Insight from Amazon’s first employee.

Seventeen years ago, Shel Kaphan was No. 1.  You can find the full interview at

Let’s start with some things you may not know about Amazon.

  • Jeff Bezos projections were no where near the scale of Amazon today.  Not surprising.
  • Started out of a home office.
  • Original possible names were Cadabra and Relentless.  Names don’t make companies great.  Companies make names great.
  • Early controversies:  “One of the early controversies about the company is that we were claiming that we had a million titles. Well, we did have a million titles. We didn’t have a million books, but we had a million titles in the sense that we could order them.”  Marketing is important.  Image is important.  I believe customers are more understanding when you’re an impressive company and you screw up.  Popularity helps.

Why Amazon is so successful:

  1. Timing (can also be considered luck)
  2. Focus
  3. Execution
  4. Talent
  5. Jeff Bezos (Leadership)
  6. Faith

You’ve heard it in comedy and it rings true.  “Timing is everything.”  Amazon could not have happened five years later.   Although, there is no doubt that Jeff Bezos would still be successful.  He’s a rare bread of visionary and business person.  “….he (Jeff Bezos) saw those opportunities and seized them. I am not sure just anybody else would.”

Focus:  “Jeff had made an impression on me as a really intelligent and focused person.”  How do stay focused?  You walk away from things that get you unfocused.  The scale of the websites out there that do something cool and will never make a dollar.  They’re not geared towards the market.  Amazon made a huge industry bigger and more efficient.  Bezos was focused and opportunistic.  Those are two states that are hard to balance.

Execution:  Shel says, “I remember there was a day when Jeff’s face was on the front page of The Wall Street Journal in their little portrait engraved style, and we got really slammed right after that and managed to survive that.”  They got an opportunity and they hit a home run.  They went “viral” before it was en vogue.

Talent:  You need a pool of talent to create a game changing business.  Ask any military general.  You can’t win a war without good soldiers.  Good people have a synergistic effect.  Serendipitous things also happen that lead to success.

What impresses me about Amazon is that they could have settled many times as a book seller or some niche.  They just did not stop.  You have to give a lot of credit to Jeff Bezos as a leader.   I would love to write a book about the big decisions and how he made them.  For someone with his success, he’s managed to keep a low profile.

Faith is a word that is a little bit misunderstood.  People tend to associate it specifically with religion and that’s not correct (although understandable).  Jeff Bezos believed in himself and his idea.  No one would have ever predicted this companies meteoric rise.  “I think from having come from the big money world of Wall Street, and also the big ego world of Wall Street, just to be able to see a huge opportunity and go after it was part of his frame of reference.”

Finally, don’t let faith turn into foolishness.


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