In 1994, an online job posting from a “well-capitalized start-up” in Seattle looked for “extremely talented … developers to help pioneer commerce on the Internet.” Familiarity with web servers, websites, and HTML “would be helpful but not necessary.” Successful candidates could expect “talented, motivated, intense, and interesting co-workers.” Compensation included “meaningful equity ownership.”
Those interested could send a resume and cover letter directly to the CEO and founder, Jeff Bezos.
In the last two decades, Amazon has completely redefined the world of commerce, becoming an e-commerce giant with $88 billion-plus in revenues. But Bezos launched the company as an online book seller July 15, 1995 and operated it out of his garage. There was virtually no inventory; books were bought from distributors as customers demanded them. The first title sold: Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought.
Not even Bezos realized how big the company would become, according to an interview that Shel Kaphan, the company’s first employee, gave to GeekWire. “The early group came on board with the sole mission of making [books] available to everyone in the world,” Jonathan Kochmer, an early employee, told Fortune. That soon changed, as the company began selling everything from women’s fashion to the Kindle and other electronics. Now the company bankrolls TV shows and movies, is a major force in cloud computing, plans an online marketplace for local services, and is pioneering product delivery by drone.
The level of ambition may be unmatched by any other company. When Amazon filed its paperwork to go public, its 1995 sales were $511,000. In 1996 they hit $15.7 million. In the quarter that ended March 31, 2015, sales hit $22.7 billion, with a net loss of $57 million, or almost four times the total revenue of 1996.
But 20 years ago, the company was a start-up and trying to get its feet squarely on the ground. Here are some memories of what it was like to work there at the time, from people who got in (and, in some cases, got out) early.
Jeff Bezos had to be talked out of renaming the company, “Relentless.”
The first name Bezos chose for the company was Cadabra, as in an abbreviated version of Abracadabra. As Kaphan told GeekWire, there was one problem: People often heard the name as cadaver, which was, to say the least, off-putting. Bezos then wanted to name it “Relentless,” as in intently satisfying customers’ desires. “It took a little convincing that perhaps that was not going to have the right connotations in everybody’s minds,” Kaphan said.
There were homeless people sleeping in the doorway.
After getting too big for the Bezos garage, the staff moved into a series of buildings. One of them, the Columbia Building at 1516 Second Avenue, was in what you could call a tough neighborhood. “A lot of tourists go through there, but it’s at the corner of one of the highest crime corners in the city of Seattle, everything from purse snatchings to knifings,” said Rebecca Allen, a software engineer at the company from 1996 to 1998, told Fortune. “If you had to go into the building late at night, like at 3 AM, because something horrible had gone wrong and you couldn’t fix it from home, you sometimes had to step over or around people sleeping in the doorway.”
Once when she was walking back from having lunch, “a whole chunk of the area around the building was cordoned off by police because there was a guy with a big sword standing in the intersection surrounded by police officers trying to talk him down,” she said. It took her a few minutes to talk her way past a rope so she could reenter the office.
Some people loved their jobs so much they never went home.
Even back in the day, Amazon was known as a demanding place to work. (What start-up isn’t?) But sometimes work meant never having to go home. Kochmer remembered a particularly long stretch. “There was a month when I did not go home once,” he said. “It wasn’t because people were breathing down my desk. It was because I was incredibly passionate about what I was doing. I only lived a 15 minute bus ride away. Luckily there was a shower in the building and a clothing store nearby.” And a nearby laundromat.
The company had an official dog.
Part of the hectic schedules meant that people didn’t necessarily get much time at home. For Eric and Susan Benson, that meant either leaving their dog, Rufus, at home or taking him with them.” Even though the Bensons left the company in 2001 and Rufus died in 2009, he still has a webpage on Amazon’s site. Rufus would wander the hallways, sit in on meetings, get spoiled by employees, and receive presents from customers.
The site had lots of misspellings.
The system did some impressive things, but it was also strung together in the “bubblegum and electrical tape nature of how things worked at the time,” Allen said. The company used information from distributor databases that was never intended to be seen by consumers, so titles or author names were frequently misspelled.
When Allen joined the company, there was only a “rudimentary” mechanism to override the database contents. “Oprah’s book club started around the same time I started at Amazon,” Allen said. “Somebody at the top at marketing talked to Oprah’s people and convinced them to tell us slightly in advance the next book announcement so we’d know what it would be.” It was Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River. Her name was spelled incorrectly in the database. “Our goal in this was to not look bad. A couple of people came over to me and asked me to make the correction.” Allen asked if they were absolutely sure of the spelling, because making a change even once was risky. They were sure; they also were wrong. That got fixed, but the need to keep things running never ended. In fact, programmers were the only ones who were exempt from packing boxes at the Christmas rush. Even Bezos was busy in the warehouse.
Bezos wanted to get the staff knee pads.
For all the drive to create innovative technology, it was the simple things that sometimes could escape notice. While packing boxes, people had been squatting on the ground or working on their knees. Bezos had suggested getting everyone knee pads. Nicholas Lovejoy, a former housemate and the one who introduced Bezos to Kochmer, pointed out that using tables to pack would be easier. “Brilliant,” Bezos called the idea. The company still reportedly builds tables out of doors by adding legs.
The pay was terrible.
Forget the current concept of tech companies feeding employees and offering all manner of luxurious benefits. “At that point, many of us were still very poor,” Kochmer said. “The salaries were kind of low. I ate a lot of ramen with frozen peas.” But eventually the gamble paid off. Allen left before hitting the burn-out stage. “I come from a working class background,” she said. “I don’t necessarily need that much, looked at what I had already, and asked, ‘Why am I here?’ I left.” But she held onto her stock, which was the big payoff. “I’m never going to have to work again,” she said.