In 1994, Jeff Bezos held 60 meetings with family members, friends and potential investors in an attempt to persuade them to invest $50,000 (£35,000) in his revolutionary idea to create an online bookshop. He failed to convince 38 of them, and 24 years later some of them still cannot bring themselves to talk about what life might have been like if they had taken a punt on Bezos and this “Amazon thing” that the then 30-year-old hedge fund manager wouldn’t shut up about.
“I’m in touch with a few of them now,” Bezos revealed in an on-stage interview at a charity dinner in Washington DC last year. “It’s kind of a study in human nature … Some of them take it in their stride, and they recognise that they actually have ridiculously happy lives. [But] others of them just cannot talk about it – it’s too painful.”
That pain comes from knowing that they opted out of the chance to become billionaires. Each of the 22 investors – who included Bezos’s parents, his younger brother Mark and sister Christina – were granted just under 1% of Amazon’s stock on average. If they held on to all of the shares their stakes could now be worth up to $7bn (£5bn) each. “That’s just human nature,” Bezos, now 54, says. “Some people are just better at rolling with the punches.”
The biggest winners from investing early in Bezos’s idea were his parents, Mike and Jackie Bezos, who pumped in $300,000 in return for 6% of the company, which sold its first book – about artificial intelligence – in July 1995. “It couldn’t happen to two nicer people,” Bezos says of his parents’ windfall.
They have given away $68m of it through their Bezos Family Foundation, which focuses on education. The foundation’s mission statement is a Winston Churchill quote: “What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?”
Bezos’s parents have also given $65m to Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Jackie Bezos, who was 17 and still in high school when Jeff was born, said the donation was: “The gift of time for all those people who will benefit from new treatments and cures. It’s the gift of more hugs, more graduations and more moments.” Bezos tweeted: “My parents rock.”
The biggest winner of all though, has been Bezos himself. He still owns 16% of Amazon, which in the past year has made him the richest person in the world with a “net worth” of $130bn. He has enough wealth to cover Britain’s budget deficit twice over and still have change. His fortune has been rising fast, up some 30% since the start of the year, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Many industry experts reckon Amazon – which has spread its tentacles into webhosting, TV production and high-end grocery chain Whole Foods – is growing so fast that it will overtake Apple, (Alphabet) Google and Microsoft to become the first trillion-dollar company. Amazon has a market value of $750bn (£538bn) – at Monday night’s share price – making it nearly three times the size of Walmart and more than 30 times the size of the UK’s biggest retailer, Tesco.
Bezos has been very, very rich for a long time, but he has only recently started to really spend his billions. In 1999, when he was already worth well north of $9bn, Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, were still living in the one-bedroom apartment in Seattle they had rented when they moved to the city to set up Amazon five years earlier. That year the couple bought their first big house, a $10m mansion on Lake Washington, in the city’s most chichi neighbourhood.
Today, however, Bezos owns almost a dozen homes across the US, and is the country’s 25th-largest landowner, according to the Land Report, a magazine that tracks US land ownership.
He owns a string of properties on Lake Washington; two neighbouring homes in Beverly Hills, California, worth $12.9m and $24.4m; four linked apartments in a landmark tower on Manhattan’s Central Park West [worth about $40m]; a former museum in Washington DC that cost him $23m and is being converted into the city’s largest private residence; and a 300,000-acre ranch in Texas. He also bought the Washington Post for $250m in 2013.
He has made his first tentative steps into giving away a fraction of his fortune, but Bezos seriously lags behind his technology billionaire contemporaries in philanthropy. Bezos would still be the world’s second-richest man if Microsoft founder Bill Gates had not given away more than $36bn.
Gates, along with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Netflix’s Reed Hastings and dozens of the world’s other billionaires have signed up to the Giving Pledge commitment to give away at least half of their fortunes. So far, however, Bezos has not joined up. After being questioned about his apparent reluctance, he tweeted a request for ideas for a “philanthropy strategy”. Last year, he tweeted to thank his 400,000 followers for their input and promised “more to come”.
Bezos made his first big donation earlier this year: a $33m grant to a scholarship fund for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children. TheDream.US donation will fund scholarships for 1,000 participants of Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (Daca) programme, who are often called Dreamers. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal grants or loans, and are prevented from accessing state aid for tuition in 44 states. President Donald Trump has made life harder for Dreamers by announcing the end of Daca.
Bezos’s previous biggest donation was also political: $2.5m to a campaign to defend same-sex marriage law in Washington state (the state that includes Seattle) in 2012.
