Shel Kaphan was the first employee Jeff Bezos hired back in 1994 when Amazon.com was just a few geeks operating out of a converted garage in Bellevue. Migrating from Santa Cruz, Calif., Kaphan had gone to work laying the groundwork for what would eventually become a multibillion-dollar retail empire.
Later he would be "sidelined" from his work and would quit. But thanks to early stock options, he's a very rich man today. That doesn't mean he's not bitter, though.
GeekWire has a long interview today with Kaphan that covers things like early company names that didn't work ("Cadabra" was used for a while, then ditched for sounding like "cadaver," and "Relentless" was not used because, well, it was terrible) and how there was a single day during the early stages of the company that Bezos said they should take some time off and go enjoy the outdoors.
At one point, Kaphan says he realized that the company he'd gotten in on the ground floor of was going to be big. Really big.
"When we were in the second building, I remember there was a day when Jeff's face was on the front page of The Wall Street Journal in their little portrait engraved style, and we got really slammed right after that and managed to survive that. Both the publicity, and that we were able to manage the consequences of it, that made a big impression on me. And then . . . there were like six quarters in a row where our business doubled every quarter, and with no end in sight apparently. That got my attention, and I said: 'OK, whatever this is going to be, it is bigger than I thought it was going to be.'
So why leave?
Kaphan says that after two-and-a-half years at Amazon he was transitioned from leading the research and development team to becoming Chief Technology Officer. He says he no longer had authority over many aspects of the company, and he felt "sidelined."
Still, that doesn't mean that he didn't make out like a bandit.
How much ownership did you have of Amazon.com? "I think I'd rather not discuss that. We were not even partners. I was given a small fraction of what Jeff allocated to himself . . . He did the fundraising initially, and some of those funds were his own funds and the rest were his family's funds."
But it is safe to say that this job made you a very wealthy person? "Yeah, it is safe to say."
The whole interview has a way of making Kaphan sound like a smaller but just-as-whiny Paul Allen. Although to his credit, Kaphan hasn't written a tell-all book that puts his rich-man's gripes on paper.
Still, it's worth the read, even if just for the insider view on Amazon's genesis.