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Past Man of the Year:

1999 Person of the Year
Jeffrey P.Bezos

Why the founder of is our choice for 1999

The background and influences that made Bezos the multi-billion-dollar champion of e-tailing
Inside Amazon's Culture
The inner workings and workers
Amazon's System
How a click of your mouse results in a product on your doorstep

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John F. Kennedy Jr.

More Hot Choices
Web Resources
Links to TIME Digital and other sources of e-tailing info

Test Your e-Knowledge
Find out how much you know about e-commerce. Take our quiz

1999 Person of the Year Poll
The choice has been made, but you can still have fun at our ongoing poll

Year in Review
The top news stories of the year from TIME, CNN and others

BIOGRAPHY, continued

On July 4 weekend, Jeff and MacKenzie flew out to Fort Worth, Texas, bid goodbye to his family and headed for Seattle--a city near one of the two big book wholesalers and chockfull of the kinds of Net-savvy people he'd need to hire. MacKenzie drove a 1988 Chevy Blazer that Mike Bezos donated, while Jeff tapped out a business plan on a laptop. On that road trip West, somewhere near the Grand Canyon, Bezos called a lawyer who specialized in start-ups. What do you plan to call your company, the lawyer asked. Bezos liked the sound of Abracadabra, but the word was a little long. "So I said, 'Cadabra,'" he recalls. "Cadaver?" repeated the lawyer. A few weeks later, Bezos changed the name to Amazon Inc., after the seemingly endless South American river.

The most important person Bezos hired was probably the first: Shel Kaphan, a brilliant programmer in Santa Clara, Calif., and veteran of a dozen start-ups, many of them, in fact, failures. Bezos persuaded him, over the course of a few months, to join his company in Seattle.

His "company" was headquartered in a modest two-bedroom home that Jeff and MacKenzie rented in Bellevue, a Seattle suburb. They converted the garage into a work space and brought in three Sun workstations. Extension cords snaked from every available outlet in the house to the garage, and a black hole gaped through the ceiling--this was where a potbellied stove had been ripped out to make more room. To save money, Bezos went to Home Depot and bought three wooden doors. Using angle brackets and 2-by-4s, he hammered together three desks, at a cost of $60 each. (That frugality continues at Amazon to this day; every employee sits behind a door desk.) MacKenzie agreed to work with the crew a few days a week, helping out with accounting and interviewing--the latter chore often conducted, cheekily, in a nearby Barnes & Noble.

By June 1995 a rudimentary website had been created on a hidden site (, now defunct), and 300 friends and family members were sworn to secrecy and invited to crash-test it. "The first time I saw the site, I said to myself, 'Wow, this is it,'" recalls Shaw. It was simple, functional and wonderful. Kaphan's code was incredibly elegant and streamlined, allowing pages to be delivered without delay.

On July 16, 1995, opened its site to the world. Bezos simply told all 300 beta testers to spread the word. During the first 30 days, without any press, Amazon sold books in all 50 states and 45 other countries. "Within the first few days, I knew this was going to be huge," says Bezos. "It was obvious that we were onto something much bigger than we ever dared to hope."

The company grew and grew and grew. It grew so fast that it surprised him how little he knew. "No plan survives its first encounter with reality," he says. One night, while Bezos was on his knees complaining about how sore he was from packing, he said to a co-worker, "You know what we need? Kneepads!" The employee looked at him like he was an idiot. "What we need," the co-worker said evenly, "is packing tables."

In May 1996, Amazon landed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The story did two things: it introduced Amazon to a whole new stream of customers, and it caught the attention of rivals like Barnes & Noble and Borders Group, which hadn't yet moved online. would appear a year later--just before Amazon's initial public offering, which went off at a modest $18 a share. Never mind that the celebrated venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers was its biggest institutional investor before the ipo. Wall Streeters were afraid of the threat posed by the giant Barnes & Noble, whose national network of bookstores looked unbeatable, prompting George Colony, president of Forrester Research, a prominent technology-analysis firm, to pronounce the company "Amazon.toast." Other naysayers referred to it as ""--".org" being a domain name reserved for nonprofit companies. But did nothing to stall Amazon's amazing sales.

The stock began to move too, propelling Bezos' personal wealth into the tens of millions, then into the hundreds of millions. And then, when analyst Henry Blodget, now with Merrill Lynch, said he believed Amazon was a $400-a-share company, Bezos became another Rockefeller. As of last week, his shares were worth $10.5 billion.

Ah, but money... Who cares about that? Bezos has cashed in less than $25 million worth of his stock, but that's enough to live well on, come what may. He and his wife live in a sprawling, single-story modern home in the suburbs north of Seattle.

Bezos is beyond talking about his wealth or whether Amazon will be successful. Instead, he talks about a "nirvana" state of consumer service, in which you'll come to Amazon, and the one thing you've been looking for all your life will be featured on the page that day. You may not even know you've been looking for the thing or that it even exists, but since the site is so familiar with your consumption habits, it knows.

If the world goes his way, Bezos could become even richer than his neighbor Bill Gates. Then what? "At some point," he says, giving MacKenzie a hug as the two of them stand around in the kitchen, "we want to figure out how to do philanthropic work that's highly leveraged. It's very easy to give away money ineffectively. But doing it well requires at least as much attention and energy as building a successful company."

He says the trick to solving some of the world's problems is to think, Amazon-like, in the long term. "Say you want to solve world hunger. If you think in terms of a five-year time frame, you get really depressed; it's an intractable problem. But if you say, well, let's see how we could solve this in 100 years--it's a problem because you'll be dead by then, but the solution becomes more tractable."

"Anyway," he adds quickly, self-deprecatingly, in probably the same way he told people his start-up had only a 30% chance of success, "it'll be a long time before we build a lasting company." And then he laughs and laughs and laughs.

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