Jeff Bezos: Building an Empire from A to Z

1 minutes reading time
Published 24 Oct 2023
Reviewed by: Kasper Karlsson
Updated 17 Jun 2024

After a successful career on Wall Street, Jeff Bezos' fascination with the internet's potential drove him to create Amazon in 1994. Over the past three decades, Amazon has evolved from an online bookstore into a global leader in e-commerce and cloud computing. This extraordinary journey is largely attributed to pioneering innovations such as Amazon Prime, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Alexa, and an exceptionally efficient global logistics network. Amazon's rise to becoming one of the world's most powerful companies is deeply intertwined with the story and grand vision of its founder, Jeff Bezos. Join us as we dive into the most fascinating anecdotes and insights about the curious and visionary mind behind Amazon.

Key Insights

  • Early interest in science and tech: Jeff Bezos' curiosity and fascination with science and technology began in his childhood, often setting up science experiments in his parents' garage.

  • Innovation: Amazon's growth has largely been driven by innovations such as Amazon Prime, AWS, and welcoming third-party sellers on its platform. We will revisit why these innovations are not coincidences.

  • Customer focus and "Day 1" culture: Bezos' "Day 1" philosophy promotes a startup mentality focused on innovation and customer satisfaction, key to Amazon's ongoing success.

  • Risk-taking and learning from failure: Bezos embraces risk and learns from failures, principles that are now deeply ingrained in Amazon's corporate culture.

  • Beyond Amazon: Space and philanthropy: Bezos' legacy extends to space exploration, his childhood obsession, through Blue Origin. This is reportedly the main reason he stepped down as CEO of Amazon in 2021.

Early Life and Career of Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos was born on January 12, 1964, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His mother, Jacklyn Gise Jorgensen, was only 17 at the time, and his father, Ted Jorgensen, was a bike shop owner. After his parents divorced, his mother remarried Miguel Bezos, a Cuban immigrant who adopted Jeff and moved the family to Houston, Texas. From a young age, Bezos exhibited a keen interest in science and technology, often inventing gadgets and setting up science projects in his parents' garage.

Bezos' academic journey was marked by excellence. He graduated as valedictorian from Miami Palmetto Senior High School and went on to attend Princeton University, where he majored in electrical engineering and computer science. Graduating with top grades in 1986, Bezos was equipped with the knowledge and skills that would later help him revolutionize the e-commerce industry and, in some ways, the entire business landscape.

The Wall Street Years

At the age of 26, Bezos joined D.E. Shaw, a quant-driven hedge fund on Wall Street, in 1990. He quickly rose to the position of vice president after just two years. Known for his relentless work ethic, Bezos was the type who would spend nights at the office if needed. If one were to sum up Bezos in one word, many would choose "curious." This trait shone brightly during his time at D.E. Shaw where he consistently displayed qualities that he's still renowned for today. Always disciplined and analytic, Bezos never went anywhere without a pen and notebook, ready to jot down observations and ideas as if they would otherwise disappear. His loud and frequent laughter was another defining feature.

Although he thrived and was highly regarded at D.E. Shaw, his insatiable curiosity ensured he wouldn't stay long. Fascinated by the explosive 230,000% year-over-year growth of the internet in the early 90s, Bezos found this to be the catalyst for immersing himself in both entrepreneurship and the internet.

He then began brainstorming business ideas with his Wall Street colleagues. A fun fact about this process is that Bezos categorized his colleagues by brilliance and filtered out ideas from those he wasn't particularly impressed with. Ultimately, his interest increasingly leaned towards e-commerce.

Bezos started by creating a list of 20 potential product categories for an online store, including items like software, office equipment, and music. He ultimately chose books, primarily because they represent a straightforward commodity. Consumers know exactly what they're getting: a book is identical regardless of where it's purchased. Bezos believed this would instantly foster trust among consumers and enable efficient warehousing, and he was absolutely right. Furthermore, an online bookstore could quickly gain a competitive advantage over traditional brick-and-mortar stores like Barnes & Noble by offering a significantly broader range of stock keeping units (SKUs). In fact, when Amazon was founded in 1994, books were the product category with the highest number of SKUs globally, and this is still true today.

