(8 of 10)
"When he called and said he wanted to sell books on the Internet, we said, 'The Internet? What's that?'" remembers Mike Bezos, who initially questioned his son's sanity when he heard him say he was quitting his cushy job to start a company that would probably fail. But this was Jeff, after all, and his parents trusted him and believed in him every moment of his life. In the end, "we talked about it for two minutes," says Jackie Bezos. They ponied up $300,000, a huge chunk of the money they had saved for retirement. "We didn't invest in Amazon," says his mother, "we invested in Jeff." The ROJ--return on Jeff--was substantial. Today, as 6% owners of the company, they're billionaires.
On July 4 weekend, Jeff and MacKenzie flew out to Fort Worth, Texas, bid goodbye to his family and headed for Seattle--a city near one of the two big book wholesalers and chockfull of the kinds of Net-savvy people he'd need to hire. MacKenzie drove a 1988 Chevy Blazer that Mike Bezos donated, while Jeff tapped out a business plan on a laptop. On that road trip West, somewhere near the Grand Canyon, Bezos called a lawyer who specialized in start-ups. What do you plan to call your company, the lawyer asked. Bezos liked the sound of Abracadabra, but the word was a little long. "So I said, 'Cadabra,'" he recalls. "Cadaver?" repeated the lawyer. A few weeks later, Bezos changed the name to Amazon Inc., after the seemingly endless South American river.
The most important person Bezos hired was probably the first: Shel Kaphan, a brilliant programmer in Santa Clara, Calif., and veteran of a dozen start-ups, many of them, in fact, failures. Bezos persuaded him, over the course of a few months, to join his company in Seattle.
His "company" was headquartered in a modest two-bedroom home that Jeff and MacKenzie rented in Bellevue, a Seattle suburb. They converted the garage into a work space and brought in three Sun workstations. Extension cords snaked from every available outlet in the house to the garage, and a black hole gaped through the ceiling--this was where a potbellied stove had been ripped out to make more room. To save money, Bezos went to Home Depot and bought three wooden doors. Using angle brackets and 2-by-4s, he hammered together three desks, at a cost of $60 each. (That frugality continues at Amazon to this day; every employee sits behind a door desk.) MacKenzie agreed to work with the crew a few days a week, helping out with accounting and interviewing--the latter chore often conducted, cheekily, in a nearby Barnes & Noble.
By June 1995 a rudimentary website had been created on a hidden site www.amazon.com:99 now defunct), and 300 friends and family members were sworn to secrecy and invited to crash-test it. "The first time I saw the site, I said to myself, 'Wow, this is it,'" recalls Shaw. It was simple, functional and wonderful. Kaphan's code was incredibly elegant and streamlined, allowing pages to be delivered without delay.
On July 16, 1995, Amazon.com opened its site to the world. Bezos simply told all 300 beta testers to spread the word. During the first 30 days, without any press, Amazon sold books in all 50 states and 45 other countries. "Within the first few days, I knew this was going to be huge," says Bezos. "It was obvious that we were onto something much bigger than we ever dared to hope."