From a Humble Start
So how much money does Jeff Bezos have? A lot. But whether he is first, second, or third on the list of the richest people in the world (he's usually in the top three), there's no denying that one of the internet's first tycoons has changed multiple facets of society, starting with the way we shop while also touching on areas as varied as television, journalism and aerospace.
The most famous version of the Bezos bootstrap story starts with him selling books online from his Seattle garage in 1995 and goes all the way through Amazon's acquisition of Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, giving it a massive and instant brick-and-mortar retail presence. And don't forget about his conquest of space through Blue Origin.
This guide seeks to fill in what happened between Bezos' humble beginnings and today.
A Toddler With a Screwdriver
Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1964, Jeff Bezos is the son of Jacklyn and Ted Jorgensen. His mother was 17 and still in high school when he was born. At a young age, Bezos showed curiosity for how things worked. He used a screwdriver to take apart his crib when he was only a toddler. When he was older, he built an alarm system to keep his siblings out of his room.
His mother and biological father divorced when Bezos was 1. When he was 4, she married Miguel Bezos, who had moved to the U.S. from Cuba when he was 15. Bezos took his stepfather's name and shortly after the wedding, the family moved to Houston where Miguel worked for Exxon as an engineer.
The family eventually moved to Miami, where Bezos graduated high school as valedictorian. He doubled majored in electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton, where he also was president of the school's chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.
His 'Regret Minimization' Framework
Bezos quit a high-paying job as vice president at a New York-based hedge fund and drove cross-country to Seattle to found Amazon, a move he described as being part of his "regret minimization framework."
The Princeton alum said the framework was a hedge against future regrets for not getting into the internet business during the boom of the mid-1990s. At the time, Bezos was fresh off of reading a report that predicted web retail was going to grow 2,300 percent.
Selecting a Name
Bezos worked on his business plan during the cross-country drive, initially choosing the name Cadabra Inc. When an attorney misheard the name as Cadaver Inc., Bezos began looking for a new name. He initially chose Relentless and still holds the relentless.com domain name, but friends said that the name sounded too sinister.
Bezos settled on Amazon after flipping through a dictionary because the place was "exotic and different." He also said that the Amazon River was the biggest river in the world and, even then, he planned on growing Amazon to the biggest store in the world.
Starting With Books
Bezos considered a list of 20 products to initially sell on Amazon, including computer hardware, CDs and videos. He settled on books because of their lower price points and the nearly infinite list of titles, as well as the worldwide appeal of reading.
To Bezos, being first in the space and establishing a brand was more important than the product being sold.
"There's nothing about our model that can't be copied over time. But you know, McDonald's got copied. And it still built a huge, multibillion-dollar company," he once told a reporter. "A lot of it comes down to the brand name. Brand names are more important online than they are in the physical world."
Fast Growth From the Get-Go
Bezos worked with Ingram Books and started filling orders out of the garage of his Bellevue, Washington, home in July 1995. Within two months, he had filled orders to 45 countries and all 50 states, and sales were $20,000 per week.
While the customer base for his online bookstore was still small in 1995, the advantage was immediately obvious: While a traditional, big-box bookstore may have as many as 200,000 titles in stock, Amazon had an infinite inventory of titles.
Attacked in Court
Barnes & Noble sued Amazon three days before Amazon's initial public offering, claiming Amazon misrepresented itself by claiming it was the world's largest bookstore because it isn't a bookstore at all.
According to the Barnes & Noble, Amazon was a "book broker." After settling the lawsuit out of court, Amazon continued to make the claim.
A 1998 lawsuit by Walmart claimed Amazon had stolen trade secrets by hiring away executives. Amazon settled that suit out of court as well.
Making No Profit Promises
The initial business plan Bezos presented to investors called for slow growth and its prediction the company would not make a profit for four or five years was seen as unusual.
While investors complained about the slow rate of return, this strategy did allow Amazon to emerge as one of the few companies to survive the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000.
Amazon posted its first profit in the fourth quarter of 2001. While the $5 million in earnings on $1 billion in sales was seen as modest, it did allay fears about the slow-growth strategy Bezos had adopted.
The World's Worst Boss
The International Trade Union Confederation named Bezos "World's Worst Boss" in 2014, saying he "represents the inhumanity of employers who are promoting the North American corporate model."
Meanwhile, a 2015 New York Times article described working for Bezos as "grueling and inhumane" and Amazon as "a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard."
Bezos responded to the article, on the same day, by writing a memo to employees. In it, he said the article did not portray Amazon as he saw it and urged employees to contact him directly if they felt the article's portrayal was accurate.
In addition to being the world's largest online retailer, Amazon is the biggest supplier of online cloud infrastructure services. It has also moved into film and television programing to add offerings to its streaming video services.
The company produces its own line of consumer electronics, including the Kindle reader and the Echo smart speaker.
A Secret Race to Space
Bezos formed Blue Origin, a human spaceflight company, in 2000. Little was known about the company until 2006, when it purchased a huge tract of land in Texas for a test facility.
The loss of a test vehicle in 2011 was seen as a setback, but also revealed how far engineers at the secretive firm had advanced. Like Elon Musk and Virgin founder Richard Branson, Bezos said he formed the company to make space travel safer and more affordable.
"The vision for Blue is pretty simple. We want to see millions of people living and working in space," Bezos said in 2016. "That's going to take a long time. I think it's a worthwhile goal."
Bezos recently revealed he sells about $1 billion in Amazon stock per year to fund Blue Origin.
