Late this July, Jeff Bezos became the world’s richest man when Amazon’s stock shot past $1,082 per share. The surge of the world’s largest ecommerce company’s shares placed its founder Bezos’ notional wealth at $92 billion, surpassing Microsoft mogul Bill Gates’ fortune. But the joy, if that, was short-lived as Amazon’s shares tanked 3% on poor results, restoring the relative status of the fortunes of Seattle’s two richest men.
Truth be told, Bezos, 53, has shown no particular hunger to become the world’s richest. Instead, he has shown vision that has led some to believe he is the next Steve Jobs, and a worthy rival to Elon Musk. He has serious plays out in the world of business to be considered – pioneering both ecommerce and cloud computing to enormous scale, reviving print media’s fortunes via acquisition of the iconic Washington Post, reimagining brick-and-mortar via new stores as much as the $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods and exploring otherworldly planets through his Blue Origin.
Just how did Bezos come to be?
By most reckoning, Amazon’s founder had a “normal” childhood. He was born in 1964 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Jacklyn and Ted Jorgensen, who today runs a bicycle store in Arizona. The couple split a year later and Jacklyn married Miguel “Mike” Bezos, a Cuban immigrant, who adopted the four-year-old Jeff. Bezos was 10 when he learned of his real father, but appears to have given the fact scant attention.
Like many boys, Bezos loved to tinker with stuff. In an early sign of his ingenuity, he once took apart his cot with a screwdriver. Over many summers, the young Bezos would repair windmills, lay pipes, repair pumps and castrate bulls in his grandparents’ ranch in Texas, and even work at McDonald’s. He was also deeply into science and is believed to have designed a hovercraft and a robot, besides building an electric alarm to keep his siblings away from his room. An early sign of entrepreneurship was glimpsed when he successfully ran a camp called the Dream Institute where kids lined up to pay $600 apiece to participate.
In college, Bezos studies computer science and engineering at Princeton University. On graduation, he picked a startup called Fitel for his first job, rejecting offers from computing giants like Intel and Bell Labs. He later joined hands with CNET founder Halsey Minor in starting a news-by-fax service.
Bezos found his true calling when he quit the Wall Street firm D.E. Shaw to start Amazon, leveraging the growing popularity and reach of the internet to sell books online. In its first month, the online marketing platform had customers in 50 states and 45 different countries. Bezos took Amazon public in 1997, in just about three years since launch.
Amazon still wasn’t exactly seen as a brilliant move, with Borders and Barnes & Noble still ruling the book market. Even though the financial analyst Henry Blodget, famously, placed big bets on Amazon’s stock, there were skeptics too. Notably, a Lehman Brothers analyst by the name of Ravi Suria reckoned the losing ecommerce firm would simply run itself into debt.
Bezos, of course, has had the last laugh. He has built Amazon into a behemoth is worth nearly $500 billion and ranked third by value among American corporations. Amazon has expanded globally. It sells just about everything and delivers in as little as a couple of hours.
Like many truly great entrepreneurs, Bezos has demonstrated great ambition, vision and timing. He developed the Kindle e-reader, transforming the book market as much as the way we read books. He ventured into cloud computing when even the world’s biggest technology companies had merely dipped their toes. Today, Amazon Web Services is a clear leader in the all-pervasive technology, and rings in nearly $12 billion in annual revenues.
Today, Bezos is keenly watched for his bets on physical stores, whose “death” has hastened by his own Amazon. He has two things at play here. One is the relatively recent acquisition of Whole Foods, a large American supermarket chain touting healthy food. The other is a concept store called Amazon Go, which pushes technology’s frontier at the marketplace. Go is an 1,800 square foot store, with no human attendants. It is restricted to Amazon’s employees as the company tests advanced technology that enables shoppers to simply pick up stuff and walk away.
Similarly, Bezos’s hand is seen in the revival of the Washington Post, which he bought in 2013 for $250 million. He has already strengthened technology at the Post, building one of the best content management systems (CMS) in the industry, and strategically combining the strengths of print and digital to revitalize the media, which has suffered huge financial damage at the hands of Google and Facebook.
Bezos has ploughed over $500 billion into Blue Origin, a space-exploration company that aims to enable manned flights. Focusing on suborbital and orbital flights, it has built the New Shepard reusable booster vehicle and successfully performed multiple launches. A manned launch is scheduled for 2018. Blue Origin also builds rocket engines it sells to other companies.
The Bezos Scorecard
1994: Founded Amazon.com as an online bookseller
1998: Bezos was among the earliest investors in Google, putting in an initial $250,000 in his individual capacity
1999: Named Person of the Year by Time magazine
2000: Founded Blue Origins to develop technology for space flights
2006: Founded the cloud computing platform Amazon Web Services, which in 2017 clocks nearly $12 billion in revenue
2005: Established Bezos Expeditions, a family office to drive venture investments. Notable early bet was Twitter. Bezos is also an individual investor in Airbnb
2007: Unveiled the e-reader Kindle, which by 2010 helped ebooks overtook traditional books in sales on Amazon.com
2013: Bought The Washington Post for $250 million in cash in his individual capacity. Bezos is also an investor in the digital media company Business Insider, via Bezos Expeditions
2016: Opened the Amazon Go, an unmanned concept store in which shoppers can pick up whatever they want and walk out, with technology automatically carrying out the billing
2017: World’s richest man, briefly overtaking Microsoft mogul Bill Gates on a spike in Amazon shares on July 27