10 Things You Didn't Know About Jeff Bezos and Amazon
Brad Stone's deep-dish book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, is a must-read -- as essential as Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs is for understanding Apple.
The story of the giant e-tailer is packed with eyebrow-raising tales from 300 sources. Here are 10 things you may not know about the billionaire and his company:
1. Amazon's early name was "Relentless.com."
Try typing "Relentless.com" and see where it takes you.
2. Amazon spends $1.6 million a year on personal security for Bezos and his family.
Yet his wife, MacKenzie, a respected novelist, still drives him to work in their Honda after dropping their four kids off at school.
3. Stone found Bezos' long-lost biological father, who was a high-wire unicyclist who went to Hollywood to audition for The Ed Sullivan Show.
Bezos never knew his biological dad, John Jorgensen, a kindly man who didn't care how much money he made in pursuit of his unicycle dream. Bezos' mom kicked the deadbeat dad out of their lives. Stone told Jorgensen his son was Jeff Bezos, whom he'd never heard of. He was stunned his son was worth $25 billion and is the 12th-richest American. After flopping in Hollywood and fatherhood, Bezos' dad took a $1.25 an hour job.
4. Amazon's board may have tried to dump Bezos after he became Time Magazine's Person of the Year in 1999.
Though three board members deny it, other execs called Bezos "impetuous and controlling" and were terrified by his "reckless binge" of spending and the chaos in Amazon warehouses stuffed with $39 million in unsold toys and staffed by temps -- some of whom were high on crack or alcohol. "One worker [got] fired for intoxication and then wet himself while he tried to protest." If Amazon's board really maneuvered to dump him as Steve Jobs was dumped from Apple, Stone says, they couldn't, because he controlled most Amazon stock. And Amazon's distribution centers became futuristically efficient.
5. Bezos laughs "like a cross between a mating elephant seal and a power tool."
But don't be fooled -- it's like Tom Cruise's smile, a way to hypnotize you and deflect questions, not just to be nice. "[Don't] misunderstand it," warns ex-Amazon exec Rick Dalzell. "It's disarming and punishing. He's punishing you." No one in Jeff Bezos' family has a weird laugh -- except his biological dad, who sounds exactly the same.
6. At age three, Bezos disassembled his crib with a screwdriver.
He wanted to sleep on a bed. As a Wall Street wunderkind, he kept a sleeping bag in his office.
7. Thanks to his tin ear, Bezos lost untold billions to Apple's Steve Jobs. Jobs was a music lover (and dated Joan Baez). Bezos, who let Jobs hire away his music editor Keith Moerer, has "a lack of interest in music of any kind." As a teen, Bezos memorized the call letters of local radio stations so he could fake being hip to the music scene. But he was so unhip he let Jobs seize the lead in creating the iPod. "We were freaking out over what the iPod had done to Amazon's music business," ex-Amazon exec John Doerr told Stone. So Bezos invented the Kindle to prevent Apple (or others) from stealing the digital-book future.
8. Cowering under a shuddering table in 2001's Seattle earthquake, Bezos almost got crushed by a 20-pound tungsten ball from Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand.
Bezos had bankrolled Brand's atomic 10,000-Year Clock of the Long Now Foundation. The real 2001 earthquake was the Amazon-goes-broke-in-a-year prediction of Lehman Brothers analyst Ravi Suria, who tanked the stock and almost crushed Amazon. Suria says Bezos tried to get him fired and ruined his life for years, and that Bezos is "deranged."
9. Bezos had to be meaner than Steve Jobs.
Stone says Bezos was more ruthless than Jobs, because the music industry was terrified of piracy, and so submitted to digitizing and cutting prices. People seldom pirate books, so Bezos had to play hardball to force booksellers to digitize books. He declared up-to-$100 million price wars to crush, engulf and devour innovative upstart rivals. Stone's Amazon stories are good, grisly fun.
10. Bezos created a "brutal, combative" corporate culture.
One Amazon exec could be such a mean screamer, she got banned from Warner Home Video, Stone's sources say. "Laura [Porco] can be one of the kindest people, but when it comes to Amazon, she wants to drink blood," said ex-Amazonian Christopher Smith. Porco went on to launch Kindle and triple Amazon's stock price. Bezos had "ice water [in] his veins" no matter how scary things got and coolly fired or sidelined employees by the thousands, including those who were with him from the start and helped him succeed. "Careers and personal lives [were] left in tatters," writes Stone. One low-level employee fell to the floor wailing and sobbing after getting fired. Bezos may have hired a secret "leadership coach" to keep him from eviscerating employees. Bezos treated weak, inefficient rivals "the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly giraffe" -- his publisher-relations program was dubbed "the Gazelle Project." Amazon's Erick Goss quit, saying Amazon's bloodthirsty, combative culture was against his Christian values, and he had post-traumatic stress for a year after leaving. Yet many employees got rich and enjoyed the rush of changing the world fast, plua last year Amazon's workforce more than doubled, to 88,400.
(Full disclosure: Tim Appelo was Amazon's founding Entertainment and Digital Video Editor, 1997-2002 and 2006-2008)