BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 ISSUE
COVER STORY -- E.BIZ -- THE E.BIZ 25

Jeffrey P. Bezos


JEFFREY P. BEZOS

AMAZON.COM INC.

Position: CEO

Contribution: Showed the world how to deliver "anal-retentive" customer service on an e-commerce Web site.

Ambition:To create the online place where people can find anything they want to buy--not just books and music CDs.

A Q&A with Jeff Bezos is available at ebiz.businessweek.com.
A lot of kids in the 1960s wanted to be astronauts, but few as ardently as Jeffrey P. Bezos. A paper he wrote for a NASA student program, ''The Effect of Zero Gravity on the Aging Rate of the Common Housefly,'' won him a trip to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. And in his high school valedictory speech, he called for colonizing space to ensure humanity's future.

Bezos, now 35, never realized those high-flying dreams. But as the founder and chief executive of online superstore Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN), he's on a rocket ride of his own--one certain to transform everyday life far more than Alan Shepard's first flight in space. More than anyone else, Bezos made the Internet safe for shopping. With more than 10 million customers expected to buy about $1.4 billion of books, CDs, toys, and more this year at Amazon, Bezos is poised to define the future of consumer commerce. Says Paul Saffo, futurist at the Menlo Park (Calif.) think tank Institute for the Future: ''He's the Richard Sears or the F.W. Woolworth of his age.''

Actually, Bezos aims to build an online empire much broader than any earthly enterprise. With a brand already recognized by 118 million U.S. adults, Bezos wants Amazon.com to be the place for consumers to find almost anything they want--whether Amazon itself sells the products or simply takes a cut from other merchants selling on its Web site. If he's successful, the conventional description of Amazon as the Wal-Mart of the Web will prove too limited. Says Bezos: ''We want to build something the world has never seen.''

His secret so far? When Bezos started Amazon in his suburban Seattle garage in 1994, he quickly realized the buyer is king on the Web--and set out to build the most customer-centered store anywhere. Rejecting the notion that Web surfers are fickle, he views customers as his most enduring asset--the one thing that makes Amazon's stock worth $22 billion. ''The Internet is this big, huge hurricane,'' he says. ''The only constant in that storm is the customers.''

More than any rival before or since, Bezos has focused everything at Amazon's Web site on making it easy for visitors to find what they want, discover what they didn't know they wanted, and buy it fast--with just one mouse click. He was among the first to encourage visitor participation, even running negative book reviews. And he pioneered new technologies, such as collaborative filtering, which suggests products each individual buyer might like. The result: Nearly 70% of Amazon's sales are from repeat customers.

INFORMATION EMPIRE. Before Amazon, Bezos showed little sign of becoming a titan of business--besides scary smarts, unbounded energy, and the world's loudest laugh. As a senior vice-president at New York investment bank D.E. Shaw & Co., the Princeton University electrical-engineering and computer-science grad was a quick study--always jumping into new businesses.

He's still pushing into new frontiers. Putting off profits to get big fast, he's outfitting warehouses to offer better selection and faster service than rivals. Adding auctions last March, he moved Amazon into the huge market for commerce between individuals. And with a raft of tech acquisitions in the past year, he aims to help consumers find anything, whether at Amazon or other sites. His strategy: to gather so much data on customers that he can target each one with unique, irresistible offers. By building an ''information empire,'' says Forrester Research Inc. analyst Evie Black Dykema, ''they're absolutely surrounding the customer.''

Bezos' boundless ambition could prove risky. ''You can get too big to reach the outer limits of your empire,'' says Kenneth Orton, chief strategist for e-Business at San Francisco consultant Cognitiative Inc. ''Rome did.'' But rivals hold out no such hopes. Sighs Darryl Peck, CEO of computer retailer Cyberian Outpost: ''Amazon is probably a threat to anything they decide to get into.'' If Bezos gets his way, Amazon will end up being in just about everything.

By Robert D. Hof

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[empire builders]
Jeffrey P. Bezos
AMAZON.COM INC.

Stephen M. Case
AMERICA ONLINE INC.

Timothy A. Koogle
YAHOO! INC.

[the innovators]
Louis H. Borders
WEBVAN GROUP INC.

Jay S. Walker
PRICELINE.COM

Margaret C. Whitman
EBAY INC.

Glen Meakem
FREE MARKETS ONLINE INC.

James H. Clark
MYCFO INC.

Christos M. Cotsakos
E*TRADE GROUP INC.

[bankrollers]
Masayoshi Son
SOFTBANK CORP., JAPAN

Robert C. Kagle
BENCHMARK CAPITAL

Lawton W. Fitt
GOLDMAN SACHS & CO.

L. John Doerr
KLEINER PERKINS CAUFIELD & BYERS  

Bernard Arnault
LVMH MOET HENNESSY
LOUIS VUITTON  

[the visionaries]
Mary G. Meeker
MORGAN STANLEY DEAN WITTER

John Hagel III
MCKINSEY & CO.

William Joy
SUN MICROSYSTEMS

[the architects]
Louis V. Gerstner Jr.
IBM CORP.

Pehong Chen
BROADVISION INC.

David C. Peterschmidt
INKTOMI INC.

Kevin J. O'Connor
DOUBLECLICK

Ellen M. Hancock
EXODUS COMMUNICATIONS

[the pace setters]
David S. Pottruck
CHARLES SCHWAB CORP.

John T. Chambers
CISCO SYSTEMS

Michael S. Dell
DELL COMPUTER



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