Dan Primack is one of my favorite journalists on the startup and venture capital beat, and his Pro Rata newsletter at Axios is a must read each morning, if you can stomach the occasional musings of a Boston sports nut.
Today, in the wake of Amazon’s big HQ2 announcement, Primack takes a look at why the tech juggernaut has not spawned more startup activity in its hometown of Seattle.
He largely gets it right, noting that most of the unicorn-style startups created by ex-Amazon folks — Instacart, Twilio and Hulu — for some odd reason were not formed in the Seattle area. His point: Arlington, Va. and Long Island City shouldn’t hold their breath for a startup wave to arrive.
“In an age of plentiful unicorns, there doesn’t seem to be a single one founded by Amazon vets near the mother ship,” writes Primack, citing Amazon’s strong entrepreneurial culture and the golden handcuffs of Amazon’s stock option plan.
However, there is one recent Seattle unicorn that Primack misses. Seattle trucking startup Convoy, valued at more than $1 billion following its $185 million funding round in September, was founded by former Amazon employees Dan Lewis and Grant Goodale. (Note: Primack updated his web column to include Convoy after a reader pointed out its unicorn status).
But Primack is on to something, and I’d posit it remains one of the big mysteries of the Seattle startup scene. Amazonians have not — at least to date — started big, new companies in the region. It’s a conundrum that’s confounded me for a few years now. Where do the people go that Amazon churns?
As Primack writes, Amazon employees are locked up with rich compensation packages, which have just gotten richer as the stock soared.
But don’t real entrepreneurs — and I’d presume there’s a good chunk of them floating around Amazon’s 613,000 strong work force — want to fly on their own without the support of a multi-billion dollar company behind them? Isn’t that the definition of true entrepreneurship?
The sheer entrepreneurial power of Amazon is astonishing, something I’ve never witnessed in more than two decades on the startup beat. There’s never been a large company like Amazon that tackles so many new problems with the energy and vigor of a 10-person startup. In many ways, Amazon is wiping out the major advantage most startups have over big companies — their ability to move fast and outwit larger organizations.
Perhaps the real entrepreneurs inside Amazon know this fact, and as a result decide not to compete. Or, if they do, venture out with support from Amazon.
It’s not lost on us — or others in Amazon for that matter — that one of Convoy’s main backers is none other than Jeff Bezos.
Remitly is another fast-growing Seattle startup — co-founded by ex-Amazon manager Josh Hug — that’s either reached unicorn status or is very close. One of it’s earliest backers? You got it, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ venture arm, Bezos Expeditions.
The message is clear: If you are going to leave Amazon to build a new startup, it might be smart to have the world’s richest person in your corner.
And then there’s another chilling factor that doesn’t get talked about as much: Lawsuits.
Amazon occasionally brings out the lawyers, as it did earlier this year when it sued a former Amazon Web Services vice president for taking a job at Bellevue-based enterprise software company Smartsheet.
Amazon later dropped the lawsuit, but the message was clear: Leave Amazon for a smaller startup at your own risk.
So it goes around Seattle.
By our count, only two companies in the top 20 of the GeekWire 200 list of privately-held companies — Chef and Remitly — have Amazon co-founders. As a side note, we didn’t count #1 on list, space giant Blue Origin which was created by Bezos, and is really an extension of the billionaire.
You definitely see more Microsoft DNA on the GeekWire 200. (PayScale, Auth0, Icertis, Edifecs, Faithlife).
The lack of entrepreneurial energy flowing out of Amazon is a real head scratcher, something we’ve discussed with startup entrepreneurs and venture capitalists around this town for the past few years.
In fact, as I wrote a few years back, there’s another publicly-traded tech company that’s actually had an outsized impact on startup and entrepreneurial activity in the region: RealNetworks.
And, guess where a lot of former RealNetworks employees have landed in recent years? Right. That startup known as Amazon.
For now, the Seattle startup ecosystem is kind of … Waiting for Guffman to arrive when it comes to Amazon-fueled startup activity.