Three simple beliefs.
The world’s largest online shopping retailer is founded on three simple beliefs: put the customer first, invent, and be patient.
It sounds deceptively easy. But in these three simple beliefs, Jeff Bezos set the standard for the digital shopping age.
Such brilliance was evident from an early age. Born on January 12th, 1964, Jeffrey Preston Jorgensen took apart his crib with a screwdriver while still a toddler.
His mother Jacklyn was a teenager at the time of his birth, and her marriage to Ted Jorgensen lasted little over a year. In 1968, however, she met Cuban immigrant Miguel Bezos. Miguel had travelled to the US alone at the age of 15, worked his way through school and a tertiary degree at the University of Albuquerque before becoming an engineer. He formally adopted Jeff after marrying Jacklyn, and gave him his surname.
At age four, Bezos began putting his technical proficiency to the test on his grandparent’s farm. Spending the summers repairing windmills and castrating bulls alongside less dramatic chores, he proved capable and keen. His grandfather, Lawrence ‘Pop’ Gise, a former US Atomic Energy Committee regional director, would become one of Bezos’s primary influences. Pop taught Bezos “it’s harder to be kind than clever”, a message Bezos would share in a 2010 commencement address at Princeton.
While at school, Bezos was friendly, but serious. He appeared in a book entitled Turning on Bright Minds: A Parent Looks at Gifted Education in Texas at the age of 12. It described him as “not particularly gifted in leadership”. Ironically, he was captain of his youth football team, as he was the only player who could remember all the plays. This attention to detail would become one of Bezos’s most defining qualities.
At home, Bezos had turned his parent’s garage into a workshop, which he used to experiment with science and technology. One of his first inventions was an alarm that triggered when his siblings tried to enter his room.
One year in high school, Bezos took a part-time job at McDonalds. He hated it. The following year, he set out alongside his girlfriend on his first entrepreneurial endeavour: The Dream Institute, a 10-day study camp for kids. They managed to sign up six students at $600 a head.
After graduating as valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar, Bezos studied electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton University. Rather than accept jobs offers from Intel or Bell Labs, he chose to join an emerging startup called Fitel. The job required him to fly from New York to London on a weekly basis, so he eventually quit, calling the process ineffective.
He then joined Bankers Trust, and nearly left to found a company with Halsey Minor, the man who would eventually develop CNET. Instead, he took a position at D.E. Shaw’s hedge fund, working his way up to SVP in four years.
But something was missing. Bezos wanted more. And he would find it upon a road trip from Texas to Seattle in 1994.
Having learnt that the internet had grown 2300% in the prior year, Bezos searched for a way to make use of this incredible growth. Writing a list of 20 products he could sell online, he eventually chose books.
After flying to his family home in Texas to borrow a car, Bezos and his father drove back to Seattle. Bezos spent the entire time in the passenger’s seat, developing revenue projections for his new company: Amazon (he was going to call it MakeItSo in reference to Star Trek’s Captain Picard, but decided against it).
Alongside Shel Kaphan, Bezos returned to a garage – this time, his own – to develop the business. They set up a bell to chime any time someone made a purchase on the site. Within a couple of weeks, they had to disable it, as it was ringing constantly. By the end of the month, they were making sales in 45 countries.
Without a proper office, they held progress meetings at a local Barnes and Noble.
On May 15th, 1997, Amazon went public. The company soared…then came crashing down.
Market experts mockingly referred to it as ‘Amazon.bomb’, but Bezos was unfazed. His vision had always been long term, and sure enough, as Amazon continued to expand its offerings, more and more users frequented the site.
Meanwhile, Bezos turned his attention to other prospects. In 1998, he became one of the earliest shareholders in Google, buying stock for $250,000 now worth $2.9 billion.
In 2000, he founded Blue Origin, a human spaceflight company. He’d always told his teachers that the future of humanity was not on Earth, and now he was in a position to prove it. The company went about its business in secret until 2006, when it bought land for a test facility.
Bezos told of a Great Inversion in which “space commercialisation stretches out for hundreds of years, leading to an era when millions of people would be living and working in space.” He hopes that Blue Origin will eventually be able to colonise the solar system in time to protect humanity from the doom it is fostering on Earth through such means as climate change.
In 2013, Bezos made a surprise move when he purchased The Washington Post. His first move was to remove the paywall on many local newspapers.
He also founded Bezos Expeditions, which has at least part-funded companies including AirBnB, Business Insider, Twitter, and Uber.
The journey has come with ups and downs.
Bezos was named Time’s Person of the Year in 1999, one of America’s best leaders by the U.S. News & World Report in 2008, and Fortune‘s 2012 Businessperson of the Year.
Two years later, the International Trade Union Confederation called him the World’s Worst Boss. “Jeff Bezos represents the inhumanity of employers who are promoting the American corporate model,” they claimed.
The following year, when Bezos’s vision proved true and the company first turned a profit, was marred by a damning New York Times report that detailed the experience of Amazon’s employees. It painted the vision of a dystopic hellhole, one in which workers would often break down in tears at their desk, and be treated more like robots than people.
Bezos responded in a memo, asking employees to speak up if the accusations were true, but it did little to change his reputation. His apparent skepticism of philanthropy – a view that stands in stark contrast to that of such tech icons as Bill Gates, and initial support of Trump’s presidency have not helped either.
But the most pressing of these issues stem from an obsession with the customer experience, and that experience is what continues to drive shoppers to Amazon. Bezos has made up for the issues that are bringing many brick and mortar retailers to ruin, and that will always outweigh the majority of consumer’s concerns for ethics.
Today, Jeff Bezos is the third richest person in the world. Within days, it’s possible that soaring stock prices will make him number one. And it’s all because of three simple beliefs.