How Amazon's Jeff Bezos Became a Billionaire
Have you ever wondered how the unbelievably rich and successful founder of Amazon came to be the person he is today? The story behind Jeff Bezos and the making of Amazon is certainly an interesting one.
Let’s delve into the humble beginnings of this genius entrepreneur to learn how he built Amazon from the ground up and what strange quirks he is said to have in his daily life. Who knows? Maybe you’ll learn what it takes to become an American billionaire like Jeff Bezos.
Born to a Teen Mom
On January 12, 1964, Jeffrey Preston Bezos was born to Jacklyn Gise and Ted Jorgenson in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His mother was only 17 years old at the time, his father was 19, and the young couple was not destined to last very long together. His father suffered from excessive drinking, and his mother filed for divorce when he was just 17 months old.
From that point on, Ted Jorgenson was largely absent from his son’s life. Although this wasn’t an easy beginning, Bezos credits his mother for his strong, positive upbringing. According to him, "literally everything" is thanks to her.
A New Father
In 1968, when Bezos was just four years old, Jacklyn Gise remarried a man named Miguel Bezos, who had arrived in the U.S. from Cuba in 1962 at the young age of 16 without knowing how to speak English. "His grit, determination and optimism are inspiring," says Bezos of the man who raised him.
Despite no biological ties, Jeff and Miguel grew as close as a natural father and son through the years. It's a good bet his adopted father's inspiring story of solo travel to the U.S. had an impact on Bezos, teaching him the lesson that anything is possible in this world.
An Inventor from the Start
Even as a kid, Bezos was already inventing things. He apparently created a science laboratory in the family's garage and came up with different science projects to test out in his spare time. Two half-siblings came along over the years, and he even built his own alarm system to keep them out of his stuff.
It's safe to say most kids wouldn't have known the first thing about building an alarm system, but Bezos had the smarts to figure it out and the drive to make it happen. The beginnings of an innovative multi-billionaire were already budding in the Bezos family.
Summers on the Ranch
Jeff Bezos was close to his grandparents, and he often spent summers on their Texas ranch as a child. In a commencement speech Bezos gave at Princeton, he described how he "helped fix windmills, vaccinate cattle and do other chores" around the farm. It was a far cry from his world of laboratories and alarm clocks, but it undoubtedly taught Bezos some practical life skills and a great work ethic.
Eventually, he purchased his grandparents’ Texas ranch and expanded the 25,000 acres to a whopping 300,000 acres. It looks like everything comes full circle, right? (Bonus fact: Bezos’ grandmother was a cousin of famous country singer George Strait!)
High School Valedictorian
Bezos’ love for science only intensified during high school. He attended a Student Science Training Program at the University of Florida and was later awarded the Silver Knight Award. He also started his first business during this time, creating The Dream Institute, a summer camp for kids in fourth through sixth grades.
As if that's not enough, Bezos graduated as valedictorian from his Miami high school. Clearly, he already showed potential as a student and businessman, although he was still working at McDonald's at the time, and fame and fortune were still years down the road.
Dreams of Being a Theoretical Physicist
Bezos pursued his love of science and technology at the prestigious Princeton University, where he studied electrical engineering and computer science. In 1986, he graduated with a reported 4.2 grade-point average. If you've been to college, you know that's some serious brain power!
According to Inc., Bezos originally had his sights set on becoming a theoretical physicist in college. One day, however, he asked a fellow student for help on a complex math problem, and the student spit out the answer in a matter of seconds. "It was the very moment," Bezos says, "I realized I was never going to be a great theoretical physicist."
Some might be surprised to learn the humble Amazon founder got his start on Wall Street. He had a brief stint working at a financial telecommunications startup just out of college, and then he quickly moved into the banking world. In 1990, he joined an investment management firm called D.E. Shaw & Co., and he became the company's vice president in just four years.
Needless to say, Bezos was living a comfortable life at that point. Things were great for him financially, and he could have continued to have a successful career. So, what in the world prompted him to leave it all behind and take a chance on e-commerce?
