1994: Make it so
American entrepreneur Jeff Bezos first registers his fledgling company under the name Cadabra Inc in July 1994. But troubles with the name (not least that people mishear it as "Cadaver") prompt a change. Bezos, a Star Trek fan, also considers calling the company MakeItSo.com, after Captain Picard's catchphrase in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and holds a party for the show's final episode in May 1994. On 1 November, however, he registers Amazon – because it begins with A, sounds exotic and, he mistakenly believes, is the longest river in the world (the Nile is actually more than 400km longer).
Key product: The complete Star Trek: The Next Generation. But see next year for the company's first sale.
1995: Amazon.com goes live
On 16 July 1995, the world gets its first glimpse of Amazon.com. Early orders tend to be for esoteric titles that are hard to locate in mainstream bookstores, while overseas orders (particularly from US military personnel) make up a large proportion of sales. The year's bestseller is indicative of early customers' interests – How to Set Up and Maintain a World Wide Web Site: The Guide for Information Providers by Lincoln D Stein.
Key product: Douglas Hofstadter's Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought, the first book ever sold on the site.
1996: Send us your freaks
Despite losing $52,000 in 1994, Amazon's fortunes begin to change, not least because of Bezos's bullish attitude. The new unofficial company motto becomes "Get Big Fast". Amazon introduces an 8% referral commission to sites that direct customers to Amazon to purchase a book. A front-page interview in the Wall Street Journal in May ("How Wall Street whiz finds niche selling books on the internet") proves a watershed moment. Daily orders double overnight, with revenues growing at 30-40% a month. To meet demand at the warehouse, an Amazon representative allegedly tells a temp agency to: "Send us your freaks."
Key product: Amazon's bestselling book of the year was a prescient one – David Siegel's Creating Killer Web Sites: The Art of Third-Generation Site Design.
1997: Just the facts
Barnes & Noble sues Amazon on 12 May 1997, alleging that Amazon's claim to be "the world's largest bookstore" is false. Undeterred, on 15 May 1997, Amazon announces its stock market launch, offering shares at $18 and raising $54m. The company sees a 900% growth in annual revenues and Bezos officially becomes a multimillionaire. With Amazon now approaching $60m in sales annually, Bezos instigates a huge infrastructural overhaul to cope with the fact that Amazon is clearly Getting Big Fast.
Key product: Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, becomes the first book that is not a web design guide to top the site's annual list of bestsellers.
1998: Expand or bust
Amazon's global ambition continues with the acquisition of Bookpages.co.uk, a UK online book retailer, which becomes Amazon UK on 15 October 1998. Exchange.com and Germany's Telebuch are also bought up and the relentless expansion continues into product areas too, with the company looking beyond books. In January, it adds digital rights management-free music to its list of offerings for the first time, as well as buying IMDB.com. The year's most significant acquisition reveals the scope of Bezos's ambitions: he hires Walmart's vice-president of distribution, Jimmy Wright. Asked what sort of products he will be charged with distributing, Wright is told by Bezos: "I don't know. Just design something that will handle everything."
Key product: The bestselling album of Amazon's first year as a music retailer is U2's compilation album The Best of 1980-1990, beating Jewel, Celine Dion and Alanis Morissette.
1999: Man of the Year
Another watershed moment as Jeff Bezos is named Time magazine's "person of the year" in its December issue. Announcing on its cover that "E-commerce is changing the way the world shops", Time identifies Bezos as the one person who more than any other has been responsible for – and has most taken advantage of – this phenomenon. In another bullish statement of intent, Amazon is granted the patent for "1-Click" ordering , and a month later it files a patent infringement lawsuit against Barnes & Noble for offering a 1-Click "Express Lane" service. In 2000, it licenses 1-Click ordering to Apple Computer for its online store.
Key product This is the first of five years in which Harry Potter books will top the bestseller charts. The third book in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, takes the top spot, while the first two books round out the top three.
2000: Diversify or die
The dotcom bubble reaches its peak on 10 March 2000, and Amazon becomes one of the most high-profile losers as its share price tumbles from a high of $106.69 on 10 December 1999 to $15.56 on 29 December 2000. However, one key factor helps it to survive where others fail: the emphasis on selling the Amazon brand over any individual product offering, with its diversification into multiple areas is cemented with the launch of Amazon Marketplace, allowing businesses and sole traders to list their products directly on Amazon.
Key product: The success of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire confirms that Pottermania isn't going anywhere. All four of JK Rowling's books appear in Amazon's top five bestsellers for the year.
