Amazon's Bezos: Internet's Ultimate Cult Figure
Seattle Times Technology Reporter
Jeff Bezos is snapping a picture of visitors, part of a daily ritual he keeps. Someday, the snapshots will help the happy-go-lucky billionaire chronicle the fairy tale that is unfolding all around him.
Bezos' life these days is one long Kodak moment.
He's not the only one noticing.
Magazines and newspapers around the world are focusing their cameras on Bezos, the 35-year-old founder and chief executive of Internet retailer Amazon.com. Industry watchers call him a new world pioneer who oversees the rise of one of the Web's largest book, music and video sellers. Among techies, Bezos joins the ranks of those with first-name recognition - Bill, Paul, and now Jeff.
The self-described goofball has become a billionaire seven times over while heading a company that has lost millions of dollars and is proudly committed to losing millions more.
Despite this money-burning strategy, Wall Street investors flock to his company, vesting Amazon.com with twice the value of Sears, a long profitable icon of American retailing.
Sure, the Internet made billionaires of Yahoo! Web site founders Jerry Yang and David Filo. Marc Andreessen, previously of Netscape Communications, became the boy wonder of the Web with his Internet browsing software.
But Bezos has emerged as the Internet's ultimate cult figure, one whose personal wealth and celebrity climbs higher even as the company's losses deepen.
Everyone wants to be The Next Jeff Bezos. Everyone wants to
build The Next Amazon.com. Bezos not only lives the Internet fairy-tale - he created it.
A lot to laugh about
Bezos can't hold still or stop giggling during a photo shoot despite months of practice so far as the vaunted cover boy.
Instead he is collapsing into his trademark laughter, heard nationwide during a "60 Minutes II" interview, repeated on CNBC and even recognized by a bystander walking near Bezos on a New York City street. His laugh is a whole-body noise that his mother says "starts at his little toe and works its way up."
He does not need much to provoke him. In fact, he laughs so frequently it seems trained more to his internal sense of rhythm than to the conversation at hand.
And why not? Who in the world has more reason to laugh than Jeff Bezos?
Bezos has become the king of dot-commerce while maintaining the humor of the court jester.
"He's a combination of a technological visionary, a steely eyed businessman, but also he's sort of a goofball," said David Risher, senior vice president of Amazon.com. "For five minutes he's blowing you away with this powerful vision, eyes locked on you. And then he'll say something totally goofy and you say, `Is this guy for real?' "
The boy from Texas has posed for magazines from BusinessWeek to Vanity Fair. Fortune magazine named him the second richest man under 40. He's been called the "most innovative e-commerce (retail) executive - the single smartest person in online retailing" by Industry Standard magazine, which follows the Internet economy.
"That was one of the easier choices," said Jonathan Weber, editor-in-chief of Industry Standard. "He's a really young, really smart guy who had a big idea and the nerve and will to go and pull it off."
Bezos has become so famous that three people - in Wisconsin, Seattle and Iowa - have already snapped up the Web site addresses of www.jeffbezos.com, www.jeffbezos.net, and www.jeffbezos.org to either one day sell to Bezos at a premium or give to the multibillionaire, with the hope of making a profitable business introduction.
This is a man who has become such a figure of popular culture that a desk he fashioned out of a door in Amazon.com's earliest days fetched bids as high as $30,100 from people wanting to buy it off the Amazon.com auctions site. The winner was his mother.
Even a used hotel bathrobe that Bezos bought, (didn't steal, he points out) and wore once netted 24 bids and $47.
Maybe someday it will be a collector's item, maybe it won't, said David Flintom, the bidder - and former Amazon.com employee - who bought the robe. It's still sitting in the bag Bezos stuffed it in. But at least Flintom got to meet Bezos after working there for several months, he said.
"He was hilarious," Flintom said. "He pulled out a camera and said, `Can I take a picture of you and the robe?' "
Topping it all off, another pop culture icon, Oprah Winfrey, is counting on Bezos for help on using the Internet. Bezos will teach the talk show host the how-to's of participating in Internet auctions for a show on the new Oxygen cable network. At the same time, Winfrey will auction her personal items off the Amazon.com site.