A Simple Statistic That Started It All
According to Entrepreneur, Bezos got the idea to start an internet business from a statistic he read online. It wasn't like he was searching for the statistic, either. He was simply surfing the web for potential opportunities D.E. Shaw & Co. could invest in when he read the fateful information.
The statistic said that usage of the World Wide Web was growing 2,300 percent — per month! In the innovative mind of Bezos, that simple fact sparked ideas for a world of possibilities. After a short time contemplating some of those ideas, Bezos took the plunge and quit his lucrative Wall Street position in 1994.
Amazon is a household name that is pretty much synonymous with online shopping. Interestingly, at its inception it was almost called Cadabra. Wait, as in Abracadabra? That thing magicians say? On a phone call with his lawyer, Bezos threw the name out as an idea for the business.
Bezos' lawyer was shocked and said a name like Cadaver certainly wouldn’t attract many customers. This miscommunication made Bezos realize that perhaps it wasn't the best option, so he picked Amazon instead. The name was pretty fitting, considering it was inspired by the immense and fertile Amazon River region in South America.
Earth's Biggest Bookstore
The Amazon you know and love today, where you can find just about anything under the sun, wasn't always so expansive, if you’ll recall. In fact, Bezos originally thought he would only be selling books, as indicated by the original tagline "Earth's biggest bookstore."
He figured the sheer number of books in the world made them a good candidate for online selling, not to mention that plugging a book title into a search bar is so much easier than raking through a hundred stacks and shelves in a shop. He drew up a plan, worked on the process with the help of some crew and opened Amazon for business in 1995.
The thing about Jeff Bezos is he doesn’t do anything halfway. When he decided to quit his job and pursue a risky business venture, he really went for it. Shortly after quitting, Bezos took his wife MacKenzie and dog Kamala and moved to Seattle, Washington.
Seattle had many benefits in Bezos' eyes. The city was known for being home to people with high-tech abilities, and he would be closer to Ingram Book Group's warehouse full of books. On the drive to Seattle, Bezos acquired investors and secured $1 million in startup money. With those funds, he rented the house where Amazon was born.
Started in a Garage
Like a couple of other famous tech startups, Amazon started in a garage. Bezos knew a thing or two about innovation in garages from his childhood science experiments, so it probably felt perfect to him. With only five other employees, the Amazon team created its programs and designed the website.
Bezos wanted to create a space where people could not only shop but were also encouraged to leave reviews and explore new titles. He wanted customers to spend time — not just money — on the site. With the help of his team, that's exactly the type of site they created. After its launch, word of mouth soon shot this business into fame.
The Two-Pizza Methodology
Bezos has a famous "two pizza rule" that he applies to running a business. His philosophy is that a team should be able to be fed by two pizzas — and nothing more. If they need more than two pizzas, the group is too big. Too many people means nothing gets done. Too few people means not enough gets done.
This way of doing things is how he ran Amazon from the start, and it’s how he runs it today. He strives to keep the number of people attending a meeting low. That way, there's less talking over each other and more united flow on a subject or idea.
A Man Who Does His Own Footwork
Imagine the number of packages shipping out daily for Amazon orders. You see them in front of neighbors' doors, around the apartment complex and in your own mailbox. Every time one arrives, it almost feels like Christmas morning.
In the beginning, of course, there weren't quite as many Amazon packages being shipped, but it’s still impressive to note that Bezos himself dropped off the packages for shipment. When business skyrocketed and this was no longer possible, he developed new solutions, of course, but he can always say he personally oversaw the shipment of merchandise for a time. Pretty cool, right?
In the beginning, Amazon kept a pretty low profile. Most of its revenue generation depended on word-of-mouth, email and plug-in online communities. Eventually, however, Amazon received its first major publicity, thanks to Yahoo. Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang put Amazon on the "What's Cool" Yahoo webpage, gaining Amazon a much bigger audience.