It's really fascinating to think about: would Amazon be what it is today, or would it even exist, if the initial choice of products to sell hadn't been books?

The Birth of Amazon

In the spring of 1994, Bezos approached his boss, David Shaw, with his intention to leave the company and launch an online bookstore. Shaw was concerned and proposed a contemplative walk in Central Park. After two reflective hours, they decided Bezos would mull over the decision for a few days. Analytical as always, Bezos mentioned he had devised a "regret minimization framework" to guide his choice. By the end of the year, after four years of duty on Wall Street, Bezos stepped away to realize his vision of tapping into the potential of the internet. This vision evolved into what we now recognize as Amazon. Bezos later reflected on this pivotal decision and the framework he used to make it:

"I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, 'Okay, now I'm looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have.' I knew that when I was 80, I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet, that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed, I wouldn't regret that. But I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that would haunt me every day. When I thought about it that way, it was an incredibly easy decision."

In July 1994, Bezos and his now ex-wife, MacKenzie, moved to Seattle and founded Amazon in their garage. They chose Seattle for its proximity to a large pool of tech talent, largely thanks to Bill Gates and Microsoft, and to the largest book distributor at the time, Ingram. The company was initially run out of the Bezos' garage, with desks made out of doors to save costs, a frugality that would later become part of Amazon's corporate culture.

A fun fact about this story is that the company was initially named "Cadabra," but Bezos quickly changed it to Amazon after realizing that Cadabra sounded a lot like cadaver. Naming the company after the largest river in the world seemed more suitable, symbolizing his vision of a large-scale enterprise. He also liked the name because it began with the letter "A," which would help it appear early in alphabetical searches.

Another name he considered before ultimately choosing Amazon was "" Bezos actually registered the domain name in 1994, and to this day, if you type into your browser, it redirects to Amazon's website. It conveyed a sense of unyielding determination and persistence, qualities that he believed were essential for success. Bezos was known for his intense focus on customer satisfaction, innovation, and long-term growth, all of which are aligned with the concept of relentlessness.

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Amazon's Competitive Advantages

Amazon officially launched on July 16, 1995. Within the first two months, the company had sold books in every state in the U.S. and to over 45 countries. The website's success was fueled by its wide selection, competitive prices, and customer-friendly policies like free shipping and easy returns. These principles helped Amazon quickly gain a loyal customer base. From the beginning, Bezos envisioned Amazon as more than just an online bookstore. He aimed to create an "everything store," a vision that started to materialize as Amazon expanded into new product categories such as electronics, toys, and clothing.

Since its inception, Amazon's core business has revolved around e-commerce. This segment is split into two parts: its own direct-to-consumer (D2C) segment called Online Stores and its Third-party Sellers operations, where other companies are invited to sell their products on Amazon's platform.

Initially, Amazon focused exclusively on D2C sales. However, in 2000, they made the seemingly counterintuitive decision to welcome third-party sellers onto their platform, effectively allowing external companies to compete with them on their own turf. This strategy has proven immensely successful, with third-party sellers now accounting for the majority of sales on Yet, about 60% of Amazon's e-commerce revenue still comes from its Online Stores, as only a percentage (take rate) of the third-party sellers' revenue reaches Amazon's topline. In the full year 2023, Amazon's e-commerce revenue was $372 billion – more than the GDP of several countries. Here is Amazon's revenue breakdown for Q1 2024:

Amazon Revenue Breakdown revenue breakdown for Q1 2024 (LTM)

So, how did Amazon become such a behemoth within e-commerce? While industry growth plays a part, the intrinsic advantages of e-commerce have been pivotal. E-commerce offers consumers lower prices, an expansive selection, and unparalleled convenience. These benefits not only save consumers time and money but also present a vast array of choices. Furthermore, the business model is highly scalable and provides robust competitive advantages for market leaders. Amazon, having been one of the earliest entrants in the space, has reaped the benefits of this leadership position since its formative years.

