Jeff Bezos looks to life beyond Amazon after historic space ride

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Chief Executive Officer of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, tours the facility at the grand opening of the Amazon Spheres, in Seattle, Washington on January 29, 2018.
Jason Redmond | AFP | Getty Images

Jeff Bezos just took on a new title after stepping down as CEO of Amazon earlier this month — astronaut.

Bezos went past the edge of space on Tuesday aboard the New Shepard rocket owned by his space company, Blue Origin, as part of its first human space flight. His brother, Mark, trailblazing female aviator Wally Funk and Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen were also in the spacecraft.

New Shepard lifted off from Blue Origin’s West Texas launch site at 8:12 a.m. local time. A capsule carrying Bezos and the other passengers rocketed past the Karman line at an altitude of 107 kilometers (66 miles) above the Earth. The crew experienced a few moments of weightlessness, before the capsule returned home. The flight lasted 10 minutes and 10 seconds.

The world’s richest person, who is worth an estimated $205 billion, began dreaming of space travel at an early age. He had referred to the trip as “the greatest adventure.”

“Best day ever!” Bezos said after Tuesday’s return to Earth. “My expectations were high and they were dramatically exceeded.”

The historic space flight is the most public display yet of Bezos’ ambitions outside of Amazon. Two weeks earlier, he stepped down as CEO of Amazon and turned the helm over to Andy Jassy, who previously ran Amazon’s cloud-computing division. Bezos announced in February that he would transition into the role of executive chairman, allowing him to spend more time on personal pursuits like Blue Origin and philanthropy. 

The changing of the guard brought an end to Bezos’ legendary run leading Amazon since its inception in 1994. 

Bezos’ appetite for innovation seeped through all levels of the company, cemented by his credo that it was “always Day 1 at Amazon.” He encouraged his employees to take risks, even if that led to spectacular failures, like the ill-fated Fire Phone

“I’ve made billions of dollars of failures at Amazon.com. Literally,” Bezos said in a 2014 interview with Business Insider. “You might remember Pets.com or Kozmo. It was like giving myself a root canal with no anesthesia. None of those things are fun, but they don’t matter. What matters is that companies that don’t continue to experiment, companies that don’t embrace failure, they eventually get in a desperate position where the only thing they can do is make a ‘Hail Mary’ bet at the end of their corporate existence. I don’t believe in bet-the-company bets.”

Inside Amazon, Bezos became known for his limitless curiosity and, occasionally, a flaring temper. As CEO, he would greenlight big, sweeping ideas and set seemingly impossible deadlines, according to employees who worked closely with the founder. Even as Amazon grew, Bezos could still be a micromanager, checking in with teams personally to make sure they were on track to meet targets. 

Bezos instituted an early rule at Amazon which dictated that teams (“no larger than can be fed by two pizzas”) operate autonomously, tackle big issues and move fast. The same rule also meant teams could overlap on projects and compete with one another for resources, “replicating the Darwinian realities of surviving in nature,” according to “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon,” by journalist and biographer Brad Stone. 

Arrangements such as these fueled reports that Amazon could be a cutthroat and bruising place to work. In recent years, members of Amazon’s corporate and blue-collar workforce have criticized the company’s treatment of employees. Scrutiny increased during the pandemic and a high-stakes union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama was seen as a flashpoint in the company’s relations with its workers. Bezos acknowledged there was room to improve in his last annual letter as CEO. 

Still, Bezos’ approach to steering Amazon worked well. With Bezos at the helm, Amazon shook up industry after industry, starting with retail and how books are read, then how data is stored and artificial-intelligence powered devices. 

Amazon is now valued at more than $1.7 trillion, making it one of the largest companies in the world by market cap. With more than 1.3 million employees worldwide and hundreds of thousands of workers added annually, Amazon could soon surpass Walmart as the world’s largest employer.

Amazon’s early days

Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon.com in 1999
David Robbins | Getty Images

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and raised in Houston and later Miami, Bezos is known to have been a gifted student with an obsession with “Star Trek” and Sci-Fi books.

Space exploration was an early passion. Bezos was inspired to travel to space after watching the Apollo 11 moon landing on his family’s black-and-white television as a five-year-old, according to biographer Stone. Tuesday’s flight was on the 52nd anniversary of the lunar landing. On board the New Shepard capsule were a pair of aviator Amelia Earhart’s goggles and fabric from the original Wright Flyer.

When he graduated valedictorian from Miami’s Palmetto High School in 1982, he spoke about his future space ambitions. Some of his ideas served as inspiration for Blue Origin.

In an interview with The Miami Herald following his graduation, he telegraphed his grand vision for the future of civilization in space.

“The whole idea is to preserve the Earth” and turn the planet into a national park, Bezos told the newspaper

He went on to graduate summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1986 with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering. 

After working at a telecom start-up and a financial firm, Bezos joined the then 2-year-old hedge fund D.E. Shaw in 1990. He worked his way up to become a senior vice president within just four years.  

