Jeff Bezos timeline: From niche bookseller to online shopping magnate to world’s richest man

Jeff Bezos started Amazon from humble beginnings. He ignored the naysayers and bet on this thing called the internet over 25 years ago. Since then, Amazon has amassed tremendous wealth and influence, as well as criticism for allegedly poor corporate culture and internal politics.

In just a few days, Bezos will end an era in the business world when he steps down as CEO. Here’s a timeline that shows how the man developed his entrepreneurship from a young age and never stopped reinventing himself.

1964 – 1982: A born entrepreneur

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Jan. 12, 1964, Bezos grew up as a tinkerer and an entrepreneur. He turned his parent’s garage into an engineering workshop, experimenting with electrical components. He even started his first business as a teenager, an educational summer camp for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders.

Even with his extracurricular passions, Bezos was an excellent student. He graduated from high school in Miami, Florida as valedictorian before beginning his undergraduate studies at Princeton University.

1982 – 1994: Honing his skills

Following his passion for computers, Bezos studied electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton University. After his graduation in 1986, Bezos went to work on Wall Street. He earned experience at a number of different firms including Fitel and Bankers Trust.

With his entrepreneurial spirit continuing to surface, he turned down jobs with Intel and Bell Labs to join the communications startup Fitel. At 26, he became the youngest senior vice president in the history of D. E. Shaw, a new investment and technology development firm.

1994 – 2001: Betting on the internet

In 1994, Bezos quit D.E. Shaw to start the online bookstore that we all know today as Amazon. In the beginning, Bezos named the company Cadabra, borrowed $300,000 from his parents, and launched one of the earliest e-commerce brands from the garage of his rented house in Bellevue, Washington.

The decision to become a bookseller was calculated. Bezos did the research and figured that the early adopters of the internet would want to buy their books online. Bezos promised his new company would ship books to anyone in the world — and that it would become the biggest bookseller on the planet.

To reflect that ambition, he changed the name of the company from Cadabra to that of the largest river on Earth, the Amazon. (Some had also pointed out that “Cadabra” can sound like “cadaver,” which made the decision to change names easy.)

Critics were harsh, saying that anyone going up against the big booksellers, like Barnes & Noble, was foolish. But Bezos contended from the very beginning that while Amazon started out primarily as a bookseller, it was actually a technology company. They were helping customers by simplifying the book-buying process. 

The critics were correct. Amazon wouldn’t turn a profit for years.

1997: Joining the millionaires club

Bezos became a millionaire in 1997, just three years after starting Amazon. When Amazon went public, he raised $54 million.

2000: Space race

Indulging his interest in space exploration, Bezos founded Blue Origin, an aerospace company dedicated to finding a reliable and affordable way for people to travel to space.

2001: Vision fulfilled

Amazon finally turned a profit in 2001, demonstrating that Bezos had understood the potential for massive growth when he bet on online business. 

“If you never want to be criticized, for goodness’ sake don’t do anything new.” —Jeff Bezos

2005: Amazon Prime makes its first appearance

Amazon Prime started off as an annual membership to reduce shipping costs for those who ordered frequently. In February of 2005, members could pay $79 USD for free two-day shipping all year round on as many items as they wished to order.

Not all Amazon employees and executives were on board with Prime, but Bezos knew it would work, and proved that Prime shoppers buy more often and spend more than non-Prime shoppers. 

As the service began to boom, Amazon added perks for no extra cost, including its increasingly popular video streaming service, Prime Video in 2011. Bezos can now count over 200 million people as subscribers to Amazon Prime.null

2006: Doubling down on the internet

Amazon began its foray into cloud computing in 2006, going up against giants like Microsoft, Alibaba, Google, and IBM.

Once again demonstrating his talent for the long game, Bezos eventually conquered the market years later. In 2020, Amazon Web Services (AWS),  a secure cloud services platform offering database storage, content delivery, and other functions to help businesses scale and grow.

AWS had 32.4% of market share and $45.3 billion in total revenue, beating out its next closest competitor, Azure, which sat at 17.6%, and Google Cloud at 6%. In February 2021, Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky boasted that AWS was “arguably the most profitable important technical technology company in the world.”

1999 – 2017: From billionaire to world’s richest man

Bezos always plays the long game. In 2018, Amazon Web Services (AWS) had 32% of the market share, beating out its next closest competitor by 15% with total sales of $80.4 billion.

