Leadership

Amazon's first employee shares his biggest takeaway from working with Jeff Bezos

Shel Kaphan was hesitant to join Jeff Bezos as Amazon's first employee in 1994. "It took him all summer to convince me," Kaphan tells The Macro in a series of interviews with early employees at tech companies.

After all, Bezos launched Amazon out of a garage with a potbellied stove. Plus, Kaphan barely knew Bezos and had already worked as a programmer at a handful of failed start-ups.

"At the time I thought, 'Okay, I'm going to be building this website to run a bookstore and I haven't done that before but it doesn't sound so hard. When I'm done with that I'm not sure what I'll do,'" Kaphan recalls.

"I was pretty wrong about how the business would develop and how ambitious Jeff was."

Shel Kaphan, Amazon's first employee
Contributor | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Shel Kaphan, Amazon's first employee

The site launched in July 1995 and things took off quickly. Within one month, Amazon had sold books to people in all 50 U.S. states. The company went public in 1997 and, today, it's the world's largest online retailer.

Kaphan, who was at Amazon for five years, could never have predicted the company's success — and that inspired his most important takeaway from working under Bezos in the early years.

"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," he tells The Macro. "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 was like, I hope this makes it and is a moderate success. … 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?"

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