Web’s Newest Billionaire King of Seattle

Although he’s $50 billion short of matching Bill Gates’ wealth, the founder of the online world’s leading book retailer, is about to become Seattle’s next billionaire.

0698_amazon2.jpg (9891 bytes)Jeff Bezos, the Seattle-based entrepreneur who founded Amazon.com, the Web’s leading bookseller, has joined the elite group of Internet billionaires. Owning 41 per cent of the company, Bezos’ fortune is fixed to nearly 9.9 million shares of stock in Amazon.com – a stock that has traded as high as $143.75. His worth, give or take a few million depending on Wall Street, is close to $930 million.

“The goal of Amazon.com has to be to make sure that we are the pre-eminent brand name associated with online book-selling in the year 2000.”
Bezos, who left a career on Wall Street as the senior vice- president at D.E. Shaw & Co. at the age of 28, has become the Internet’s next rag to riches stories. From the online store’s humble beginnings in 1995, set-up in a garage in Bellevue, to an office on the corner of Pike and Pine, Amazon.com is regarded as the pioneer of electronic commerce.

Choosing Seattle as the company’s headquarters for its proximity to major book-distributors, as well as the abundance of local high-tech genius, Bezos joins the city’s growing number of successful wired executives. Not surprisingly, many of them have come from Microsoft’s nest, including Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, and Rob Glaser, who founded RealNetworks, the industry leader in Internet audio and video streaming.

Contrary to reports claiming security issues as e-commerce’s biggest challenge, the virtual book warehouse saw revenues of roughly $147 million last year, up from $15 million in1996. However, increased spending on marketing and advertising campaigns to compete with other book retailers such as Barnes & Noble, resulted in a $27 million loss last year. But branding is crucial in an industry that will eat you for breakfast if you can’t keep up with the fast pace- where one Net year is equivalent to four human years.

“The goal of Amazon.com has to be to make sure that we are the pre-eminent brand name associated with online book-selling in the year 2000,” says Bezos.

“Similar to Hollywood’s entertainment industry, the Internet is a world where you can make the cover of Time one week, and be looking for a buy-out the next.”
So what attracts 2.5 million customers to the Amazon.com site? For starters, a choice of three million titles, with discounts up to 40 per cent. The site is easy to navigate, filled with reviews and top ten lists, a simple ordering process, fast delivery, a choice of wrapping paper for gifts, and a recommendation center customizable to each customer.

Bezos has set his eyes on other products. “I think we have a huge opportunity to build an interactive retailing company beyond books.”

And with that vision, Amazon.com became more than a bookworm’s paradise on June 11 with the launch of the Music Store. Rick Ayre, Amazon’s vice-president, says the plan is to sell more CDs than industry leaders CDNow (www.cdnow.com) and Columbia House (www.columbiahouse.com) The online music store, accessible from Amazon.com’s home page, offers 125,000 titles with discounts of 10 to 40 per cent off retail prices. Over 200,000 song clips accompany the titles in 14 main categories, and 272 sub-genres to browse. The Music Store’s editorial style will be similar to the book site’s user-contributed reviews and recommendations, with content from industry personalities including Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone.

“We’ll be very disappointed if we’re anything less than number one in music,” says Ayre.

With sales of recorded music projected to rise from $300 million this year to $2.5 billion in 2002, Amazon.com definitely has a shot.

“They’re going to be able to carve out a space, but I don’t think they’re going to take over,” says James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research. “I don’t think it’s going to pull the rug out from under CDNow and Music Boulevard.”

Despite the skepticism, Amazon.com sees the music store as a natural extension for the company, especially since their customers’ number one request is to add music. But will their determination and brand awareness be enough to continue their success? Similar to Hollywood’s entertainment industry, the Internet is a world where you can make the cover of Time one week, and be looking for a buy-out the next (Netscape being the perfect example).

What’s next on Amazon.com’s shelf? Analysts predict video retailing will be the company’s next venture; an obvious forecast based on the company’s recent acquisition of the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), the most popular movie site on the Web.

Amazon.com has raked in $87 million in sales in the year’s first quarter. No doubt, their future is bright, even if they do not become leading retailers of non-book products. Most importantly, Bezos has given the world proof that business can thrive online without having to sell technology or pornographic services.

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