Further reading: Amazon: From Books to Everything

Scalability is an interesting topic worth discussing more. In the context of products or services, scalability is defined by minimal to non-existent variable costs. When paired with a vast addressable market, this allows a product or service to reach countless consumers simultaneously without elevating costs or changing the core structures of the business as revenue grows. For example, while a shoe manufacturer experiences a notable variable cost by producing additional shoes for every new customer, a company like Meta can add countless additional users without meaningfully increasing costs.

The gross margin reflects the scalability of businesses in many ways. Some examples of scalable businesses are Alphabet, Meta, and Activision Blizzard – software and digital distribution in general. Amazon on the other hand incurs an average delivery cost of around $4 per package, translating to a variable cost of $4 per purchase just for the logistics part of the equation. This positions Amazon's scalability at a level below the previously mentioned companies. However, this entails various advantages.

Certainly, what's intriguing isn't the cost per package delivered. Rather, it's the inherent variable cost arising from the vast logistics networks, distribution centers, and supply chains that e-commerce relies upon, especially for its internally produced goods. It's this physical presence that carves out and reinforces a competitive edge. Take LVMH for instance; it exemplifies the benefits of not existing in a purely scalable industry, balancing between tangible production and a limited digital footprint. Contrary to popular belief, there seem to be numerous advantages in not being overly tech-centric.

E-commerce's physical component thus acts as a formidable shield against disruptive technologies. To carve out a niche in the e-commerce landscape, an entrant not only needs to establish its logistics network and distribution centers but also manage its production if it's focused on a D2C model. Such an endeavor is both time-consuming and capital-intensive. To put things into perspective, Amazon, which as of 2016 handled only 8% of its logistics, now manages over 80% of its logistical operations in-house. Replicating such infrastructure is undeniably challenging and costly.

It's hardly coincidental that the most prominent and valuable companies in South America and Asia, MercadoLibre and Alibaba respectively, along with Amazon being one the most valuable in the U.S., are first and foremost all online retailers. More aptly, these entities could be labeled as platform companies. They don't just participate in e-commerce; they own the infrastructure that powers it (which is where we find the primary competitive advantage).

The expansive supply on these platforms draws in the largest consumer base. And the larger the consumer pool, the more appealing these platforms become for new businesses. This creates a potent and self-reinforcing network effect that's challenging if not impossible to beat at a certain scale.

Remarkably, in the very year Amazon was founded, Jeff Bezos predicted that e-commerce would likely be dominated by a single entity or a select few. This insight came from recognizing the potent competitive advantage of economies of scale, which allow for the lowest prices, fastest deliveries (thanks to significant investment opportunities), and the widest product selection. Bezos drew much of this understanding from Sam Walton and Jim Sinegal, who had implemented similar strategies in the U.S. physical retail landscape with Walmart and Costco respectively. It certainly pays off to be an eager reader and to be curious.

Amazon's Day 1 Culture

Referenced in every one of Jeff Bezos' shareholder letters, Amazon's Day 1 culture is a cornerstone of its identity. This culture is more than a philosophy; it is a practical framework that drives Amazon's continuous innovation and customer-centric approach. As you might have guessed, Bezos takes this concept and way of thinking very seriously. For instance, when Amazon built its new headquarters in Seattle in 2016, the main building was named Day 1, and it features a large sign at the entrance that says, you guessed it, Day 1.

Bezos introduced the concept of Day 1 in his first shareholder letter in 1997, emphasizing that it is always Day 1 at Amazon. For Bezos, Day 1 is a mentality of perpetual dynamism, focusing on maintaining the enthusiasm, energy, and forward-thinking attitude of a startup, regardless of Amazon's size or market position. Day 2, conversely, signifies stasis, followed by irrelevance, decline, and death – a fate Bezos is determined to avoid.

"Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1."
– Jeff Bezos

Embrace Failure

The Day 1 culture leads us to yet another formidable Bezos idea – the eagerness to invent and to embrace failure. Failed experiments are a key part of the Amazon DNA:

"In business [...], when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs. This long-tailed distribution of returns is why it's important to be bold. Big winners pay for so many experiments."

Bezos firmly believes that innovation requires experimentation, and by definition, experiments involve failure. He has often emphasized that if you know in advance that something is going to work, it's not an experiment. Consequently, Bezos has encouraged Amazon to take bold risks and experiment fearlessly, understanding that many of these experiments will fail. This approach allows Amazon to stay ahead of the curve and continuously innovate.

One notable example of Amazon's failures is the Fire Phone, launched in 2014. It was a significant failure due to its high price and lack of unique features compared to competitors. However, the experience gained from this failure was pivotal in the development of the more successful Amazon Echo and Alexa voice assistant, which have become central to Amazon's smart home ecosystem.

Another example is Amazon Auctions and zShops, which aimed to compete with eBay but failed. These failures highlighted the need for a different approach, eventually leading to the creation of Amazon Marketplace, its platform that allows third-party sellers to sell products on Amazon's website and use its logistics infrastructure. Similarly, Amazon's WebPay was an early attempt to enter the online payments space but failed to gain traction against established players like PayPal. The insights from this failure contributed to the later success of Amazon Pay.

Another innovation that can't go unnoticed is the rise of AWS, which raises some obvious questions. How did an e-commerce company diversify into such a distinct and different domain? It's hardly a coincidence that Amazon pioneered both the cloud vertical and the API concept. Innovations like AWS, Alexa, and Amazon Prime have all emerged from the trained minds of Amazon employees, underlining a company culture deeply rooted in innovation and visionary thinking, largely shaped by Bezos himself.

As a testament to this commitment, every senior leader at Amazon is mandated to read "Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a book that profoundly challenges conventional thought patterns. Moreover, Bezos has experimented with myriad management models in pursuit of fostering innovation and optimizing group dynamics. While many were deemed ineffective and discarded, the principle of operational excellence – akin to the Japanese concept of Kaizen – has been incrementally refined. These tweaks gradually push Amazon closer to its ideal organizational structure, which, in turn, serves as the bedrock for its thriving corporate culture and success.

Jeff Bezos' Leadership Style

As we've already touched upon, Bezos' leadership style and beliefs have been characterized by a relentless focus on customer satisfaction, a willingness to take bold risks, and an emphasis on long-term thinking. Additionally, his leadership style is marked by setting exceptionally high standards for his employees and expecting accountability, fostering a culture of excellence and ownership.

Bezos is also known for being highly demanding and, at times, intimidating. Reportedly, employees often felt nervous or scared when presenting ideas to him, including those on the senior management team. It is well known that he often got frustrated with employees who didn't immediately grasp his ambitious ideas.

Other than his intensity, it's worth mentioning Bezos' always analytical approach to problem-solving. He has instilled several practices to keep the company customer-centric, innovative, and efficient. Examples include the "empty chair" strategy to represent the customer in meetings and the "two pizza" rule to keep teams small and efficient. These practices, along with his emphasis on data-driven decision-making when possible, have arguably helped Amazon foster one of the most innovative company cultures in the world, judged by its track record.

Moving on to the well-known writing culture at Amazon, which adds flavor to Bezos' analytical mind. In 2004, Bezos' passion for reading and writing inspired him to introduce a new structure at Amazon for presenting product and business development proposals. This approach mandated that all presentations be delivered in writing, adhering to several carefully developed frameworks.

As a consequence, Amazon refrains from using PowerPoint or any form of image-based presentations. Bezos' key argument for this unconventional approach is that, although written communication requires more time initially, it ultimately saves time due to the resulting clarity and the depth of thought necessary for written presentations. He contends that it's impossible to compose a six-page, narrative-structured memo without achieving clear thinking.