Amazon.com wasn't always the king of the Web and didn't always have a castle for an office building.
Rather, the company was born in Bezos' Bellevue garage in 1994, opening its virtual bookstore a year later with fewer than a dozen employees.
Bezos the chief executive doubled as Bezos the warehouse worker. Meanwhile, he courted investors and hand-picked top executives to join the fledgling company.
Amazon.com grew at a strong clip, becoming the top bookseller on the Internet, and in 1997 it issued a well-received public offering. But the little upstart would not stand alone for long and was even referred to by one analyst as Amazon.toast. Others, including the giant bookstore chain Barnes & Noble would soon recognize the threat from cyberspace.
Competitors, however, have yet to draw a bead on Bezos and Amazon.com. The company's ability to steal customers and devastate traditional retailers has even coined a new verb - "to be Amazoned." It's always in the passive voice.
Soon more kinds of stores would learn about being Amazoned. In 1998, Amazon.com added compact discs to its offerings to customers. The move signaled the beginning of a meteoric expansion that has yet to end.
In the past year, the company has added videos, toys, consumer electronics, free Internet-based greeting cards and an auctions site, allowing sellers to connect with buyers. It either bought or invested in other Internet companies, extending its reach to pets accessories, prescription drugs and home-delivered groceries.
In four years, the company gained more than 4,000 employees, seven warehouses around the country and took over the Seattle landmark Pacific Medical Center building.
With such immense growth, Amazon.com would come under the scrutiny of those who see the Internet retailer as either a wealth of potential or a load of hype. And in the middle stands Bezos, cast as either the visionary of a new economy or the hatcher of a giant Ponzi scheme.
Losses started mounting in the tens and hundreds of millions. Bezos preached a religion of sacrificing profits in the short-term to invest in the Internet's expansive opportunities now.
On television interviews, in calls to industry analysts, in speeches to his shareholders, he can mesmerize his audience with eloquent talk of a bright future for Amazon.com to dominate cyberspace if it just plants its flag now. What's good for customers will bring cash to shareholders. One of these years.
That strategy has become the crux of a holy war in the business world, a clash between the old-school moneymakers and the Internet cowboys. You either believe in Jeff Bezos or you don't.
Opportunities, not obstacles
The new American hero started on his first billion as a youth castrating bulls and fixing windmills on his grandfather's Cotulla, Texas, cattle ranch.
From age 4 through 15, Bezos spent nearly every summer learning ranching. He also developed the temperament and teachings that have helped guide his company.
"You become really self-sufficient when you work with the land," said Jackie Bezos, Jeff's mother. "One of the things (Jeff) learned is that there really aren't any problems without solutions. Obstacles are only obstacles if you think they're obstacles. Otherwise, they're opportunities."
After middle school, Bezos and his family moved from Houston to Pensacola, Fla., and then to Miami. Bezos developed a fascination for science and embarked on one venture after another, fashioning a future solar cooker, turning a Hoover vacuum into a hovercraft, building a robot.
"There was always something going on in our garage," said his mother. "His projects became more complex with age but unfortunately the garage never got any bigger."
At Princeton, Bezos studied electrical engineering and computer science. He had always loved science and showed himself to be a model older brother to siblings Christina and Mark, helping them build seismographs and other science projects that wowed teachers.
After graduation, he worked for a start-up and then for Bankers Trust before taking a job in 1990 with D.E. Shaw & Co., a Wall Street hedge fund.
While at Shaw, as a senior vice president responsible for looking into Internet strategies, he brainstormed a list of 20 items that could be sold over the Internet. He whittled it down to books, which seemed most suited to Internet sales - they're straightforward products to sell and ship. The basic idea for Amazon.com was born.
A novice billionaire
These days, it takes nearly 10 months and three reschedulings to land a crosstown interview with Bezos.
But the affable CEO is gracious in greeting visitors, extending an apology for previous cancellations. He makes up for it later, letting the interview run late and cutting into another appointment.
Standing outside the Amazon.com building, he empties his pockets as he prepares for the hated chore of having his photograph taken.
This takes a while.
