The everything store

An extract from Brad Stone’s book on the founder of e-commerce platform, Amazon 

Published 7 years ago on Jul 01, 2016 3 minutes Read

In early 1995, Bezos’s parents, Jackie and Mike Bezos, invested $100,000 in Amazon. Exxon had covered most of the couple’s living expenses when Mike worked in Norway, Colombia, and Venezuela, so the couple had a considerable nest egg and were willing to spend a good portion of it on their oldest child. “We saw the business plan, but all of that went over our heads to a large extent,” says Mike Bezos. “As corny as it sounds, we were betting on Jeff.” Bezos told his parents there was a 70% chance they could lose it all. “I want you to know what the risks are, because I still want to come home for Thanksgiving if this doesn’t work,” he said.

Amazon was a family affair in another way. MacKenzie, an aspiring novelist, became the company’s first official accountant, handling the finances, writing the checks, and helping with hiring. For coffee breaks and meetings, the employees would go to a nearby Barnes & Noble, an irony that Bezos later mentioned often in speeches and interviews. There was little urgency to their efforts, at least at first. Kaphan recalls showing up at the Bellevue house early one morning in October, only to have Bezos declare that they were all going to take the day off to go hiking. “The weather was changing and the days were getting short,” Kaphan says. “We were all new to the area and hadn’t seen much of it.” Bezos, MacKenzie, and Kaphan drove seventy miles to Mount Rainier and spent the day wandering amid patches of snow on the majestic volcano that, on clear days, dominates the Seattle skyline.

Later that fall, they hired Paul Davis, a British-born programmer who had been on staff at the University of Washington’s computer science and engineering department. Davis’s colleagues were so dubious of his move to an as-yet- not launched online bookstore that they passed around a coffee can to collect a few dollars for him in case it didn’t work out. Davis joined Kaphan and Bezos in the garage, working on SPARC station servers from Sun Microsystems, machines that resembled pizza boxes and drew so much power they repeatedly blew fuses in the home. Eventually they had to run orange extension cords from other rooms to put the computers on different circuits, making it impossible to run a hair dryer or vacuum cleaner in the house.“At first it didn’t really have a lot of the energy one stereotypically associates with a startup,” says Davis, who biked to Bellevue each day wearing Gore-Tex socks over the cuffs of his trousers. “We were pre-startup. It was just Shel, myself, and Jeff in an office, sitting around a table with a whiteboard and discussing how to divide the programming work.”

One of their driving goals was to create something superior to the existing online bookstores, including Books.com, the website of the Cleveland-based bookstore, BookStacks Unlimited. “As crazy as it might sound, it did appear that the first challenge was to do something better than these other guys,” Davis says. “There was competition already. It wasn’t as if Jeff was coming up with something completely new.”

During that time, the name Cadabra lived on, serving as a temporary placeholder.But in late October of 1994, Bezos pored through the A section of the dictionary and had an epiphany when he reached the word Amazon. Earth’s largest river; Earth’s largest bookstore. He walked into the garage one morning and informed his colleagues of the company’s new name. He gave the impression that he didn’t care to hear anyone’s opinion on it, and he registered the new URL on November 1, 1994. “This is not only the largest river in the world, it’s many times larger than the next biggest river. It blows all other rivers away,” Bezos said.