. at age 15. Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and later Houston, Texas, Bezos was technically precocious; by one account he disassembled his crib with a screwdriver as a toddler. He graduated from science experiments in his parents' garage, to a computer science degree at Princeton, to a successful Wall Street career. But Bezos wouldn't be a household name if, in 1994, he hadn't noticed the Internet's potential for commerce and abandoned a well-paying job at the investment firm D. E. Shaw, to return to the garage and launch Amazon.
After inviting 300 friends and acquaintances to test his creation, Bezos took the site live and, within a month, the company had sold books in all 50 states and in 45 countries. Within two months, sales topped $20,000 a week. As Amazon's growth accelerated, however, skeptics expected that brick-and-mortar retailers like Barnes & Noble or Borders would soon shoulder the young start-up out of the online book market. Others said the company was burning through its cash too quickly. But Bezos did not back down. 'We're going to be unprofitable for a long time. And that's our strategy,' Bezos told Inc. in 1997.
The doom-and-gloom predictions turned out to be wrong. Amazon earned its first full-year profit in 2003 and, by 2008, the company's revenue had reached $4 billion. The company succeeded in large part because it quickly embraced e-commerce innovations that improved its customer experience. Such standard operating procedures one-click shopping, e-mail verification of orders, and customer product reviews were not on the radar until Amazon adopted them.
As if that wasn't enough, Bezos has made venture capital a side project for Amazon, investing millions of dollars with varying success in start-ups such as Talk Market, a video shopping site; Foodista, which is a user-edited cooking encyclopedia; and the infamous dot-com casualty Pets.com. On the side, he also created an entirely separate company called Blue Origin, which aims to devise the technology for commercial space flight.
Bezos has joked modestly that the success of Amazon was due half to luck, half to timing, and the rest was attributable to brains. In truth, the passion he brings to his business is what sets him apart. 'One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves. If you're really interested in software and computer science, you should focus on that,' Bezos told Inc. in 2004. 'But if you're really interested in medicine, and you decide you're going to become an Internet entrepreneur because it looks like everybody else is doing well, then that's probably not going to work. You don't choose your passions, your passions choose you.'