He pulls out a camera. A blue Amazon.com "Jeff" badge. The world's most complicated beeper. A 2-inch-thick Swiss Army knife with more features than a James Bond 007 car.
He pauses on the knife, proudly displaying the fish scaler he doubts he'll ever use; the miniscrewdriver to fix sunglasses; the obligatory toothpick. He then plucks out the tool that is the coolest of all, he says - the tiny sliver of a ball point pen. It really works. Another long belly laugh.
Heading into the building, Bezos passes the elevator and takes the stairs to his sixth-floor office, panting only a little at the top. The technology wizard prefers the exercise.
His small office is cramped, overwhelmed by the table in the middle. An arsenal of water guns sits on his window shelf. As he says, he likes to promote an intense but fun atmosphere at Amazon.com. However, this is the cutthroat Internet business. "If necessary we'll settle for intense and competitive," he adds.
He throws a wary glance at the ever-present photographer. "We won't take any pictures while I'm like cleaning my nose or something," Bezos pleads.
Throughout the hour, Bezos' laugh comes easily, the way that others use punctuation.
Bezos repeats business themes that he has mentioned in annual shareholder meetings, on investor conference calls, in other stories. The themes don't change and the language is in fact remarkably consistent - it's the reaction by shareholders, Wall Street and the public that shifts or reverses.
The situation is the same for Bezos as a celebrity. He never wakes up feeling that he is all that different from his pre-billionaire days. But everyone else does.
"I've won a certain kind of lottery, it's a very odd kind of feeling," Bezos says. "It's not a normal thing so people are very curious about what it means, but I suspect that it means less than most people probably imagine. It's not as weird as you might think."
Bezos still tries to preserve some privacy for himself and his family, and his wife habitually declines interviews. But Bezos is still a novice at this billionaire business. When he starts to talk about his new Volvo, his spokeswoman warned him not to answer questions she considers too personal.
Months and months of practice, but still the billionaire is learning what it means to be in the public eye.
An occasional indulgence
What would you do with a billion dollars?
Actually, try $7.5 billion, the value of Bezos' stock holdings at the end of Friday.
But blips in the daily share price barely matter anymore to Bezos' overall wealth. It's that immense.
His life, however, hasn't changed hugely despite the Wall Street windfall.
He and his wife did buy a dream five-bedroom house in Medina. Sometimes, to save travel time, he charters a plane at his expense to fly him to his destination. He spends his money generously, hiring a van in New York City to drop off friends and family at a hotel when rain makes walking messy and taxis vanish. He doesn't scrutinize the prices on a menu so closely anymore.
Bezos retired his beat-up Honda for a new car. But the car is a Volvo, hardly the fantasy drive that some would choose if told they were worth several billion dollars.
He still drives himself to work, takes walks with his yellow labrador retriever, named after the "Star Trek" character Kamala, and frequents restaurants like Raga Cuisine of India on the Eastside. He doesn't go grocery shopping anymore, but that is more a reflection of Amazon.com's ownership stake in Bellevue-based Homegrocer.com, which delivers food to his door.
Bezos occasionally indulges whims. He bought a skeleton of an Ice Age cave bear off the Amazon.com auctions site for $40,000. He figures it will make a great lobby decoration at Amazon.com's headquarters. Maybe string some Christmas lights on it.
He's made some smaller purchases off the site as well, from $12 Elvis glasses to a $170 Boba Fett bust to an $11,100 autographed photo of Albert Einstein.
The same `goofy' Jeff
Bezos' success is no surprise to his family, although the fame part is a little tough to grasp.
"When your brother is all of a sudden one of these people who are being recognized, you look at him and try to imagine you're seeing him for the first time," said Mark Bezos. "(He's) Jeff Bezos the guy who started Amazon as opposed to Jeff Bezos the guy who used to make you tickle his feet."
Despite the celebrity, Bezos has remained the same loyal brother he has always been, Mark Bezos said. Last year, he recalled, Bezos and his wife flew to New York where Mark was running his first marathon.
At mile 25, Jeff Bezos started jogging alongside his brother for moral support, dropping off just short of the finish line.
And Bezos' fame has at least somewhat complicated the dotings of a mother.