2001: After the bubble
With the first dotcom bubble bursting in 2000, the year begins on a down-note as Amazon lays off 1,500 workers in January and closes its Seattle call centre, vowing to become more profitable. Indeed, it makes its first quarterly profit: a net income of $5m on $1bn revenues in the fourth quarter. By April, the inexorable rise of the online bookselling model sees Amazon and Borders join forces to launch borders.com – using Amazon's technology.
Key product: With JK Rowling taking time off before the next Potter instalment, it falls to the company's video games department – set up in 1999 – to meet customers' insatiable desire for more of the boy wizard. The PC game tie-in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone becomes Amazon's bestselling game of the year.
2002: Who blinks first
Inspired by the high-value customer schemes of airlines, Amazon launches Free Super Saver Shipping in January for orders of more than $99 (eventually dropping to $25). The potential loss-leader eventually proves another stroke of risk-taking genius. Another pitfall is skilfully evaded as Amazon negotiates an unheard-of discount rate with UPS. In typical Bezos style, the deal is struck after a 72-hour standoff, with Amazon using FedEx and the US Postal Service to deliver all its orders instead. Amazon also introduces Amabot, a recommendations algorithm that replaces editorialised content.
Key product: Another apt title takes the top spot for books: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don't, a business manual that sells more than three million copies.
2003: Goodbye to all that
Bezos first coins the term "unstore" to spell out what makes Amazon unique – limitless shelf space, personalisation, the juxtaposition of used and new items, allowing negative comments – explaining that the normal rules of retail don't apply to Amazon. Neither, it seems, do the normal rules of meetings: Bezos orders all TVs removed from conference rooms, later giving them away as award prizes to employees identifying bureaucratic and wasteful practices. Having survived a helicopter crash in Texas in March, Bezos is once more proving bulletproof: in December, Amazon announces its first full-year profit ($35.3m).
Key product: What else? The hardcover release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix re-establishes JK Rowling's dominance of the book market, while in second place Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code marks the arrival of another publishing phenomenon.
2004: Diamonds aren't forever
Amazon's diversification spreads into an unlikely venture – selling jewellery and undercutting traditional retailers. Paris Hilton is signed up to sell her designs exclusively through Amazon. Innovations including Diamond Search and a personalised ring-designing tool prove technologically pioneering, but the appeal of buying such high-value products in person proves a rare occasion in which offline bucks the online trend. In the same year, Amazon acquires Joyo.com, the Chinese e-commerce site, opening up a lucrative new revenue stream.
Key product: The Da Vinci Code keeps on selling and is the site's bestselling book in 2004, a year after it was first published, once the rush to read the latest Potter book has died down.
2005: Join the club
Amazon's interest in high-value customers continues as it launches Prime, its "all you can eat" membership programme. As usual, while there are rumblings of unease within the company, Bezos shouts them down with the words: "This is a big idea." Acquisitions in 2005 once again reveal the boom areas that are catching Amazon's eye: print on demand (BookSurge), DVD on demand (CreateSpace.com) and e-book software (Mobipocket).
Key product: An Amazon Prime membership, which gives customers in the United States unlimited access to free two-day delivery in exchange for tying them in to an annual fee of $79.
2006: Rocket Man
Amazon relocates its headquarters to a 280,000 sq ft space in Kent, Washington. Another significant change takes place in Britain: ownership of the main Amazon.co.uk business is transferred to a Luxembourg company – Amazon EU Sarl – with the UK operation classed only as an "order fulfilment" business and all payments for books, DVDs and other goods going directly to Luxembourg. The new Washington State site is filled with memorabilia including Star Trek props and a genuine Soviet Union cosmonaut suit. On 10 November 2006, the Wall Street Journal announces that Bezos has acquired a launch site for a space flight programme entitled Blue Origin.
Key product: On 25 August, Amazon announces an open beta test of Amazon EC2, which will go on to become the core component of its mammoth cloud-computing operation. In 2014, Amazon's cloud-computing operation is expected to make $5bn in revenue.
2007: Electronic ink
In November, Amazon introduces the first Kindle e-reader, hoping to build a market for digital books. Critics balk at the original asking price of $399, but the initial stock sells out in five hours. Showing its commitment to the old-fashioned written word as well, in December the company pays £1.95m for a handwritten copy of JK Rowling's The Tales of Beedle the Bard (Rowling donates her proceeds of the sale to charity).
Key product: The Kindle e-book reader, which gets off to a flying start and continues to grow its market. Morgan Stanley Research estimates that Amazon will sell $5bn worth of Kindles in 2014.
