Thursday, Apr. 30, 2009

Jeff Bezos

Genuine pioneers don't stop after just one discovery or innovation. They are driven to build on their accomplishments and to follow them into new frontiers. Jeff Bezos, 45, the founder of — and my Seattle-area neighbor — is a great example of one of those insatiable pioneers of business and technology.

He was one of the very first entrepreneurs to make a big bet on electronic commerce, quitting a promising career on Wall Street to move west and start Amazon when a lot of people didn't yet even know what the Internet was. He understood from the beginning that he wasn't just inventing a new and more efficient way for people to find books they wanted to buy but that he was also helping to define a fundamentally new way to conduct a consumer retail business. Indeed, Jeff's idea was just as revolutionary as when Sears, Roebuck started its mail-order catalog business a century earlier.

Pioneers are also survivors. You have to have a lot of respect for how Jeff's vision and determination carried his young company through the dotcom bust early in the decade. While other e-businesses flamed out in spectacular fashion, Amazon held steady and eventually broadened its inventories and lines of business far beyond what even the largest retailers can boast of offering.

Lately, Jeff's pioneering spirit has taken him in some new directions. He would like nothing more than to be the first to provide a cheap and safe way for anyone to fly into space and started a company called Blue Origin to devise the technology. That's pretty cool, but his biggest legacy of all might be more down to earth — a modest-looking white-and-silver digital device called the Kindle. This electronic book is Jeff's brainchild and may well revolutionize not only how we acquire books and periodicals but also how bookworms like me actually read them. That would put him in the same ranks as Johannes Gutenberg.

Gates is a co-chair and trustee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the chair of Microsoft