Jackie Bezos recalled the first time she bought one of Jeff's creations. A first-grader at the time, Jeff had made an angel out of a wooden spool, paper doilies, pipe cleaners and pink polyester for a school crafts fair. He kept hurrying his mother to get to the fair early, worrying that someone else might buy it.
She made it, however, paying $1 for the angel that still adorns her annual Christmas tree. At the time, she didn't tell him what she was thinking, "Only mothers will be buying their own children's creations."
Later, with the desk, she would be proved wrong. She had to outbid such moneyed would-be buyers as Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr for the $30,100 desk that now holds her computer.
Celebrity and billions of dollars hasn't changed Bezos, said Joshua Weinstein, Bezos' high school friend who now works for the Portland Press Herald, owned by The Seattle Times Co. "The rich thing is cool but to me and to his other old friends, it's just Jeff," he said. "He is the same goofy cat that he was 20 years ago."
Risher agreed. "Just because a person wins the lottery doesn't fundamentally change a person," Risher said. "He may buy a new house, or a new car, but it doesn't change his attitude about the way the world works."
Bezos' biggest challenge
There's Time, industry watchers like to say, and then there's Internet Time.
On the Internet, "storefronts" go up in a day. Numbers of customers grow exponentially month after month. And companies like Amazon.com go from being an experiment in new world retailing to being the new American icon.
Time may prove to be Bezos' biggest challenge. Bezos the chief executive will need to maintain Amazon.com's momentum while keeping impatient, profit-hungry investors at bay.
The trick, too, is for Bezos the billionaire to grow into a role that carries public expectations as well as privilege. He hasn't yet done much philanthropic giving, but his wealth is still fairly new, and Bezos said he plans to select his charities carefully.
In general, the public and the media have treated Bezos kindly in his first year as a billionaire, said Weber, the Industry Standard editor. But that might not last.
"These things tend to go in cycles," he said. "I think that while he's a hero today, that status tends to be somewhat transient. His future fame and the degree to which he is admired will have to do with how Amazon does as a business.
"And furthermore how he personally deals with the fame and fortune he now has."
Helen Jung's phone message number is 206-464-2741. His e-mail address is email@example.com
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com
Age: 35 Sign: Capricorn Family: Lives in Medina with wife, Mackenzie, and 6-year-old yellow lab, Kamala (named after a minor "Star Trek" character). Favorite drink: Short nonfat latte "and unfortunately, I have like three of them a day." Favorite restaurants: Raga Cuisine of India, Dick's Favorite books: Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day," Frank Herbert's "Dune" Favorite bookstore: Elliott Bay Book Co. Neatest thing about his two-inch-thick Swiss Army Knife: The skinny ballpoint pen. Vision: To build "Earth's most customer-centric company." What Amazon.com won't sell: "We don't sell firearms and we don't sell living creatures." Everything else is presumably negotiable. Read recently: "Cryptonomicon" Saw recently: "Blair Witch Project" Items bought off the Amazon.com auctions site: Ty employee edition Beanie Baby, $2,800; Esso vintage trick-or-treat bag, $2; "Hal 9000" baseball cap, $7.99; First edition of Frank Herbert's "Dune," one of his favorite books, $50; National Lampoon's DOON (a parody of Dune), $21; "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" tickets for the May 22 showing at the Cinerama, $100. Items sold off the auction site: A red Swiss Army knife, including "tweezers, knife (of course), cork screw, toothpick (used infrequently), nail file," $56; Alanis Morissette compact disc, $10; "Dance with Teletubbies" video "Previously viewed . . . many, many, many times," $5. How fellow bidders/sellers rate him on the auction site: 4.8 out of 5 stars. ("Slow delivery, but item arrived" comment from a mildly disgruntled buyer lowered his rating.) Evidence that he's now a Seattleite: Wears polar fleece, doesn't use umbrellas. Greatest emotional satisfaction: "It is going to a party and having people who are Amazon.com customers come up to me and say, `Wow, you've really done something great that helps me.' " Greatest rational satisfaction: "When people come up to me and say, you know, I love your service in many ways but there's one thing you could do better. . . ."
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