Jeff Bezos



Born: January 12, 1964
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Founder and CEO, Amazon.com

Jeff Bezos. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation (Bellevue).
Jeff Bezos. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation (Bellevue).

E-commerce is indeed getting a lot of attention and at its center is Jeff Bezos (pronounced bay-zohs), founder, chief executive office (CEO), and head cheerleader for Amazon.com , the Internet bookselling company he founded in 1995. With about $1 million in capital, most borrowed from friends and family, Bezos built a multibillion-dollar empire in about five years and in doing so, revolutionized the way commerce is done on the Internet.

Childhood Years

Jeffrey Preston Bezos was born January 12, 1964, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A year later, his parents divorced and since then he has never had contact with his biological father. Three years later, his mother, Jackie Gise, married Michael Bezos, who fled his native Cuba when he was fifteen years old.

"In early 1996 we were called Amazon.con, in '97 Amazon.toast, and in 1999 it was Amazon.bomb. Then there was my personal favorite: Amazon.org , because clearly we're not for profit.… It still gets a ton of attention. I mean, you're still talking to me."

Much of Jeff Bezos's relentless drive and ambition likely came from his new father, who was raised in a Catholic mission. Mike Bezos always strove to better himself, learning English and working various odd jobs to pay for his education at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. After college, he became an engineer with Exxon Corporation, causing the family to move to Texas. After several years, another job transfer brought them to Florida, where Jeff Bezos attended Palmetto High School in Miami. Bezos was popular in school and became class president and valedictorian in his senior year.

Early Innovator

Bezos always had a knack for figuring out how things work. In Jeff Bezos: King of Amazon, author Josepha Sherman writes, "From the time he was a toddler, Bezos was busy trying to change his world. He felt he was too old to sleep in a 'baby' crib, so he found a screwdriver and took the crib apart. Instead of getting mad, Bezos's family encouraged him."

Bezos had a younger sister, Christina, and brother, Mark. When the young siblings learned to walk, they loved going into their brother's room because of all the fascinating "toys". To warn him that the children were coming, Jeff attached an alarm to his bedroom door that made a loud buzzing sound when someone entered.

When Bezos was twelve he wanted something called an Infinity Cube. The device was a set of small motorized mirrors that reflected off one another so the images seemed to go on endlessly. It cost $20 but Bezos did not have enough money to buy it. Instead, he purchased mirrors and other parts with what money he had and constructed his own reflecting cube. He built other inventions, including amateur robots. At one point he had so much clutter in his bedroom, his parents made him move all of his half-finished devices and experiments into the garage.

There are many similar stories surrounding Bezos's childhood years. He spent countless hours building models and an assortment of electronics kits. He worked on science projects, often coming up with his own "inventions." By the time he reached high school, he had turned the family garage into his personal science and electronics laboratory. Ironically, Bezos later would launch Amazon.com from his own garage.

Enters Princeton

After graduating with honors from high school, Bezos decided to follow in the footsteps of Stephen Hawking and enroll in the physics program at Princeton University. He soon realized, however, that the subject was too difficult for him, so he switched to a double major in electronics and computer science. Bezos discovered he excelled at creating software programs. In 1986, he graduated with highest honors and Phi Beta Kappa (membership in a national honor society), earning degrees in electrical engineering and the still new field of computer science.

Bezos turned down several job offers from large corporations and instead took a position with a newly formed fiber optic company, Fitel. His task was to help the company build a computer network specifically for international finance. In 1988, he took a job developing systems for managing investment funds at Banker's Trust in New York City. After two years, he moved to the Wall Street investment firm of D. E. Shaw & Company as a computer specialist. In 1992, at age twenty-eight, he became Shaw's youngest ever vice president; two years later he was promoted to senior vice president.

Bezos and Disney

At various times, Jeff Bezos dreamed of becoming a cowboy or an astronaut. He was a devoted Star Trek fan and went as far as naming his dog Kamala after a minor character from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. His heroes included American inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931 ), astrophysicist Stephen Hawking (1942-), and Walt Disney (see entry), although he was no Mickey Mouse fan. Instead, he was fascinated with how Disney came up with the electronics and animatronics used in Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

"The thing that always amazed me [about Disney] was how powerful his vision was," Bezos said in a Time article. "He knew exactly what he wanted to build and teamed up with a bunch of really smart people and built it. Everyone thought it wouldn't work, and he had to persuade the banks to lend him $400 million. But he did it." Many friends and family members would likely say the same thing about Bezos and the way he took Amazon.com from an idea to a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Bezos, however, did it much quicker than Disney.

