Jeff Bezos: Bio: An Eye On The Future

Jeff Bezos merely wants to be Earth's biggest seller of everything

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And that's what ultimately led to books. There weren't any huge mail-order book catalogs simply because a good catalog would contain thousands, if not millions of listings. The catalog would need to be as big as a phone book--too expensive to mail. That, of course, made it perfect for the Internet, which is the ideal container for limitless information.

Bezos needed to learn the book business fast. Fate was his handmaiden: the American Booksellers Association's annual convention was set for the very next day in Los Angeles. He flew out and spent the weekend roaming the aisles and taking a crash course in the business. Everything he learned encouraged him. The two big wholesalers for books were Ingram and Baker & Taylor. "So I went to their booths and told them I was thinking of doing this." Books, it turns out, are among the most highly databased items on the planet. The wholesalers even had CD-ROMs listing them. It seemed to Bezos as if all the stuff "had been meticulously organized so it could be put online."

Bezos realized he desperately wanted to start his own online bookstore. First he talked it over with MacKenzie. She too had graduated from Princeton, but six years after him; they met at Shaw, where she worked as a researcher. An English-literature major at the university, she had been novelist Toni Morrison's assistant and now had begun a novel of her own. MacKenzie was all for the adventure.

Next Bezos went to Shaw, who said he was sorry to lose such a talented executive but fully understood Bezos' desire to strike out on his own. He cautioned him to make sure, however, that this was what he truly wanted to do. Bezos decided to spend the next two days recalculating the risks.

In his typically analytic way, Bezos cast his decision in what he calls the "regret-minimization framework." He imagined that he was 80 years old and looking back at his life. And suddenly everything became clear to him. When he was 80, he'd never regret having missed out on a six-figure Christmas bonus; he wouldn't even regret having tried to build an online business and failed. "In fact, I'd have been proud of that, proud of myself for having taken that risk and tried to participate in that thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be such a big deal. It was like the wild, wild West, a new frontier. And I knew that if I didn't try this, I would regret it. And that would be inescapable."

Bezos figured that the average Net start-up had a 1 in 10 chance of success; he gave himself a 30% chance. "That's actually a very liberating expectation, expecting to fail," he says. That's exactly what he told his first investors--family and friends: "I think there's a 70% chance you're going to lose all your money, so don't invest unless you can afford to lose it."

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