While at D.E. Shaw, Bezos met MacKenzie Tuttle, who was a research associate at the firm. The couple married in 1993, less than a year after they had started dating. She told Vogue in a 2013 interview that it was she who pursued Bezos and not the other way around, citing his “fabulous laugh.”

In 1994, D.E. Shaw founder David Shaw tasked Bezos with researching new business opportunities in the coming technological wave of the internet. During a brainstorming session, Shaw and Bezos discussed an idea called “the everything store,” described as an online retailer that would serve as a middle man between customers and manufacturers and “sold nearly every type of product, all over the world,” according to biographer Stone.

Portrait of American businessman and Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos poses in an aisle of bookshelves with a shopping cart full of books and compact discs, Seattle, Washington, September 1998.
Rex Rystedt | Getty Images

Bezos made a list of 20 product categories that could possibly be sold on the “everything store,” but ultimately decided that books were the most viable option, according to Stone. When D.E. Shaw didn’t immediately latch onto the idea, Bezos told Shaw that he planned to leave and start his own business. 

He quit in 1994 and moved across the country to Seattle, where he bought a house in the suburbs and founded the company that would become Amazon out of his garage. The company was very nearly named “Cadabra,” but it sounded too much like “cadaver,” so Bezos chose Amazon. 

The website opened for business on July 16, 1995. Its homepage greeted users with the proclamation of being “Earth’s biggest bookstore,” spanning 1 million titles and offering up “consistently low prices.” Traffic shot up shortly after launch when one of the founders of Yahoo offered to feature Amazon on its “What’s Cool” list, according to The Wall Street Journal

“We thought about it some, and we realized it might be like taking a sip from a fire hose, but we decided to go ahead and go for it,” Bezos recalled, according to the Journal. Within the first month of its launch, Amazon had sold books in every state in the U.S. and 45 countries around the world.  

After a successful IPO in 1997 that made Bezos a millionaire, the CEO successfully navigated Amazon through the dot-com bubble. Even as his net worth skyrocketed, Bezos continued to drive a Honda Accord, saying in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview, “This is a perfectly good car.”

In 1999, Bezos was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. His face appeared on the magazine’s cover, surrounded by a computer mouse and packing peanuts, with the tagline, “e-commerce is changing the way the world shops.”

It’s easy to forget that Wall Street wasn’t always singing the praises of the so-called flywheel effect of Amazon’s various businesses. Bezos clashed with Wall Street in Amazon’s early years as a public company. He prioritized growth and strategic bets over pressure from investors to turn a quarterly profit. Bezos reminded investors of that philosophy each year in Amazon’s annual letter to shareholders, when he would attach his first letter from 1997, which proclaimed in one section: “It’s All About the Long Term.”

Two key innovations: Prime and AWS

Bezos oversaw two innovations that would be critical to Amazon’s future success.

In 2005, facing steep competition from eBay, Amazon debuted its Prime membership program. The program offered consumers “all-you-can-eat” free, two-day shipping, for $79 per year. Investors were initially skeptical about the costly membership program, with one analyst commenting at the time, “Demand is there but the way the company is positioning itself right now, it’s deciding to reward its customers before its investors.”

Still, Prime quickly raised the bar for retailers all over the world, at a time when four- to six-day shipping was the standard. On Amazon’s website, Bezos wrote that Prime was meant to “take the effort out of ordering.”

“We expect Amazon Prime to be expensive for Amazon.com in the short term,” Bezos wrote. “In the long term, we hope to earn even more of your business, which will make it good for us too.”

Bezos’ idea that Prime would attract more business to Amazon proved prescient. Prime members, which now total more than 200 million worldwide, spend more and shop more often. And Bezos gave them reason to keep subscribing to Prime by adding access to video and music streaming, Whole Foods discounts and other perks. 

Inventory at a warehouse
Getty Images

The launch of Prime also helped to grow Amazon’s burgeoning footprint of warehouses, which it refers to as “fulfillment centers.” Amazon sprawling fulfillment network, married with an armada of planes, trucks and vans, has enabled it to rival shipping carriers UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service.

One year after Prime debuted, Amazon began rolling out cloud-computing services. Amazon had built internal technology infrastructure to handle complex, data-intensive tasks. 

The company realized it could offer the same technology to other businesses, allowing them to offload their data storage and compute capacity and rent it all from Amazon. The idea for Amazon Web Services was formulated at an executive retreat at Bezos’ house in 2003, according to TechCrunch.

Since then, AWS has cemented itself as the main profit engine for its parent company. It remains the market leader in cloud-computing services, but competitors Microsoft, Alibaba and Google have caught up in recent years.

‘No thank you, Mr. Pecker’

As Bezos transformed Amazon into a corporate giant, he largely maintained an air of mystery, keeping his personal life tightly guarded. But in 2019, any semblance of obscurity Bezos had maintained imploded.

In January 2019, Bezos announced he and his wife were divorcing after 25 years of marriage. Then, the National Enquirer reported about his affair with Lauren Sanchez, a former TV anchor, including intimate texts and photos.

