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Shel Kaphan
Shel Kaphan, Amazon’s first employee. (Annie Laurie Malarkey photo)

With an employee headcount of 268,900 employees (and certainly growing as I type this), Amazon has come a long way since 1994, when founder Jeff Bezos brought on Shel Kaphan, the startup’s first worker.

It’s mind boggling to imagine today’s multi-billion-dollar business, with its massive headquarters reshaping the look and feel of modern-day Seattle, being just a few people working out of a house in Bellevue, Wash.

Kaphan spoke at length in a new interview with The Macro in a series focused on sharing “the often untold stories of early employees at tech companies.” Business Insider pointed at the interview this week, pulling out a nugget from the end in which Kaphan “offered one big piece of advice that any startup employee could benefit from.”

The one-time architect of Amazon’s technical infrastructure told The Macro how important it is to imagine a company getting larger than your wildest imagination could foresee.

One thing that the Amazon experience taught me is try to imagine what a project or company would be like if it was more successful than you could ever possibly imagine. It’s very unlikely but it’s possible. You have to think about what the environment will be like if that happens, and how the people involved in it might change. When I was joining Jeff to form Amazon in the beginning, I didn’t even allow myself to go there. I’d worked for a lot of startups so it almost felt like a jinx to think too much about what might happen if it really succeeded in a big way. That was my mentality. I was like, I hope this makes it and is a moderate success. Maybe it even generates enough cash to let us retire at some point. You don’t really want to think about massive success beyond what you can imagine. Then, if it is successful, you have to start thinking, what’s my role in enabling this? Is that something I really want to be doing?

Kaphan lasted five years at Amazon before Bezos altered his responsibilities and he left.

This is isn’t the first time Kaphan’s story has come to light. In what may have been one of the first times he shared his experiences at Amazon, Kaphan was profiled in a June 2011 GeekWire story in which he was referred to as the “forgotten founder.”

Five years before Amazon’s current standing as a tech giant, with employee count approaching 40,000, Kaphan was marveling at the surprise of the company’s growth.

Jeff Bezos
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

“I mean, nobody at the beginning had any clue how big Amazon could become,” Kaphan told GeekWire’s John Cook. “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.”

GeekWire’s story goes on to detail Kaphan’s initial impressions of Bezos and what it was like building the early website. He said in 2011 that he was surprised to see the one-time bookseller now making hardware of its own and creating a cloud computing business.

“For them to have gotten on top of so many other areas — and done well in them — it shows a lot of growth that had not happened or had not even really shown signs of happening during the time I was there,” Kaphan said.

But it’s clear that the change that did occur during his time there rubbed Kaphan the wrong way, and he discusses the difference in the being at the company when he enjoyed the work and when it all stopped being fun.

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