Jeff Bezos built a $1.6 trillion company from nothing: Here's the legacy he leaves behind

Key Points
  • Jeff Bezos is set to step aside as CEO of Amazon this summer.
  • Bezos, who founded the company in the garage of his rental home in the Seattle suburbs, transformed Amazon into a corporate giant that reaches into almost every major industry.
Chief Executive Officer of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, tours the facility at the grand opening of the Amazon Spheres, in Seattle, Washington on January 29, 2018.
Jason Redmond | AFP | Getty Images

When Jeff Bezos announced his plans to step aside as CEO of Amazon, it didn't just bring an end to his two-and-a-half decade run as the head of the $1.6 trillion retail behemoth he started from scratch. It also capped one of the world's most innovative and influential legacies in the areas of business and technology. 

Bezos founded Amazon as an online bookstore in 1994, launching the company out of the garage of his rented home in the Seattle suburbs. In the decades since, Amazon has become one of the most powerful, revered and scrutinized companies in the world, with its influence growing far beyond e-commerce to touch almost every major industry, from cloud computing and health care to grocery, banking and advertising. 

The Amazon founder's determination to shake up industry after industry, while focusing relentlessly on the company's core customers, has earned Bezos a spot among America's foremost entrepreneurs, such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. 

Even though Bezos is giving up the title of CEO, he's not moving far away from Amazon in his new role as executive chairman. Plus, Bezos' philosophy for Amazon — that it's "always Day One" — continues to guide the company. 

There are many milestones in Bezos' career at Amazon and his ascent to becoming a household name. These are some of the key moments. 

The Amazon Way 

Every year, Bezos attaches his original 1997 letter to shareholders to his latest annual letter. These letters have become essential reading for many business leaders, giving a glimpse into the Amazon founder's mindset and the guiding principles that underline the business: Never stop experimenting, learning and, even failing, in order to remain relevant.  

"I've been reminding people that it's Day 1 for a couple of decades," Bezos wrote in his 2016 letter to shareholders. "I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic."

"Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1," Bezos said.

Many of the ideas laid out in Bezos' original 1997 letter have made their way into Amazon's list of leadership principles, or the 14 values that employees apply to new projects, problem-solving and other decision-making.  

Two-day delivery 

In 2005, Bezos launched Amazon Prime, a loyalty program that was a first of its kind. For $79 a year, customers gained access to free "all-you-can-eat" two-day shipping on more than a million items. 

Amazon Prime launched when most retailers offered to ship items in four to six days. Prime quickly changed the standard — not just for customers, but for the entire retail industry. It forced any retailer looking to make a meaningful impression online to at least consider offering free and fast delivery. 

Whole Foods Market store with Prime member signage in Burbank, California.
Dania Maxwell | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Consumers have come to expect two-day shipping from retailers both big and small. And Bezos has given them reason to keep subscribing to Prime by adding access to video and music streaming, Whole Foods discounts and other perks. 

Amazon Prime, which now counts more than 150 million subscribers worldwide, grew so big that Amazon even created a fake holiday from it, called Prime Day. It completely altered the retail calendar by pushing other companies to offer deals during the normally slow summer shopping period. 

A logistics and fulfillment empire 

The 2013 holiday shopping season might be one of the most pivotal moments in driving Bezos' plan to build Amazon's logistics and fulfillment empire.

That year, UPS, one of Amazon's biggest shipping partners, failed to deliver numerous packages ordered from Amazon and others by Christmas. It was a moment of reckoning for Amazon, pushing it to build its own delivery service, which many predicted could rival UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service.

Fast forward eight years, and Bezos has nearly met that goal with its Amazon Logistics, or AMZL, business. In 2019, Amazon's in-house logistics arm was on track to deliver 3.5 billion packages globally, or about half of all its worldwide orders. The company has likely surpassed that threshold by now, given the rapid transportation and fulfillment expansion that's taken place during the pandemic.  

