Jeff Bezos has been a figure in the public eye since the mid 1990s, when Amazon.com opened its virtual doors as an online retailer of books. Now, of course, things have grown by leaps and bounds: Amazon is now the world’s largest online retailer, selling everything from books to movies to household items and more and streaming video to many countries throughout the world; Bezos himself is world renowned and among the wealthiest people on the entire planet.
Even though Bezos has lived in the spotlight for more than 20 years, what he shows to the public is often a simplified and repetitive persona: he’s rich, he’s bald, he has a goofy laugh, and he’s innovative almost to a fault. There are lots of interesting facts and stories about the man that you may not know, and learning about them can help you better understand Bezos and some of his rationales.
Here are 20 things that you didn’t know about Jeff Bezos:
1. His birth name isn’t Jeff Bezos — it’s Jeffrey Preston Jorgenson. His parents got a divorce when he was just a year old; his father was a high wire unicycle performer who was not earning much of a living, and his teenage mother kicked him out. She later married Miguel Bezos, who was an immigrant from Cuba, when Jeff was four. Bezos adopted his new stepson and raised him as his own son. Jeff took his name, and he would be known as Jeff Bezos from then on.
2. As a child, Bezos was insatiably curious — he was always trying to figure out how things worked and why they did what they did. He also created his own inventions for fun and also for functionality, especially ones with a scientific and technological bent. As an example, he once created an alarm that was designed to keep his younger siblings from entering his room. He also created a science laboratory in his parents’ garage so he could conduct his experiments in a safer space. This inclination toward tinkering and experimenting would serve him very well, first as the founder of an internet startup company and then as the CEO of the retail giant that startup grew to become.
3. In addition to mechanical know-how, the DIY ethic is also deeply ingrained in Bezos’s heart: for his entire life, when he’s wanted something, he’s grabbed the reins and done it himself. Here’s a perfect example: when he was just three years old, he was frustrated with sleeping in his crib and wanted to sleep in a real bed. His parents did not grant his wishes, so he took matters into his own hands. He got a screwdriver and, all by himself, disassembled his crib. It was a move that took ingenuity, persistence, and a lot of guts. These attributes were evident in Bezos from an extremely early age, and they’ve helped him become one of the most successful businessmen in the world today.
4. In addition to being good with his hands, Bezos was also an outstanding student. While he was enrolled in Miami Palmetto Senior High School, he was a part of the University of Florida’s Student Science Training Program and received recognition for academic excellence from The Miami Herald. He was also valedictorian of his class and a National Merit Scholar. Upon graduation, he attended Princeton University, where he completed a double degree in electrical engineering and computer science and also ranked high academically. He was a member of both Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Beta Pi honor societies and graduated Summa cum laude.
5. After he finished up his studies at Princeton, Bezos was interested in a job with a Wall Street tech startup company. He took a position with Fitel, a company that created stock tracking software. After two years, Fitel was sold, and Bezos moved to a job with the Bankers Trust Company. Two years later, he was hired by D.E. Shaw, an investment management firm, and in the ensuing few years, he worked his way up to a Senior Vice President position. In fact, he was the company’s youngest ever vice president. He stayed there until 1995, when he left of his own accord to launch Amazon, and the rest, as they say, is history.
6. Another momentous thing happened while Bezos was employed at D.E. Shaw: he met his future wife. The former MacKenzie Tuttle was a direct report to Bezos at the firm, but the two began a courtship in 1992 and were married in 1993. The pair have four children together: three sons, and a daughter who was adopted from China. They all currently live in Seattle, where Mrs. Bezos currently works as a novelist while her husband is in charge over at Amazon.com.
7. Some startup CEOs require lots of time and space to come up with a plan for their new business, but not Bezos. He wrote the entire business plan for Amazon.com while on a car trip from New York to Seattle. It wasn’t the best of conditions to write a business plan, but it was an idea that he had to get out. Initially, Bezos wanted to call the new company “Cadabra,” as in “abra cadabra,” but upon hearing it, his lawyer thought it sounded too much like “cadaver,” an association that Bezos absolutely did not want. He then changed the name to his second choice — Amazon, after the longest river in the world, since he wanted to make the new online shop into the biggest retailer in the world. Talk about auspicious beginnings.
8. As far as work teams or work meetings are concerned, Bezos has an approach that is often referred to as “The Two Pizza Rule.” It works like this: if you need more than two pizzas to feed the people involved, it’s too big. And despite its name, this rule has nothing to do with eating and everything to do with better communication through a decentralized organizational structure. Small groups allow for more people to have their ideas heard, while large groups often drown out the dissidents and more shy employees. It’s a bit messy to keep track of from a CEO standpoint, but it actually leads to more innovation over time. It’s become such a popular approach that other companies are putting their own “Two Pizza Rule” into effect.
9. Bezos isn’t just focused on Amazon — he’s interested in pushing technology and the world wide web forward as much as he can. What’s more, he’s always felt this way, and one of his investments almost 20 years ago is proof of that. Bezos was an early investor in Google, putting $250,000 in the company way back in 1998, long before the company was the internet behemoth it is today.
