Jeff Bezos is now the richest man in the world, surprisingly buff, and working toward putting millions of people into space.
But back in July 1999, he was just a lowly billionaire working out of a dingy Seattle office on Amazon.com, then still an oddity.
A 60 Minutes segment entitled “Nerd of the Amazon” provides a window back into that era, when Bezos just seemed like a dorky founder who still drove a Honda Accord.
The origin story of Amazon is now widely-known. Bezos left a well-paying Wall Street job with no destination in mind. He chose Seattle on the way, along with the notion that he would sell books online.
The segment’s overall tone is worth noting, particularly for what was about to happen. Reporter Bob Simon has a certain detached incredulity about Amazon. At the start, he notes that the company’s HQ was tucked in a small building near a pawn shop, a porn shop, and a heroin needle exchange.
The office itself wasn’t much better: “More like a college dorm than a corporate headquarters,” Simon said, before introducing Bezos. “You generally hear him before you see him… it’s the ear-piercing laugh of billionaire Jeff Bezos.”
At this point, Amazon was beyond a startup and well into being a phenomenon. Simon, riding along as Bezos drove his Accord, reads from the New York Times about how Amazon’s market value had surpassed $30 billion (it’s now at $578 billion). That meant Bezos, driving in his sensible economy car, was worth around $10 billion, leading Simon to ask “what’s with the Honda?”
Bezos responded with his now-trademark laugh. “This is a perfectly good car,” he said with a chuckle.
The segment also ends up being, in part, a stern warning about the hype around Amazon and tech companies in general. At the time, the Dot Com bubble was nearing its peak.
“Right now with the frenzy we’ve had, to me it feels much more like gambling… I don’t find it rational to be honest with you,” Jefferies & Co. analyst Bruce Smith said during the segment about investments in Amazon and other tech companies.
Smith would turn out to be quite right about the “Dot Com” scene, just not about Amazon. Eight months later, the tech bubble would begin to burst, resulting in plenty of tech companies going out of business.
Amazon would end up weathering that storm—and then some. The reasons why come toward the end of the segment. Simon is amazed at how Amazon can recommend books to him that he would probably like. Amazon was already collecting tons of data on its customers
“That’s the data that allows us to predict or try to predict what books and videos and music that you would like that you haven’t discovered yet,” Bezos said.
Simon doesn’t come off terribly convinced and ends with asking Bezos if he’s scared of losing it all in the face of competition and legal challenges from his competitors.
“I know we can lose it all. It’s not a fear. It’s a fact,” Bezos ended, with a laugh.
I think he can rest a little easier these days.