From Idea to Reality

While at Shaw Bezos developed the idea that would eventually become Amazon.com . In 1994, he read an article about how the World Wide Web was growing by 2,300 percent a year. He knew he had to tap into such a great potential for commerce but was unsure what type of business would work best. He researched mail-order companies, believing their products would sell well on the Internet. After drawing up a list of twenty popular mail-order items, Bezos finally settled on books since the millions of titles in print offered an enormous potential for sales.

On July 6,1995, Bezos launched Amazon.com , named after the South American river, with financial and moral support from family and friends. The company operated out of the garage of the Bezos's two-bedroom home in suburban Seattle, Washington. With almost no publicity, sales took off immediately. "Within the first few days, I knew this was going to be huge," Bezos told Time. "It was obvious that we were onto something much bigger than we ever dared to hope."

Person of the Year

By the end of 1999, Amazon.com had become a multibillion-dollar corporation offering 3.5 million titles for sale. It had expanded into a variety of other merchandise, including music and videos, and had set up operations in Europe. Bezos's personal fortune alone was estimated at $10.5 billion. In the crowning achievement of his career, Time magazine named Bezos its "Person of the Year" for 1999, proclaiming him king of cybercommerce.

With success came adversity. The company became involved in several notable lawsuits filed by Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart. But none of the problems compared to the biggest challenge of all: making the company profitable. Amazon.com lost money every year, including $1.4 billion in 2000. In 2001, the company laid off thirteen hundred workers and instituted other cost-cutting measures. The belt-tightening worked and Amazon.com posted its first ever net profit of $5.1 million for the fourth quarter of 2001.

Despite his hectic schedule, the head of the world's largest bookstore still finds time to read. Jeff Bezos buys about ten books a month although he reads only three. His favorites include The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Dune by Frank Herbert, and Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras.

For the future, Bezos plans to make Amazon.com a place people can buy anything they want on-line. And now that the

CEO and founder Jeff Bezos is known for his sunny disposition and booming laugh. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation (Bellevue).
CEO and founder Jeff Bezos is known for his sunny disposition and booming laugh.
Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation (Bellevue).
company is firmly rooted, Bezos and his wife MacKenzie want to turn their attention to charitable work. "At some point, we want to figure out how to do philanthropic work that's highly leveraged," said Bezos. "It's very easy to give away money ineffectively. But doing it well requires at least as much attention and energy as building a successful company."

For Further Information

Books

Saunders, Rebecca. Business the Amazon.com Way. London: Capstone Ltd., 1999.

Sherman, Josepha. Jeff Bezos: King of Amazon. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2001.

Spector, Robert. Amazon.com Get Big Fast: Inside the Revolutionary Business Model That Changed the World. New York: HarperBusiness, 2000.

Periodicals

Appelbaum, Alec. "Amazon's Juggling Act." Money (March 1, 2001): p. 35+.

"Bedtime for Bezos? His Company is at a Critical Crossroads, but Jeff Bezos is Sticking to His Plan." Newsweek (April 9, 2001): p. 36.

Brooker, Katrina. "Beautiful Dreamer." Fortune (December 18, 2000): p. 234+.

"Cruising Inside Amazon: It's Like a Three-Ring Circus that Adds More Rings Each Day." Time (December 27, 1999): p. 68+.

Hargrave, Sean. "Amazon: (Strategic Play)." New Media Age (February 14, 2002): pp. 28-31.

McCarthy, Michael. "Virtual Reality ( Amazon.com 's Rise to Success)." ADWEEK Western Advertising News (June 14, 1999): p. 31.

Quittner, Joshua." An Eye on the Future: Jeff Bezos Merely Wants Amazon, com to be Earth's Biggest Bookstore." Time (December 27,1999): 56+.

Web Sites

Amazon.com , Inc. [On-line] http://www.amazon.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).



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