10. Bezos has an unforgettable laugh: it’s hysterical bordering on fully maniacal. Despite his memorable giggle, however, Bezos has a reputation for being a ruthless leader, going after the competition in a no holds barred manner, and working as hard as he needs to in order to achieve his goals. While this attitude has gotten him far, it has also drawn a fair amount of criticism. In 2015, The New York Times printed an article detailing some pretty unsavory working conditions at Amazon, even going so far as to call it a “soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter is heard.” Bezos took the accusations personally, refuting the claims in an admirably professional manner. It definitely put a dent in Amazon’s corporate image for a while, but no other major expose has been published since, so perhaps Bezos took the criticism to heart and softened whatever rough edges existed at the company.
11. Great customer service is something that Bezos takes very seriously; he is adamant that every Amazon customer be treated well, as it improves the likelihood of more business from him or her in the future. What’s more, Bezos isn’t above the menial tasks. As such, every Amazon employee — including himself — is required to work as a customer service representative for two days every two years. It helps everyone in the company — again, including himself — develop what it takes to provide that level of service to the company’s clientele.
12. While Bezos is interested in good business, one thing he’s not especially into is music. That may not sound like a fatal flaw, but his not being interested in music helped beloved Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who famously loved music, position Apple to dominate the digital music market. The immediate success of both the iPod and the iTunes store put a huge dent in Amazon’s music business, which had been made up almost entirely of CD sales until the early 2000s. As a result, Bezos pushed for the development of the Kindle and the Kindle store so that Apple wouldn’t be able to control both the digital music industry and the digital book industry.
13. Bezos has always had an interest in space travel. In his high school valedictorian speech, he even talked about wanting to set up human space colonies so that the Planet Earth could be kept as a nature preserve. That idea may sound a bit out there, but Bezos is still setting his sights on space travel. He founded Blue Origin in 2000 with the goal of making space flight feasible and affordable. He’s kept the company pretty hush hush, as there’s a lot still in development, but we do know that he has spoken with Virgin CEO Richard Branson about space travel and that the company hopes to bring the first passengers into space in 2018. To help further Blue Origin’s mission, Bezos works there one day each week.
14. One of Bezos’s more surprising purchases came in 2013, when he purchased The Washington Post website for a cool $250 million. It came as a shock to many, but Bezos closed the deal, then quickly removed the paywall so that anyone could read the Post’s articles online at no charge. It should be noted that Amazon was not involved in the purchase of the newspaper, and has no sway over what is printed within its pages.
15. Beside The Washington Post, Bezos actually owns interest in many companies — over 40 in all. These include such well known companies like Uber, Airbnb, Zocdoc, Basecamp, and even Twitter. His role in all of these companies is managed by one of his other companies, Bezos Expeditions. As with his ownership of The Washington Post, his role with all of his Bezos Expeditions companies is completely independent of his role with Amazon.
16. Bezos has had not just one, but two near death experiences. The first was in 2001, when he was in Seattle during a harrowing 6.9 magnitude earthquake. What was even more harrowing, though, was that he was nearly crushed by a tungsten ball weighing 20 pounds. He had to crawl under a table to get out of its way. The next near death experience was in 2003, when he was in a helicopter crash. As the story goes, the helicopter he boarded near Alpine, Texas took off, hit a strong air current, and crashed soon thereafter. Bezos suffered only a few cuts and bruises, but the experience was scary enough that he more or less avoids getting into helicopters anymore.
17. Even though Powerpoint is a mainstay of 21st Century businesses the world over, Bezos is decidedly against using the software package at Amazon or any of his businesses. Instead, he asks his employees to actually write out their ideas and proposals, sometimes as long as five or six pages. Doing things this way, he believes, encourages greater creative thinking rather than relying on the simplicity of bullet points to convey an idea.
18. Bezos has been recognized by many organizations and publications for his contributions to business. In 1999, when Amazon was just taking off, Time magazine named him its Person of the Year. US News & World Report called him one of America’s best leaders in 2008, and Fortune magazine named him its Businessperson of the Year in 2012. Finally, in 2015, he was number one on Fortune’s list of the great leaders of the world. Plus, his creations have also won big awards; the Amazon Kindle won an Innovation Award from The Economist in 2011.
19. Bezos doesn’t just know how to make money — he knows how to give generously as well. He mostly gives to organizations that are left leanings, as well as those that further science and exploration. For example, he has contributed to the Seattle Museum of History and Industry, the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, and the Clock of the Long Now. Additionally, in 2012, Bezos and his family donated $2.5 million to pass Washington Referendum 74 to legalize same sex marriage. Finally, his home for his philanthropic interests is the Bezos Family Foundation, which is dedicated to furthering educational pursuits.
20. Just how much is Bezos worth? Quite a lot, as it turns out. As of June of 2016, his net worth was estimated at $63.3 billion. He is currently ranked number four on the Forbes 400 list of the Richest People in America. He’s also (obviously) one of the richest people in the world. In fact for a brief stint he was nearly neck and neck with Warren Buffett.