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GeekWire Interview: Shel Kaphan, Amazon.com’s first employee

Part 2: Meeting Jeff Bezos

How did you get connected with Jeff Bezos? “Herb had gone to grad school at Stanford and one of his friends at Stanford was a guy by the name of Peter Laventhol who happened to work at DE Shaw … and that’s where Jeff was working at the time. Peter knew that Jeff was going to leave. (Bezos) had been researching business plans for DE Shaw to do something on the Internet, and had analyzed fairly quantitatively a number of different things and had decided that selling books is what he wanted to do. He was going to leave the company to do it, and so Peter put Herb in touch with Jeff. Jeff came out a couple times to visit us in California…. I believe it was late Spring of 1994. The second time he visited us we even looked for some office space around there because Jeff had not decided yet what kind of state he needed to locate in.”

Why did Jeff Bezos choose Seattle over California? “There were three factors. It is still the case, but probably won’t be the case for very much longer, that you don’t want to be running a mail-order business out of a high population state with a sales tax. Number two was to be located within a day of shipping of one of the major book distribution centers. … And then the third factor was to be in a place where there was a pool of talent that we could hire.”

Did the decision to locate in Seattle have an impact on your decision at all whether to join the company? “I understood the rationale. I had lived in Santa Cruz for around 20 years, so it was a major decision for me. I was ready for a change and feeling a little bit in a rut there.”

What was it that inspired you to latch on to Jeff Bezos? “I liked the idea of doing book sales — and at the beginning it was clearly going to be a book sales business. There was no concept of anything beyond books at the beginning, and for some time. (Between) high school and college, I had worked at the Whole Earth Catalog. It was a counter-culture era, hippie-era publication. The subtitle of it was “Access to Tools.” It was basically aimed at the back-to-land and hippie movement, basically everything from philosophy to butter churns.”

So were you a hippie? “I am a product of the 60s just like Jeff is a product of the 80s.”

So how did your work at Whole Earth Catalog in 1970 impact your decision to join Amazon.com in 1994? “One of things we were doing was running a mail order book business, so I had some experience. I also liked the mission of it, which was basically providing information to people in far-flung places that would have a hard time getting access to it otherwise.”

Was there a moment when things just clicked for you, when you knew Amazon.com was the right fit for you? “Once Jeff decided not to locate near where I was living, that really created an open question for me whether I wanted to do it or not. And, also, at that point Herb and I, our model was: ‘OK, we are going to do something and we are going to find some business guy who is going to help us do it.’ Then, it turned out that we met Jeff and that wasn’t his model. He already knew what he wanted to do, and he was going to find some technical guys to help him do it. Herb and I really weren’t converging on something that was clearly an idea.”

[Previously on GeekWire: Jeff Bezos on innovation: Amazon ‘willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time’]

So you wanted to do your own startup? “It didn’t have to be my big idea. I just wanted to be in at the beginning of something that was potentially going to work and had a good mission. I mean nobody at the beginning had any clue how big Amazon could become. Nobody. Certainly not Jeff. I have spreadsheets of his projections from when he was trying to hire me. And I don’t remember the specific numbers, but it was a lot, lot smaller than it turned out to be.”

You should hold onto those spreadsheets. They are probably a good historical record. “I am holding onto them as blackmail material.” (Laughs).

What clicked with you to take the job? “(Jeff) had narrowed it down to Seattle or some unspecified location in Nevada. Had it been Nevada, I almost certainly would have said no…. I really wasn’t interested in living in Nevada. And Seattle, there was already enough reasons to be attracted to Seattle at the time. We started talking in early Summer, it was probably later Spring, and I didn’t move up here until October. So, it took a long time, going back-and-forth. Frankly, I am still kind of surprised he didn’t just give up on me and hire some other guy because there are a million programmers in the world.”

What impressed you about Jeff Bezos? “Jeff had made an impression on me as a really intelligent and focused person. I had the sense from his background, and also from my experience dealing with people in other startups, that he, first of all, seemed really energetic and focused. He just seemed like the type of person who was going to be able to make whatever he got involved with into a success.”

Is there anything in particular that cemented that in your mind? “I don’t remember any specific events, but it seemed like he had a good sense of humor and he was at least technical enough that it wasn’t going to be a struggle to make him understand why certain things had to be the way they needed to be or take as long they took to build.”

What was your first title at the company? “I believe my first title was VP of R&D. We didn’t call it engineering yet, and then two and half years in I transitioned to being CTO.”

What happened to your buddy Herb Jellinek? Did he get an offer from Amazon.com too? “Yeah, we both got offers at the same time. The idea was that we — having had already worked as a team before — we were going to come up and work as a team to build this thing. But he opted not to, and he and I are still good friends. There’s no bitterness there.”

Next: Building Amazon.com

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