Buying The Washington Post
Separate from Amazon, Bezos paid $250 million cash for The Washington Post in 2013. In 2016, he said he had accepted the first price offered by previous owner Donald E. Graham and conducted no due diligence before agreeing to buy the paper.
"This is uncharted terrain," Bezos told the newspaper's staff in 2014, "and it will require experimentation." His first significant move as owner came in 2014 when he removed the paper's paywall for subscribers of a number of U.S. newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Investments, Big and Small
Bezos was among the first to hold shares of Google, purchasing 3.3 million for $250,000 in 1998.
Through his Bezos Expeditions investment firm, Bezos has invested in a wide range of tech companies. Some of them, like Uber, Twitter and Business Insider are high-profile while others, like the localized social network Nextdoor and Qliance, a healthcare company, are less well known.
Charitable Contributions, Big and Small
In addition to investments in at least 35 companies, Bezos Expeditions has also made a series of charitable contributions, including $10 million for the Bezos Center for Innovation at the Seattle Museum of History and Industry and $15 million for the Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics at Princeton Neuroscience Institute.
The Bezos Family Foundation is believed to mainly be funded by his parents through their Amazon holdings. The foundation gave a total of $30 million to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Separately, Bezos and his wife personally contributed $2.5 million to support Washington state's same-sex marriage referendum, which passed.
Bezos, has, however, been criticized for his level of charitable giving and has been likened to Steve Jobs, who made few donations. A 2014 report byInside Sources noted that Bezos and Amazon gave far less than Microsoft and its founders, Bill Gates and Paul Allen.
Time named Bezos "Person of the Year" in 1999. He was also named "Businessperson of the Year" by Fortune magazine in 2012.
Harvard Business Review gave him a similar honor in 2014, naming him "CEO of the Year." Bezos has been named to theForbes list of 50 great leaders of the world and topped it in 2015.
A Costly Divorce
Bezos and wife MacKenzie Scott divorced in 2019 just before The National Enquirer revealed he was having an affair with Los Angeles-based news anchor Lauren Sanchez.
Scott walked away with $38 billion in the divorce settlement, much of which she's been donating to charitable organizations. She's so far donated $4.1 billion during 2020 to food banks and emergency relief funds, $1.7 billion to racial equality, LGBTQ, public health and climate change causes, as well as another $2.7 billion to approximately 286 other organizations.
Bezos and Scott continue co-parenting their four children, three sons and one daughter adopted from China.
The First Blue Origin Flight Breaks Records
The first manned Blue Origin flight finally took off in July 2021 and broke several world records in the process.
The journey included the oldest person (aviatrix Wally Funk, then 82), the youngest person (18-year-old Oliver Daemen) and the first siblings (Jeff Bezos and his brother, Mark) to fly in space.
The New Shepard was also the first spacecraft to carry paying customers.
Bezos Steps Down as CEO
In July 2021, Bezos stepped down from his job as Amazon CEO. He didn't leave the company entirely. He is now its executive chair.
He has since dedicated more time to Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and nonprofits like the Bezos Earth Fund and the Amazon Day 1 Fund.
Another Blue Origin Flight Boldly Goes Where No Man Has Gone Before
Bezos and crew broke one of Blue Origin's world records on its second flight by taking 90-year-old William Shatner on his first trip to space. Bezos is a longtime fan of Shatner's and used to pretend to be "Star Trek" Captain James T. Kirk when he was a boy.
Shatner said of his trip, "I hope I never recover from this. ... I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. It’s extraordinary, extraordinary. It’s so much larger than me and life. It hasn’t got anything to do with the little green men and the blue orb. It has to do with the enormity and the quickness and the suddenness of life and death."
The Pandemic Adds a Significant Fortune to Bezos's Wallet
Bezos was just one of a few billionaires whose wealth doubled in 2020. Amazon's stock rose a whopping 70 percent by 2021, due to much of country being in lockdown at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, by the beginning of 2022, Amazon stock fell. People started going back to work and venturing out more. This coupled with supply-chain challenges made it harder for the ecommerce giant to keep people shopping online.
Bezos lost $20 billion in one day when Amazon's stock tanked in late April 2022.
Unions and Amazon's Labor Practices
Amazon workers have attempted to unionize against management's better efforts.
This has not gone unnoticed by politicians who have condemned the company's labor practices, one of which is Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, who condemned both the company and Bezos himself.
Bezos was invited to Senate hearings to testify on the company's behalf but did not attend.
Sanders lashed out at his decision, saying: "Amazon has done everything possible — legal and illegal — to defeat union organizing efforts. Given all your wealth how much do you need?
"Why are you doing everything in your power, including breaking the law, to deny Amazon workers the right to join a union so that they can negotiate for better wages, better working conditions and better benefits? How much do you need?"
A War of Words with Elon Musk
Two of the world's richest men, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, have been at odds with each other for several years. Both want to be be first in the privatized space race. When Musk was recently awarded a several billion dollar NASA contract, Blue Origin and Bezos filed a lawsuit to dispute that contract.
Most recently, when Musk decided to buy Twitter for $44 million, Bezos tweeted, "Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?" hinting at Musk’s ties to China.
He downplayed his comment a bit later, saying, "Probably not ... Musk is extremely good at navigating this kind of complexity."
Amazon Vows to Help Workers Seeking Abortions
The overturning of Roe v. Wade looks imminent and will affect abortion rights and women's health in several states.
Amazon is just one company offering to help its workers by paying up to $4,000 in travel expenses for medical treatments that include abortion.
This benefit will apply for workers if a procedure could not be done within 100 miles of their home and they did not have access to virtual care. It covers warehouse employees and their dependents covered by the company's Premera or Aetna health plans.