You need only observe the traffic for proof. Amazon's blue vans, emblazoned with the company's signature orange arrow, are almost as ubiquitous as brown UPS trucks. 

Building Amazon's moneymaker

Amazon's cloud-computing unit originated as a tool that helped power Amazon's website and the businesses of third-party retailers on its platform. Amazon realized it could sell cloud services to other companies and, in 2006, Bezos launched Amazon Web Services.

Attendees at Inc annual cloud computing conference walk past the Amazon Web Services logo in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., November 30, 2017.
Salvador Rodriguez | Reuters

AWS has morphed into a huge business in its own right, accounting for roughly 52% of Amazon's operating income in the last quarter. AWS has blown past Microsoft's and Google's cloud offerings to become the cloud-computing service powering much of corporate America, governments and schools.  

Perhaps most importantly, it generates consistently healthy profits, helping to offset losses from Amazon's core retail business and giving it more cash to plow back into future investments. It's no wonder AWS CEO Andy Jassy was named as Bezos' successor.

First $200 billion man 

Bezos' personal wealth, which is mostly in Amazon stock, has skyrocketed in recent years along with the company's share price.

He became the world's richest man in 2017. A year later, he became the world's richest man in modern history, adjusted for inflation, when his personal wealth climbed above $150 billion. In August 2020, Bezos' net worth jumped to more than $202 billion, making him the first person to cross the $200 billion threshold. He's since been surpassed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

Even his 2019 divorce from MacKenzie Scott, which handed Scott a fortune and made her among the five richest women in the world, hardly made a dent in Bezos' personal wealth. 

Bezos vs. Trump

The Amazon CEO was thrust into the spotlight when he became a direct target of former President Donald Trump. The feud dates back to 2015, when Trump fired off a series of tweets criticizing Bezos' ownership of The Washington Post and claiming, without evidence, that Bezos uses the newspaper as a "big tax shelter" for Amazon. Bezos quipped back, offering to send Trump to space.

President Donald Trump speaks with Satya Nadella, Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft, and Jeff Bezos, Chief Executive Officer of Amazon during an American Technology Council roundtable in the State Dinning Room at the White House in Washington on June 19, 2017.
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Tensions between Bezos and Trump only intensified throughout the remainder of Trump's four-year term, with Trump accusing Amazon of everything from evading local taxes to taking unfair advantage of the Postal Service. A highly sought-after government cloud contract became a flashpoint in the saga. Amazon claimed it lost out on the JEDI contract to Microsoft, in part, due to repeated public and private attacks from Trump against Bezos. 

Trump's beef with Bezos, along with a confluence of other events, signified the beginnings of Bezos' growing public image. Bezos has received a shoutout at the Oscars multiple times, and a photo of his buff biceps was forever cemented in the "Swole Bezos" meme

Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Bezos deftly navigated a scandal involving the tabloid National Enquirer, which reported on his extramarital affair with his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, publishing private text messages and threatening to publish intimate photos. He penned a blog post headlined "No thank you, Mr. Pecker" — referring to David Pecker, who led the Enquirer's parent company, American Media — in which he accused the company of blackmail and attached threatening letters from the company that included descriptions of the intimate photos.

More critically, Bezos' influence and presence has grown steadily in the nation's capital alongside Amazon's multiplying lobbying arm. 

While at the helm of Amazon, Bezos has spun up numerous outside projects and ventures. These include his philanthropic efforts the Day 1 Fund, which focuses on helping the homeless and building preschools in low-income communities, and the Bezos Earth Fund, which combats the effects of climate change. Along with his ownership of The Washington Post, Bezos also has his own private space company, Blue Origin. 

In his resignation letter to employees, Bezos said his new role would afford him the "time and energy" to focus on these activities. 

"I've never had more energy, and this isn't about retiring," Bezos said. "I'm super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have."

Here's how other Big Tech giants did after founders stepped down as CEO
Here's how other Big Tech giants did after founders stepped down as CEO