On July 16, 1995, Amazon officially opens for business as an online bookseller. Within a month, the fledgling retailer had shipped books to all 50 U.S. states and to 45 countries. Founder Jeff Bezos’s motto was “get big fast,” and Seattle-based Amazon eventually morphed into an e-commerce colossus, selling everything from groceries to furniture to live ladybugs, and helping to revolutionize the way people shop.
Bezos earned an undergraduate degree in computer science and electrical engineering from Princeton University in 1986 then worked in the financial services industry in New York City. In 1994, after realizing the commercial potential of the Internet and determining that books might sell well online, he moved to Washington state and founded Amazon.
He initially dubbed the business Cadabra (as in abracadabra) but after someone misheard the name as “cadaver,” Bezos decided to call his startup Amazon, after the enormous river in South America, a moniker he believed wouldn’t box him into offering just one type of product or service.
In the spring of 1995, Bezos invited a small group of friends and former colleagues to check out a beta version of Amazon’s website, and the first-ever order was placed on April 3 of that year, for a science book titled Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies. When Amazon.com went live to the general public in July 1995, the company boldly billed itself as “Earth’s biggest bookstore,” although sales initially were drummed up solely by word of mouth and Bezos assisted with assembling orders and driving the packages to the post office.
By the end of 1996 Amazon had racked up $15.7 million in revenues, and in 1997 Bezos took the company public with an initial public offering that raised $54 million. That same year, Bezos personally delivered his company’s one-millionth order, to a customer in Japan who had purchased a Windows NT manual and a Princess Diana biography. In 1998, Amazon extended beyond books and started selling music CDs, and by the following year it had added more product categories, such as toys, electronics and tools.
By December 1999, Amazon had shipped 20 million items to 150 countries around the globe. That same month, Bezos was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. In 2000, the company introduced a service allowing individual sellers and other outside merchants to peddle their products alongside Amazon’s own items. Meanwhile, Amazon continued to spend heavily on expansion and didn’t post its first full-year profit until 2003.
In 2007, Amazon debuted its Kindle e-reader; four years later, the company announced it was selling more e-books than print books. Also in 2011, Amazon’s tablet computer, the Kindle Fire, was released. Among a variety of other ventures, Amazon launched a cloud computing and video on demand services in 2006; a studio that develops movies and TV series, in 2010; and an online marketplace for fine art, in 2013, which has featured original works by artists including Claude Monet and Norman Rockwell.
Additionally, Amazon has acquired a number of companies, including Zappos and Whole Foods. In 2015, Amazon surpassed Walmart as the world’s most valuable retailer. Two decades after its founding and with Bezos still at the helm, Amazon’s market value was $250 billion. In 2017, Bezos was named the richest man in the world. On July 5, 2021, Bezos stepped down as CEO of Amazon to focus on his aerospace company Blue Origin. In recent years, the company has come under intense scrutiny for poor working conditions and exploitive practices at its fulfillment centers and warehouses.