Bezos responded by publishing a Medium essay, titled “No thank you, Mr. Pecker,” detailing how the tabloid led by Donald Trump pal David Pecker threatened to post a “below the belt selfie” and other intimate photos if he didn’t drop claims that the paper’s coverage was politically motivated. Bezos drew connections to National Enquirer owner American Media’s relationships with former President Trump and the Saudi government. American Media said it acted lawfully.

Prior to the tabloid scandal, Trump had been steadily escalating his attacks against Bezos and Amazon, accusing it of everything from evading local taxes to taking unfair advantage of the U.S. Postal Service. The feud was spurred by Bezos’ ownership of The Washington Post, which often published reporting and opinion pieces that were critical of the president.

President Donald Trump speaks with Satya Nadella, Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft, and Jeff Bezos, Chief Executive Officer of Amazon during an American Technology Council roundtable in the State Dinning Room at the White House in Washington on June 19, 2017.
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images

The scandal came as Amazon and the rest of “big tech” — Facebook, Apple and Alphabet’s Google — faced a steady drumbeat of antitrust allegations. Last July, Bezos testified via video before lawmakers critical of his company’s growing scope and power. It was his first time before Congress.

In his last annual letter as CEO, published in April, Bezos signaled he was reckoning with a major criticism of his company. Amazon could no longer just focus on customers at the expense of its workforce. It had to heed calls to make the company a better place to work and create value for workers. In July, Bezos codified those ideas in the company’s list of corporate values.

Bezos promised that Amazon could achieve the goal of being the world’s best employer, while being its most consumer-centric company.

“If any shareowners are concerned that Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work might dilute our focus on Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company, let me set your mind at ease,” Bezos wrote. “Think of it this way. If we can operate two businesses as different as consumer ecommerce and AWS, and do both at the highest level, we can certainly do the same with these two vision statements. In fact, I’m confident they will reinforce each other.”

A passion for space

As he was building Amazon into one of the most valuable companies in the world, making him the world’s richest person starting in 2017, Bezos kept chasing his childhood dreams of space travel in the background.

Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, but the then-fledgling rocket company remained secretive about its plans until he selected the tiny West Texas town of Van Horn to serve as its launch facility. Local ranchers and residents remained skeptical of the billionaire’s plans to move into town.

By 2005, Bezos had acquired 165,000 acres of land in Van Horn, known as “Corn Ranch.” At the time, he gave an interview to the local weekly newspaper, the Van Horn Advocate, detailing his goal of sending a spaceship into orbit, launching and landing the craft vertically.

Years later, Bezos said one of Blue Origin’s goals was to move high-polluting industries off of Earth — the same vision he espoused after graduating from high school. Doing so would be critical to the future of the planet, he added.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, is developing the New Shepard rocket for space tourism.
Blue Origin

“We humans have to go to space if we are going to continue to have a thriving civilization,” Bezos told CBS News in a July 2019 interview. “We have become big as a population, as a species, and this planet is relatively small. We see it in things like climate change and pollution and heavy industry. We are in the process of destroying this planet. And we have sent robotic probes to every planet in the solar system — this is the good one. So, we have to preserve this planet.”

Bezos signaled his deepening commitment to Blue Origin in 2017, when he announced he would sell $1 billion in Amazon stock annually to invest in the venture. At that point, the billionaire space race was beginning to heat up, with fellow billionaires Richard Branson and SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk also vying to go to space.

In 2019, Bezos unveiled Blue Origin’s first lunar lander. Called “Blue Moon,” the spacecraft is designed to deliver cargo and astronauts to the moon’s surface by 2024.

But going to the moon is just the beginning of Bezos’ vision. Bezos foresees free-floating colonies in space that are capable of supporting 1 trillion people.

“I don’t think we’ll live on planets, by the way. I think we’ll live in giant O’Neill-style space colonies. Gerard O’Neill, decades ago, came up with this idea,” Bezos said in a 2019 speech at the Yale Club in New York City, referring to the work of the physicist. “The space colonies we’ll build will have many advantages. The primary one is that they’ll be close to Earth.”

While it may be some time before humans move into utopian space colonies, Bezos on Tuesday fulfilled one of Blue Origin’s major milestones by completing its first successful passenger spaceflight.

Billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder of ecommerce company Amazon.com Inc, his brother Mark Bezos, a private equity executive, pioneering female aviator Wally Funk and recent Dutch high school graduate Oliver Daemen pose in an undated photograph, ahead of their scheduled flight aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket near Van Horn, Texas, U.S.
Blue Origin | Reuters

In an interview with CNBC’s Morgan Brennan after returning to the planet, Bezos said the flight was “a tiny little step” in Blue Origin’s broader plan. Blue Origin is also developing a reusable rocket called New Glenn that’s built for orbital space travel, Bezos said.

“Really though we need to build the infrastructure. When Amazon started, we didn’t have to build a package delivery network. It already existed,” Bezos said. “If you want to be a space entrepreneur today, you have to do everything from the very beginning. There’s no real infrastructure that’s at an affordable cost.”

Relieved from the day-to-day duties of running Amazon, Bezos can now focus more of his attention on Blue Origin.

“Since I stepped down as the CEO of Amazon, I have a lot of time to dedicate to this vision,” he said.

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