Early in Amazon's development, Bezos made decisions that kept profit low to nonexistent. He claimed that profit would only attract unwanted competition, and it was more important to establish Amazon as the number one name in reliable, cost-effective online shopping. Thanks to this strategy, Amazon beat out competitors like Barnes & Noble.
Amazon's Fast Growth
In just two years, Amazon had made $15.7 million in sales and increased its workforce to 100 employees. The growth was consistent and quick. Three years later, those numbers had increased to $610 million and 3,000, respectively, with workers in Britain and Germany.
This success no longer went unnoticed by other businesses. Other big-name bookstores were quick to follow the trend and created their own online stores, but they weren't able to keep up with Amazon. Customers loved Amazon’s user-friendly interface and quality customer service more than that of competing businesses.
2012 Holiday Season
Interestingly, the holiday season of 2012 was one for the books in the eyes of Amazon's founder. By that time, Amazon had expanded to include the sale of a wide variety of items and had established itself as the ruler of online shopping. It continued to be even more wildly successful with each passing year.
Over the holidays, Amazon reached a point of selling 306 items around the globe every second. That’s hard to even imagine — 306 payment clicks every second of the day as countless families purchased countless items for their loved ones. It added up to an unbelievable 26.5 million products sold.
The Customer Knows Best
Bezos has always stated that the customer comes first. Since the beginning, he has held customer satisfaction in the highest esteem, making sure there were plenty of opportunities for product reviews and returns. Bezos even said, "The number one thing that has made us successful by far is obsessive-compulsive focus on the customer, as opposed to obsession over the competitor."
It certainly seems this obsession with the customer has worked for Amazon so far. Customer satisfaction is no joking matter at Amazon, and buyers can't get enough of it.
Remember how Amazon originally started as a bookstore? Books were the main product, and Bezos never imagined the heights the company would eventually reach. As Amazon's success increased, so did Bezos' ambition. The sale of CDs was quickly incorporated into Amazon, changing the tagline from "Earth's biggest bookstore" to "Books, music, and more."
Bezos began experimenting with temporary "gift sections" during the holidays, where customers could buy things like toys and games. Next, he went for the pharmaceutical market, making different over-the-counter drugs available for purchase online. The rest is history! Now you can find everything from underwear to windshield wipers on Amazon.
Amazon Prime Originals
Did you think Amazon's rapid expansion would surely stop at that point? Level out, at least? If so, you were dead wrong. With the success of Netflix and Hulu, Bezos saw yet another opportunity for his business. In 2011, Amazon Prime members were given access to TV shows and movies for streaming online, all without ads.
Before long, Amazon took it a step further and started making its own TV series and movies, available exclusively to Amazon Prime subscribers. From the simple sale of books to the creation of new cinematic art, Amazon reached new heights yet again. As of March 2018, approximately 26 million watch streamed TV shows and movies on Amazon Prime Video.
The Washington Post
In 2013, Jeff Bezos made the move to purchase The Washington Post for $250 million. This might seem like a strange move for an internet mogul, but Bezos explains that it actually made sense to him. Although he admittedly knew nothing about newspapers, he did know about the internet, and that's what he believed could really benefit the newspaper industry.
"The Washington Post has an incredibly important role to play in this democracy," said Bezos about his thought process when deciding to make the purchase. In a move more based on the heart than the head, he chose to buy it because he believed in the importance of the newspaper.
Jeff Bezos and Space
One of the prominent aspects of Bezos' personality is his passion for space. In his high school valedictorian speech, he talked about his dream of humanity living in settlements orbiting the Earth, turning the planet into a giant nature preserve. In his opinion, this is how we save humanity from climate change.
This passion for space lasted into adulthood, and he ended up founding the space company called Blue Origin. Making his dream a reality with tiny baby steps, Blue Origin touts the mission statement "We're committed to building a road to space so our children can build the future." Bezos devotes one day a week to running this space-focused business.