"The great memos are written and rewritten, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can't be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more."
– Jeff Bezos

Personal Life and Other Ventures

Beyond Amazon, Bezos is known for his interest in space exploration, a passion he has had since childhood. His favorite TV series is famously Star Trek, which adds an interesting dimension to his story. From being obsessed with space as a child, he later founded one of the leading space exploration companies globally, Blue Origin, in 2000, with the goal of making space travel more affordable and accessible.

It's worth mentioning that Bezos stepped down from the CEO position at Amazon in July 2021, but he is still the largest shareholder and Chairman of the company. This move was partly made to enable Bezos to focus more on Blue Origin. Andy Jassy, an Amazon employee since its IPO year 1997 and former CEO of AWS, then took Bezos' place as Amazon CEO.

Bezos is also a prominent philanthropist. In 2018, he launched the Bezos Day One Fund, which focuses on helping homeless families and creating preschools in low-income communities. He has also made substantial donations to various causes, including climate change, through his Bezos Earth Fund.

Jeff Bezos' Net Worth

As of May 2024, Bezos' net worth is an astounding $207 billion, making him the third wealthiest person in the world, just slightly behind Bernard Arnault and Elon Musk.

Closing Thoughts

After studying countless entrepreneurs, we boldly assert that Jeff Bezos stands out, even among the elite. He is undoubtedly one of the most unique and brilliant minds in the entrepreneurial world, having shaped a corporate culture unlike anything the world has seen before. Driven by a deep passion for science and technology, Bezos transformed Amazon from a simple online bookstore into a global powerhouse in e-commerce and cloud computing. His influence extends beyond Amazon, highlighted by his ambitious space exploration ventures with Blue Origin.

Even after stepping down as CEO in 2021, Bezos remains a significant force at Amazon as its largest shareholder and Chairman. His journey, from a curious child setting up his own inventions in his parents' garage to one of the world's wealthiest individuals, exemplifies the power of visionary thinking and the relentless pursuit of one's dreams. Through his story, he continues to inspire and redefine what's possible in business and beyond – it really always seems to be Day 1 for Jeff Bezos.

Some excerpted lines from the 1997 shareholder letter:

Because of our emphasis on the long term, we may make decisions and weigh tradeoffs differently than some companies. Accordingly, we want to share with you our fundamental management and decision-making approach so that you, our shareholders, may confirm that it is consistent with your investment philosophy:

We will continue to focus relentlessly on our customers.

We will continue to make investment decisions in light of long-term market leadership considerations rather than short-term profitability considerations or short-term Wall Street reactions.

We will continue to measure our programs and the effectiveness of our investments analytically, to jettison those that do not provide acceptable returns, and to step up our investment in those that work best. We will continue to learn from both our successes and our failures. We will make bold rather than timid investment decisions where we see a sufficient probability of gaining market leadership advantages. Some of these investments will pay off, others will not, and we will have learned another valuable lesson in either case.

When forced to choose between optimizing the appearance of our GAAP accounting and maximizing the present value of future cash flows, we’ll take the cash flows.

We will share our strategic thought processes with you when we make bold choices (to the extent competitive pressures allow), so that you may evaluate for yourselves whether we are making rational long-term leadership investments.

We will work hard to spend wisely and maintain our lean culture. We understand the importance of continually reinforcing a cost-conscious culture, particularly in a business incurring net losses.

We will balance our focus on growth with emphasis on long-term profitability and capital management. At this stage, we choose to prioritize growth because we believe that scale is central to achieving the potential of our business model.

We will continue to focus on hiring and retaining versatile and talented employees, and continue to weigh their compensation to stock options rather than cash. We know our success will be largely affected by our ability to attract and retain a motivated employee base, each of whom must think like, and therefore must actually be, an owner.

Further Reading

Jeff Bezos: 10 Core Ideas
Jeff Bezos Shareholder Letters

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