Last year Amazon’s revenue was $74 billion. So it’s fascinating to remember when the company was just 10 people…and a dream. Today I stumbled across a remarkable video on YouTube showing Jeff Bezos — the founder of Amazon — describing its early days, their shared struggles, and the one idea which kept them going.
The funniest part of the speech is when Jeff Bezos takes the stage, he jokes to the audience that his name is Garth Vegan. “I’m going to be speaking to you about choreography,” he continues, before launching into his story. But it is a different Bezos than we’re used to seeing. The speech was delivered 13 years ago, in 2001 — when the founder of Amazon was still a young man in his 30s…
Jeff remembers when his company wasn’t even called Amazon. Its original name was Cadabra, Inc — as in Abracadabra. But he changed his mind when a lawyer mistook its name for “Cadaver, Inc.” He knew he needed something better — because he was risking his career to take a chance on the promise of online shopping.
His wife was in the audience that day, and Jeff remembered that “She had married a relatively stable person — goofy, but relatively stable — working at a law firm.” When she’d married him, Jeff had a nice steady job at a Wall Street hedge fund, so “This was a hard decision…” In fact, most of Amazon’s original employees kept their day jobs while they spent their nights filling the orders that would come in to the company.
Their first “distribution center” that was just 400 square feet — about the size of a one-car garage — when one of the engineers said “I can’t figure out if this is incredibly optimistic — or hopelessly pathetic.” And Bezos didn’t know. There was no way to know how customers would respond. But I love the way Jeff Bezos ultimately came to his decision, using what he described as a “regret-minimization” framework. You project yourself to the age of 80, and then try to minimize the number of regrets you’ll have when you’re looking back over your life…
“If I go do this thing, and participate in this thing called the internet, that I genuinely believe is going to be a big deal — and if I fail, am I going to regret having tried and failed?” Jeff Bezos knew that the answer was no. And he also knew that he’d always regret it if he didn’t try. “I would always wonder, and it would haunt me…”
As Jeff spoke, he acknowledged that his parents were also in the audience that day — and they were also one of his web site’s very first supporters. He told the crowd they’d invested “a reasonably large fraction” of their life savings — over $300,000 — into their son’s dream. And it was pretty much faith. “My dad’s first question was… What’s the internet?!”
They weren’t betting on any grand vision, Bezos explains. They were betting on their son. And he’d also confessed to them at the time that there was at least a 70% chance that they were going to lose it all. But in the first 30 days, the site got orders from all 50 U.S. states — plus 45 other countries. They couldn’t handle the volume, and expanded quickly — into a 2,000-square-foot basement warehouse.
Its ceiling was only six feet high — and one of their employees was 6′ 2″, so he couldn’t stand in the room without tilting his head to the side! Bezos himself would drive the packages to a UPS shipping facility — tapping on the glass when he was let to beg them to let him drop off his shipment. And they’d package the orders together — on their knees on the cement floor. Bezos remembers his first insight at Amazon was we ought to be wearing knee pads. Although he credits another employee for coming up with an even better idea. What they really needed was packing tables…
Looking back on those early days, Bezos remembers those overloaded weeks as one of the luckiest things that ever happened them. Not the spike in orders, but the challenge itself, which they had to learn to accept. “It formed a culture of customer service — in every department, every single person in the company — because we had to work with our hands so close to the customers, making sure that those orders went out.”
“It really set up a culture that’s served us well, and that is our goal to be earth’s most customer-centric company.”
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