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Shel Kaphan (Annie Laurie Malarkey Photo)
Shel Kaphan (Annie Laurie Malarkey Photo/GeekWire)

You know the story of Jeff Bezos, the Wall Street computer science guru with the Texas-sized laugh who founded Amazon.com after a cross-country voyage from New York to Seattle in 1994. That move transformed Seattle’s tech landscape as we know it, perhaps on par with the move of Microsoft from Albuquerque to the Seattle area in 1979.

But what happened to those very first Amazonians?

Business Insider takes a look at seven of the first Amazon.com employees, from University of Washington software engineers Paul Davis and Tom Schonhoff to recruiter Nicholas Lovejoy (a former Seattle high school math teacher who worked with Bezos as D.E. Shaw) to engineer Eric Benson (who was known for bringing his dog Rufus into the office. Rufus 2.0 is now the code name of a building project in Amazon’s expanding office complex in Seattle).

The Amazon birthplace in a Bellevue home. The oversized mailbox was used by Jeff Bezos to get large book catalogs.
The Amazon birthplace in a Bellevue home. The oversized mailbox was used by Jeff Bezos to get large book catalogs.

We ran a detailed Q&A with Amazon.com’s first employee — former CTO Shel Kaphan — in 2011 in which he described some of the early history of the online retailer. “Nobody at the beginning had any clue how big Amazon could become,” said Kaphan, who is doing philanthropy and dabbling with some other projects.

All of the early employees at Amazon have since moved on. But what’s most interesting about the mini-profiles in Business Insider is how many of them have taken on philanthropy, retired or simply moved on to much lower-key pursuits.

Susan Benson, who ran the editorial operations at Amazon, retelling stories of how early staffers worked through weekends, is now on the board of Seattle community center Town Hall.  Her husband, Eric Benson, a former engineer at Amazon, is now retired. Davis is now a lecturer at Berlin’s Technische Universitat, and founder of Linux Audio Systems. 

Amazon — despite its growing employee base, power in the tech industry and hard-charging entrepreneurial culture — is an interesting company. For whatever reason, it has not spun out as many angel investors or entrepreneurs in the Seattle area. (Contrast that with RealNetworks — a company started by former Microsoft exec Rob Glaser — whose alumni started companies such as Big Fish, Isilon, FlowPlay, Smilebox, and many more).

I asked Seattle angel investor and former Amazon.com attorney Rudy Gadre about this entrepreneurial and investment gap a few years ago, and here’s what he said:

“I think we missed the boat to some extent. The dot-com crash sort of derailed the people who would have been the (angels and entrepreneurs). At Microsoft, with Rich Barton and Rob Glaser, you got some people who came out of the earlier days. But now anyone who is at Amazon or Microsoft is there presumably because they like being in a big company. And so the people who would have left Amazon to found those things, their opportunity was sort of derailed by the dot-com crash because of the time they would have been leaving Amazon to found new companies, there wasn’t funding available … and then by the time the thing recovered, that early-generation of people who were pioneering at Amazon probably missed the window to some extent. They have family responsibilities. That’s my working theory.”

Gadre paints an interesting picture of Amazon, and his theory appears to be on the mark.

In covering the startup beat here in Seattle, I often wonder: Where are the Amazon entrepreneurs? Where are the Amazon angels?

There are exceptions, of course. Gadre being one. Jesse Robbins, the founder of fast-growing Chef, being another.

But look over the GeekWire 200 list of privately-held tech companies in the Northwest, and trace how many have Amazon roots? It’s an interesting conundrum. One of the world’s most prolific and important technology companies just doesn’t spin off as much money or talent into the startup ranks of Seattle as you’d think.

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