The number of innovative interests Jeff Bezos has are endless. With Amazon, The Washington Post and Blue Origin, he already has a lot going on in his life — but he never seems to settle for what he already has.
Bezos plans to build a "10,000-year clock" at some point during his life. This contraption will have a "year hand" that moves forward once every 100 years. When 1,000 years have passed, the cuckoo will appear. It seems like an awful lot of trouble for something that he will never witness in his lifetime, but perhaps that’s the point. Above all, he spends a lot of time thinking about the long term.
Bezos has earned the nickname "change junkie" by many. Does he obsessively collect spare change? No, the "change" refers to his constant need to adapt. He is a firm believer in adjusting to circumstances, embracing all that is new and welcoming change. In other words, keeping up with the times.
It's this mindset that has allowed him to look to the future and create things, like Amazon, that facilitate change in society. Whether you think those changes are good or bad, it's hard to deny their practicality in modern times. Bezos lives by the belief that resisting change only hinders innovation.
Lover of the Written Word
Despite promoting the use of e-books and Kindles, Jeff Bezos has a love of the written word in its physical form. Many say that he much prefers ink and paper to a glowing computer screen.
In fact, he loves writing so much that he banned the use of PowerPoint presentations at Amazon. Instead, employees are expected to write six-page papers any time they have a new idea to present. In his opinion, this promotes critical thinking over simplistic thinking. What do you think? Could you write essays for your boss? If you want to work at Amazon, you better start practicing!
So what is it like to work for Jeff Bezos? As with any well-known person, many varying accounts are out there describing his personality when it comes to work. Some commend his creative, inspiring attitude, while others claim he micromanages and berates employees.
Known for expecting employees to work long hours without complaining, Bezos believes in total dedication to the job. At the same time, some workers describe him as goofy and geeky and say he creates quirky rewards for employees who go above and beyond. One thing people can agree on is he possesses explosive energy and optimistic ambition.
Jeff Bezos' geeky side is one that many people enjoy. His jolly laugh has become something of a trademark, and a former employee describes him as a "geeky tinkerer." Thinking about how things work is undoubtedly a favorite activity of his, and his excitement over space and technology certainly earns him the geek label all by itself.
Another sign of his geekiness is what he chose to name the dog he owned when he started the company: Kamala. Kamala is the name of an obscure Star Trek character that only die-hard fans would know. Plenty of people see Bezos' geeky side as one of his most charming characteristics.
Jeff Bezos' religion is Christianity, although the exact denomination is not known. Mostly, he prefers to keep his religious beliefs private, instead advocating for respect and inclusion of all religions. He has also used his platform to speak out in favor of same-sex marriage.
All in all, he seems to be a pretty open-minded guy. With a father who came to the U.S. from Cuba, he also believes whole-heartedly in a multicultural America. Because he is known for embracing change, it makes sense that he is progressive and forward-thinking in other aspects of society. For Bezos, antiquated thinking is useless thinking.
Jeff Bezos and wife MacKenzie have three biological sons together and an adopted daughter from China. MacKenzie was by his side for the startup of Amazon, and they spent a total of 25 years together. Sadly, the couple recently finalized a divorce with a $38 billion settlement.
Bezos' mother and step-father are still together to this day. When Business Insider tracked down Bezos' biological father, he was the owner of a small bike shop and had no idea who Jeff Bezos was. Not only did he not remember his son's name, but up until that point, he had no idea he was the father of a mega-successful billionaire.
Forbes puts Jeff Bezos' net worth around $108 billion (the site updates in real time). He currently ranks number one on the Forbes 400 list, just above Bill Gates. That's certainly an impressive ranking and an amount of money that it’s hard to comprehend.
There's no doubt that his upbringing and unique personality played a role in getting him to where he is today. Not just anyone will quit a successful Wall Street job to pursue an unproven business venture. In the end, of course, it paid off for Bezos. He now enjoys wealth and power that most people could never imagine in the world today.