2006: Amazon launches its Web Services

Amazon began its foray into cloud computing in 2006 and went up against some formidable giants. And once again, Bezos and Amazon came out on top. By 2018, Amazon Web Services (AWS) had 32% of market share, beating out its next closest competitor by 15% with total sales of $80.4 billion.

2007: Amazon Kindle is invented and sells out

Bezos also made a killing with Amazon’s e-reader. In 2007, it introduced the Kindle, and just five and a half hours later, they sold out of the first production run. When it was released, people quickly referred to it as the iPod of books, and to this day, the Kindle is for reading, and not a competitor for tablets or smartphones. 

Amazon Kindle was designed to make it easy to read books, download digital copies, and (of course) purchase new ebooks from Amazon. With an initial price of $399 USD, at launch, it offered access to 90,000 titles.

The Kindle has continued to evolve. The keyboard was replaced with a touch screen, illumination was added for nighttime reading, and responsiveness improved. The Amazon Kindle comes in a variety of models and remains one of the best e-readers on the market.

2014: Amazon Alexa becomes a household staple

Voice assistants are nothing new these days, but back in 2014, Amazon’s release of Alexa along with its Echo smart speaker, was a giant leap forward. The product was designed to make it easy for people to order from Amazon using voice commands. True to form, Amazon added value to this smart speaker by allowing for apps (“Skills”) to be developed on their platform.

Alexa Skills are now common. Developers see Amazon Alexa as a crucial platform to use when they release products or programs. A study in 2019 found that Amazon has a whopping 70% of the smart speaker market share, with Google and Apple struggling to keep up. 

2017: Amazon acquires Whole Foods

In 2017, Amazon bought Whole Foods for $13.7 billion USD. At the time, this was the largest acquisition yet for Amazon. The grocery chain acquisition allowed Amazon to stretch the Prime membership even further.

People could now order their groceries online, through Amazon, and have them delivered in just a couple of hours. In addition, Amazon offered further incentives for people to buy groceries with them. Prime members could get 5% cashback if they used their Amazon Visa. Just a year later, Amazon accounted for 30% of all online grocery sales.

2019 – 2020: Under fire

For many years, Amazon has been publicly called out for its working conditions and poor company culture. Workers complained of insufficient breaks and a grueling work pace, and annual firing sessions would ensue, off-puttingly referred to as “purposeful Darwinism.” It was only in 2018 that Amazon increased its minimum wage to $15 per hour.

In 2019, a UK report from the Clean Clothes Campaign found that Amazon had no policy in place to support a living wage for its employees.

Staff also commented on unsafe working conditions, even before COVID-19. Things got much worse after the pandemic hit; whistleblowers were fired.

“A word about corporate cultures: for better or worse, they are enduring, stable, hard to change. They can be a source of advantage or disadvantage. You can write down your corporate culture, but when you do so, you’re discovering it, uncovering it — not creating it…. The reason cultures are so stable in time is because people self-select.” — Jeff Bezos

2021: Tax scrutiny

In 2021, the tax practice of the likes of Elon Musk and Warren Buffet became public knowledge, and Bezos was no exception. Despite his massive earnings and wealth, he uses loopholes to pay very little in taxes, ProPublica reported.

In fact, Bezos paid nothing in taxes in 2007 and 2011. From 2014 to 2018, he paid a true tax rate of 0.98%. The average tax rate in 2018 for a middle-class earner was 9.3%.

“I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not trying.”– Jeff Bezos

2018 – 2021: Bezos memes everywhere

Like any person who has reached magnate status, Bezos has been the butt of many a joke. Obscene wealth is unrelatable to many and the general public questions his every move (and purchase.)

Since announcing his divorce from wife MacKenzie Bezos in the summer of 2019, the attention on his social life has been even more magnified. Combine that with his obsession with space and you’ve got hours of comic pleasure for the internet.

July 5, 2021: End of an era

July 5 is the day Bezos will step down as the CEO of Amazon to let his colleague and confidant Andy Jassy take the helm. Bezos won’t be completely cut off, though. He’ll become executive chairman.

Jassy, who’s been with Amazon since 1997, currently runs Amazon Web Services. Observers predict not a whole lot will change with the new guard.

July 2021 and beyond: The sky is (not) the limit

After Amazon, Bezos is expected to focus much of his energy on space exploration. Blue Origin is working on taking non-astronauts on rides to the edge of the atmosphere, where they can experience zero gravity and see the Earth from 340,000 feet up.

So far, Blue Origin has completed six successful test flights without any passengers. Jeff Bezos, along with his brother, will be among the first to experience these flights to the very edge of space. The first passenger flight is set to take off on July 20, 2021, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.