Each year, Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, writes to his shareholders, attaching the same, three-page mailshot he first sent them following the company's stock market flotation. "Amazon.com passed many milestones in 1997," the historic missive opens.
"But this is Day 1 for the internet …"
In April this year, with Amazon's global sales soaring above $61bn (£39.7bn) and climbing, Bezos again composed his annual letter. The world's largest online retailer, he reflected, was once again expanding in multiple directions – Kindle tablets, video streaming and cloud computing, to name a few.
"Our approach remains the same," investors were nevertheless told. "And it's still Day 1."
It is a hungry, single-minded mantra that sets the tone at Amazon, and helps set the business apart from many of the digital innovators, such as Apple and Google, with which it is frequently bracketed. Bezos proudly retains a blinkered focus on discovering, building and dominating new markets, and not on keeping pace with competitors or chasing short-term profits. The profits, he says, will follow. Some day.
In the meantime, Amazon – which started out in books, CDs and DVDs – has expanded its listings to many millions of items. It is piloting moves into clothing and grocery delivery as well as experimenting with TV programming.
It is a leap of faith that US investors have been delighted to take, pushing the business to a stock market value of $137bn (£89bn) – three times that of Britain's largest retailer, Tesco. This is despite Amazon failing to turn a consistent profit for years, including the posting of a small loss last year of $39m. The mega-returns have repeatedly been put off by Bezos's multibillion-pound investments in new technologies such as Kindle, and in a rapidly expanding network of warehouses sprouting up around the globe.
Though he rarely exhibits quite the level of showmanship of other digital business leaders, Bezos – who still owns a fifth of the business – has arguably built an even more faithful following on Wall Street.
As a result, he now has an estimated fortune of more than $25bn, putting him in the top 20 richest billionaires in the world, according to Forbes magazine.
The hunger for expansion and market domination that Bezos has instilled has led to accusations from smaller high street chains, book publishers, online traders and warehouse staff that Amazon is growing into a monster, choking off diversity and demanding unreasonable terms from partners, suppliers and workers. Some politicians in the US and Europe are also frustrated with the way Amazon has been able to lower its tax liabilities.
Bezos, who calls his staff "Amazonians", or even "missionaries", has largely ignored or brushed aside criticisms. He is happy, however, to let the impression linger that Amazon is not always the easiest place to work.
"Our culture is 'friendly and intense'," he has said. "But if push comes to shove we'll settle for 'intense'." His business philosophy borrows from the Japanese kaizen concept of seeking continual improvement, credited with helping build great success at Toyota for many years.
But one former senior Amazonian has described the result as "a pretty brutal Darwinian atmosphere". Another former insider, the programmer and blogger Steve Yegge, has claimed that Bezos, on occasion, jokingly suggested staff – working in what Yegge called "dirt-smeared cube farms" – should be paying the Amazon founder for the privilege of working for his business.
Yegge's colourful 2011 blog posting – which he claimed was made public by accident – cast the Amazon boss as "Dread Pirate Bezos", spitting out instructions that saw his acolytes "scramble like ants being pounded with a rubber mallet". "Bezos is super-smart; don't get me wrong," wrote Yegge. "He just makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies."
While Amazon has upset some traditional high street retailers and suppliers, its web platform has been enthusiastically embraced by an army of small-scale entrepreneurs, most of them starting out, like Bezos, as traders working from bedrooms or garages. Last year there were more than two million such entrepreneurs selling millions of product lines on Amazon, accounting for two in five items bought on the site.
Despite owing much of his initial success to book sales – not to mention being married an author, MacKenzie Bezos – he was among the first to predict the death of the printed word, to be succeeded by ebooks, read on products such as Amazon's Kindle.
"I don't know how long it will take," he has said. "But the physical book really has had a 500-year run. It's probably the most successful technology ever. It's hard to come up with things that have had a longer run … Given how much change there has been everywhere else, what's remarkable is how stable the book has been for so long. But no technology, not even one as elegant as the book, lasts forever."
The smiling arrow, running beneath the Amazon logo, is said to signal Bezos's ambition to sell everything imaginable. Books, which provided Amazon's founder with his first selling opportunity, were just a launchpad. In 1994, he spotted an opportunity to take orders on the internet and dispatch these easily portable products by mail. Quitting a promising career in finance in New York, Bezos started trading, backed by a $300,000 investment from his adopted father. His site officially launched on 16 July 1995, taking $12,438 in the first week.
Quickly looking for other wares to sell, Amazon raised funds by floating on the New York stock exchange two years later, one of a rush of dotcom companies seemingly full of promise. But when in 2000 the tech stock bubble burst, Amazon's share price fell dramatically, from $107 to $7. To Bezos, this was confirmation that fickle investor sentiment was best ignored. It is a conviction that holds today, after Amazon stock has more than recovered. Shares now change hands for $300 each.
Outside of Amazon, several of Bezos's investment interests have reflected his personal passions, notably his interest in space travel. In 2000 he secretly set up space rocket company Blue Origin, with launch facilities in Texas. News of the project leaked two years later and this year Bezos reportedly began talking to fellow billionaire space enthusiast Richard Branson about combining some opportunities with his Virgin Galactic space flight firm.
Bezos is also involved in a more philanthropic project to recover and restore enginesrecover engines from the Atlantic Ocean, jettisoned by the Apollo 11 spacecraft that took Neil Armstrong to the moon. Other more commercial prospects within Bezos Expeditions, his private investment portfolio, include stakes in dotcom startups, including a holding in Twitter.
In April, Bezos increased his stake in Business Insider, a technology business news site. The site is run by founder Henry Blodget, a former Merrill Lynch analyst banned from Wall Street and fined $2m following allegations that he had encouraged investors to buy dotcom stocks his private emails suggested he thought "junk" or "crap".
Since reinventing himself in online news, Blodget, who has been close to Bezos for many years, suggested there remains little value in journalists seeking to break news.
"If someone has a scoop, we post it four minutes later," he said.
Journalists at the Washington Post will doubtless be hoping Bezos does not intend to adopt a similar attitude, now he has become the proprietor of one of the US's most respected newspaper operations.
Name Jeffrey Preston Bezos
Born Alberquerque, New Mexico, 12 January 1964
Education High school in Houston, Texas, where his academic achievements marked him out as among the most gifted children in the state. BSE in electrical engineering and computer science from Princeton.
Career 1986, director of technology at IT firm Fitel; 1988, ran IT programmes at Bankers Trust, becoming vice-president two years later. Later joined hedge fund DE Shaw & Co as vice-president. In 1994 he quit to set up Amazon.com
High point Taking $12,438 of orders in Amazon's first week of trading.
What he says "[Amazon's] Value will be a direct result of our ability to extend and solidify our current market leadership position. The stronger our market leadership, the more powerful our economic model." (1997 letter to shareholders)
What they say "He just makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies." Steve Yegge, a programmer who formerly worked for Amazon.
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