- Chip Somodevilla/Getty
When Amazon first launched in 1995 as a website that only sold books, founder Jeff Bezos had a vision for the company’s explosive growth and e-commerce domination.
He knew from the very beginning, he wanted Amazon to be “an everything store.”
In author Brad Stone’s 2013 book on the origins of Amazon, he paints a picture of the early days of the company and how it grew into the behemoth that it is today.
Jillian D’Onfro contributed to an earlier version of this story.
“Amazon” wasn’t the company’s original name.
- Amazon / Villages Web Design
Jeff Bezos originally wanted to give the company the magical sounding name “Cadabra.”
Amazon’s first lawyer, Todd Tarbert, convinced him that the name sounded too similar to “Cadaver,” especially over the phone.
Bezos also favored the name “Relentless.” If you visit Relentless.com today, guess where it navigates to…
He finally chose “Amazon” because he liked that the company would be named after the largest river in the world, hence the company’s original logo.
In the early days of Amazon, a bell would ring in the office every time someone made a purchase, and everyone would gather around to see if they knew the customer.
It only took a few weeks before the bell was ringing so frequently that they had to turn it off.
Also, Amazon got started out of Bezos’ garage and the servers that the company used required so much power that Bezos and his wife couldn’t run a hair dryer or a vacuum in the house without blowing a fuse.
In the first month of its launch, Amazon had already sold books to people in all 50 states and in 45 different countries.
Learn more about some of Amazon’s first employees here.
An obscure book about lichens saved Amazon from going bankrupt.
- Flickr / Jessamyn West
Book distributors required retailers to order ten books at a time, and Amazon didn’t need that much inventory yet (or have that much money).
So, the team discovered a loophole. Although the distributors required that Amazon ordered 10 books, the company didn’t need to receive that many. So, they would order one book they needed, and nine copies of an obscure lichen book, which was always out of stock.
In the early days, Bezos held meetings at Barnes & Noble
- Thomson Reuters
In the early days, Bezos, his wife MacKenzie, and their third employee, Shel Kaphan, would hold meetings in a local Barnes and Noble.
In 1996, Bezos met up with the owners of Barnes & Noble for dinner, and the execs said they admired Bezos but were going to launch a website soon that would crush Amazon. When that site did launch, one of the company’s founders, Len Riggio, wanted to call it Book Predator.
Jeff Bezos expected employees to work 60 hour weeks, at least. The idea of work-life balance didn’t exist.
One early employee worked so tirelessly over 8 months – biking back and forth from work in the very early morning and very late night – that he completely forgot about the blue station wagon that he’d parked near his apartment.
He never had time to read his mail, and when he finally did, he found a handful of parking tickets, a notice that his car had been towed, a few warnings from the towing company, and a final message that his car had been sold at an auction.
Amazon’s first crazy Christmas season came in 1998.
The company was dramatically under-staffed. Every employee had to take a graveyard shift in the fulfillment centers to meet orders. They would bring their friends and family and would often sleep in their cars before going to work the next day.
After that, Amazon vowed that it would never have a shortage of labor to meet demand for the holidays again, which is why Amazon hires so many seasonal workers today.
When eBay launched onto the scene, Amazon tried to build its own auction site to compete.
- Business Insider
The idea flopped, but Bezos himself loved it.
He purchased a $40,000 skeleton of an Ice Age cave bear and displayed it in the lobby of the company’s headquarters. Next to it was a sign that read “Please Don’t Feed The Bear.” It’s still there today.
Bezos liked to move incredibly fast, which often created chaos, especially in Amazon’s distribution centers.
Amazon suffered extreme growing pains in the late 90s and early 2000s. Facilities would get shut down for hours because of system outages, piles of products would sit around ignored by workers, and there was no preparation for new product categories.
When the kitchen category was first introduced, knives without protective packaging would come hurtling down conveyor shoots. It was extremely dangerous.
In early 2002, Bezos introduced the concept of “two-pizza teams” to Amazon.