Jennifer Cast, a former Amazon employee who is a lesbian, emailed Bezos directly on a Sunday asking him to please consider donating between $100,000 and $200,000. “I want to have the right to marry the love of my life and to let my children and grandchildren know their family is honoured like a ‘real’ family,” Cast told Bezos. “We need help from straight people. To be very frank, we need help from wealthy straight people who care about us and who want to help us win.”
Bezos replied on the Tuesday: “Jen, this is right for so many reasons. We’re in for $2.5m. Jeff & MacKenzie.”
Bezos, whom Trump has repeatedly attacked for avoiding tax at Amazon, did not acknowledge the politics of his Dreamers donation. He said the gift was in recognition of the help given to his father, who was one of 14,000 students who fled to the US from Cuba in the early 60s.
Mike – born Miguel – Bezos is Jeff’s father and hero, but he is not his biological parent. Jeff has never met his birth father, Ted Jorgensen, whom his mother divorced when her son was 17 months old. “As far as I’m concerned … my dad [Mike Bezos] is my natural father,” Bezos told technology magazine Wired in a 1999 interview. “The only time I ever think about it, genuinely, is when a doctor asks me to fill out a form.”
His mother married Mike when Jeff was four years old, and he was legally adopted.
Jorgensen, a unicyclist and bicycle shop owner, did not know he was the father of a billionaire until he was tracked down by journalist and author Brad Stone. In research for The Everything Store, his biography of Bezos, Stone turned up unannounced at Jorgensen’s Road Runner Bike Center shop in Glendale, Arizona in 2013.
“I didn’t know where he was, if he had a good job or not, or if he was alive or dead,” Jorgensen told Stone. Jorgensen died in 2015.
By all accounts, Bezos was gifted from a very early age. When he was a toddler he used a screwdriver to dismantle his cot because he wanted to sleep in a real bed. His genius at school is recorded for posterity in a 1977 book Turning On Bright Minds: A Parent Looks at Gifted Education in Texas, which profiles a sixth-grade Houston pupil called “Tim”.
Tim, who was enrolled in a gifted children programme, is described as reading dozens of books far in advance of his years and of being incredibly interested in science. The author described him as “friendly, but serious” and of general intellectual excellence, but according to his teachers “not particularly gifted in leadership”. Tim was revealed in Stone’s book to be a pseudonym for Jeff Bezos.
While Stone was widely praised for such an intimate portrait of Bezos, one reviewer on Amazon gave his book one star (the lowest possible). The reviewer was MacKenzie Bezos, who said it was littered with “numerous factual inaccuracies”.
Bezos met MacKenzie at D E Shaw, a hedge fund run by computer scientist David Shaw, who is known as “King Quant” because of the firm’s pioneering role in high-speed quantitative trading. Until he met MacKenzie, when he interviewed her for a job at the hedge fund, Bezos had attempted to apply analytics to finding love. He called it “women flow” and reckoned he could increase the number of women he’d have a chance with if he took up ballroom dancing.
In a profile of MacKenzie to promote her novel Traps, she told Vogue that it was she who had chased Bezos and not the other way round. Within three months, they were engaged and after another three months they married. Shortly afterwards Bezos described his idea for selling books over the internet, and while admitting she had “no business sense whatsoever” she could see “how excited he was” and agreed they should leave New York for Seattle to explore his idea. Seattle was chosen because it was close to a big book distributor and under US law the company was only required to collect sales tax for in-state sales.
Bezos told Vogue his wife was “resourceful, smart, brainy, and hot, but I had the good fortune of having seen her résumé before I met her, so I knew exactly what her SATs [high school exam results] were”. The couple have four children.
At high school near Miami, Bezos decided he wanted to go into space when he grew up. But, his ambition was not to be an astronaut; he wanted to colonise space.
He was named valedictorian of his high school class and when he graduated in 1982, the Miami Herald asked for an interview. The 18-year-old Bezos told the paper he wanted to “build space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for 2 million or 3 million people who would be in orbit”.
“The whole idea is to preserve the Earth,” he told the paper. “The goal was to be able to evacuate humans. The planet would become a park.”
Recently a Bezos-owned rocket called New Shepard sent a mannequin named Skywalker into orbit and the billionaire’s Blue Origin space tourism and exploration company is planning to send its first customers – including Bezos – into space next year. Blue Origin is funded by Bezos selling roughly $1bn-worth of Amazon shares a year.
No prospective passengers have yet been named, but Bezos has publicly extended an invitation to Trump, tweeting that he would “reserve him a seat on the rocket, adding #sendDonaldtospace.”