2008: Mobile First
In another year of acquisitons and lawsuits, Amazon buys rival online books site AbeBooks.com – which specialises in collating online sales for independent bookstores and out-of-print titles. In April. Amazon launches TextBuyIt, an early phone-shopping and price-comparison service that works via text messaging. The same month, the company files a lawsuit in New York after the Legislature passes a landmark bill requiring online retailers to collect sales taxes on shipments to state residents. Other states soon follow suit.
Key product: This year is less about what Amazon sells than what – or who – it bought. The headline acquisition is Audible.com, the world's largest producer of audiobooks, which it buys for an estimated $300m.
2009: Toy Story
In June, Amazon finally settles a 2004 legal dispute with Toys R Us over an alleged violation of its business partnership (when Amazon allowed other toy merchants to sell their goods via the site, reportedly reneging on an exclusivity deal between the two companies). Amazon agrees to pay Toys R Us $51m. Bezos once again shows his appetite for buying up rival organisations (and thereby obtaining their expertise and skillset) when Amazon acquires Stanza, which manufactures a rival e-book reader to the Kindle.
Key product: After moving into the manufacture of its own electronic products with the Kindle, Amazon launches AmazonBasics, a low-cost hardware brand offering AV cables, blank DVDs and other consumer electronics.
2010: Trouble with the Man
With the increasing success of e-books and the Kindle's market dominance, the book industry once again starts to show its unease with Amazon. In January, Amazon stops selling books by Macmillan in a dispute over the pricing of its e-books. By December, Bezos shows a rare instance of backing down in the face of pressure, when Amazon agrees to stop hosting the WikiLeaks website after questions by congressional staff and an enquiry by the US Senate Homeland Security Committee. Meanwhile the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reveals that while Amazon was operating facilities in 17 states, it was paying tax in only four.
Key product: This is the year that Amazon buys Quidsi Inc, the parent company responsible for diapers.com, soap.com, wag.com and yoyo.com, sellers of nappies, soap, pet food and childrens' toys.
2011: Amazon Loves Film
Amazon announces its move into a Netflix-style online video streaming service, available to those customers paying for membership of Amazon Prime. By July, Amazon's total market capitalisation tops $100bn. In a continuing dispute, Amazon threatens to shut down its Dallas facility when the state sues for $269m in back sales taxes. The state eventually backs down. In October, Amazon announces a digital partnership with DC Comics, prompting Barnes & Noble to remove its comic books from its shelves.
Key product: A LoveFilm account. Amazon buys the subscription-based DVD rental service in January for £200m.
2012: The taxman cometh
The Guardian reveals that Amazon has avoided billions in corporation tax, paying almost nothing despite recording £7bn in sales. In the face of increasing competition from Apple's iBookstore and Barnes & Noble's Nook, Amazon's ebook market share falls from a high of more than 90% in 2010 to 60%. It launches its second-generation ebook reader, the Kindle Fire HD, in September. The company also announces an out-of-print books line – plus a "free" digital book lending library, with subscribers to Amazon Prime being offered an ebook per month at no extra cost.
Key product: Fifty Shades of Grey, which began life as a self-published ebook in 2011, finishes 2012 as both Amazon's most downloaded ebook, and, along with its sequels Darker and Freed, the site's first, second and third bestselling books.
2013: Control the skies
In a typical moment of Bezos-style chutzpah, Amazon announces an unusual strategy in its delivery fulfilment plans: it is investigating options for same-day parcel delivery by unmanned drones. The service, entitled Amazon Prime Air, promises it will "get packages into customers' hands in 30 minutes or less". Bullish as ever, a press release reveals that the service should be available by 2015 – once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)'s rules on the safety of unmanned aerial vehicles are finalised. Rather more prosaically, in November it agrees a partnership with the US Postal Service to deliver orders on Sundays (initially in Los Angles and New York).
Key product: Released in September, Grand Theft Auto V becomes the fastest-selling entertainment product of all time, shifting 32.5m copies by the end of the year. The game proves so popular that Amazon UK sells out five days in advance – and is forced to deliver some pre-orders late.
2014: Living Wages for Amazon workers!
The Amazon Fire TV set-top box system is announced (Amazon's answer to Apple TV); alongside Kindle Unlimited – a subscription-based service offering access to all ebooks and audio books on the platform for a monthly fee of $9.99. A fake book briefly appears in Amazon's listings: A Living Wage for All Amazon Workers! The stunt is part of an ongoing campaign to draw attention to the company's continued use of low-paid workforce while maximising profits.
Key product: The fictional paperback Living Wages for Amazon Workers! is removed from the site the morning it launches.
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