- Melia Robinson
Employees would be organized into groups of fewer than ten people – the perfect number to be satisfied by two pizzas for dinner – and were expected to work autonomously. Teams had to set strict goals, with equations to measure their success. Those equations were called “fitness functions,” and tracking those goals is how Bezos managed his teams.
“Communication is a sign of dysfunction,” Bezos said. “It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out a way for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.”
Many employees hated “two-pizza teams,” and especially the stress of the fitness functions.
Dissatisfied customers can email Jeff Bezos directly and he’ll forward the message along to the right person — with one dreaded addition: “?”
- Drew Angerer/Getty Images
“When Amazon employees get a Bezos question mark e-mail, they react as though they’ve discovered a ticking bomb. They’ve typically got a few hours to solve whatever issue the CEO has flagged and prepare a thorough explanation for how it occurred, a response that will be reviewed by a succession of managers before the answer is presented to Bezos himself. Such escalations, as these e-mails are known, are Bezos’s way of ensuring that the customer’s voice is constantly heard inside the company.”
Before Google had “Street View,” Amazon had “Block View.”
- Anton Tang
In 2004, Amazon launched a search engine, A9.com.
The A9 team started a project called Block View, a visual Yellow Pages, which would pair street-level photographs of stores and restaurants with their listings in A9’s search results. On a budget of less than $100,000, Amazon flew photographers to twenty major cities where they rented vehicles to start taking pictures of restaurants.
Amazon eventually dropped Block View in 2006, and Google didn’t start Street View until 2007.
Amazon employees were encouraged to use “primal screams” as therapeutic release during the high-tension holiday season.
Amazon hires seasonal workers, but the holiday season is still extremely stressful for the logistics teams.
In the early 2000s, Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s operations manager, would let any person or team who accomplished a significant goal close their eyes, lean back, and yell into the phone at him at the top of their lungs. Wilke told Brad Stone that some of the primal screams nearly blew out his speakers.
Working conditions in Amazon’s fulfillment centers have long been notoriously bad and there are some hilarious stories about unhappy workers “rebelling.”
Once, an employee who was preparing to quit hopped onto the fulfillment center’s conveyor belt and rode it merrily through the entire facility.
One of the wildest stories, however, may be from 2006 and it involves a temporary employee at a Kansas fulfillment center:
He would show up at the start of his shift and leave at the end of it, but he never logged any hours in between. It took at least a week for anyone to discover what was going on: He had tunneled out a den inside an huge pile of empty wooden pallets. Completely out of view, he had used Amazon products to make a bed, ripped pictures from Amazon books to line his make-shift walls, and stolen Amazon food to snack on. When he was discovered, he was (unsurprisingly) fired.
“Fiona” was the original code-name for Amazon’s Kindle.
- Mario Tama/Getty Images
The Kindle got its original name from a book called “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson.
It was a novel set in the future about an engineer who steals a rare interactive textbook to give to his knowledge-hungry daughter, Fiona. The team that worked on Kindle prototypes thought of that fictitious textbook as the template for the device that they were working on.
The team eventually begged Bezos to keep the name Fiona, but he decided on another suggestion, Kindle, because it evoked the idea of starting a fire.
Jeff Bezos was a demanding boss and could explode at employees. Rumor has it, he hired a leadership coach to help him tone it down.
- Mike Segar/Reuters
Bezos was known for his explosive or sarcastic responses to employees if he wasn’t happy with what they reported to him. It was said that he had hired a leadership coach to try to keep his harsh evaluations in check.
Here’s an excerpt from Brad Stone’s the book:
“During one memorable meeting, Bezos reprimanded [Diane] Lye and her colleagues in his customarily devastating way, telling them they were stupid and saying they should ‘come back in a week when you figure out what you’re doing.’ Then he walked a few steps, froze in mid-stride as if something had suddenly occurred to him, wheeled around, and added, ‘But great work everyone.'”