The First 19 Amazon Employees: Where Are They Now?

Jeff and mackenzie bezosSara Jaye/Getty ImagesAn old photo of Jeff and MacKenzie

When Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, started driving northwest from Texas in 1994, they were setting off on a journey to create one of the biggest e-commerce sites in the United States, based in Seattle. Although they took that first long road trip alone, it didn’t take Bezos — with his grand vision and boisterous laugh — long to start pulling in talent.

Brad Stone’s book “The Everything Store” along with a conversation with early employees Tom Schonhoff and Mike Hanlon helped us figure out the names of some of Amazon’s first critical employees. (The first 10 employees are listed in the order they were hired, though the others are not. If you know someone else who was there in the earliest days, let us know!)

Some early Amazon employees have become entrepreneurs. Others are angel investors. A few are happily retired.

Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.

Eric Benson and his wife, Susan, joined Amazon together.

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 - 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Engineer

What he's doing now: Retired

Benson he joined the company as an engineer. He and Susan, his wife, would always bring their dog Rufus to work with them because of the long hours. The corgi fast became something of a fixture at the company.

One of the many things Benson worked on was the site's 'Similarities' system, which recommended books based on what users had already read. He completed the preliminary version in only two weeks.

The Bensons are still together today, living in Washington.

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 - 2001

What she's doing now: Board of Directors of Seattle's Town Hall

Benson was part of Amazon's editorial staff (employees wrote all the first reviews) and she would eventually win the title of editor in chief. She told Stone that, in the early days, the assumption was that employees wouldn't even take a weekend day off of work.

She and the rest of the editorial team were responsible for crafting witty messages for site visitors recommending new products that they might be interested in, a job that became nearly obsolete when Amazon built an algorithm called Amabot that automatically generated recommendations in a standard format.

Nick Strauss did a little bit of everything at Amazon.

Date worked for Amazon: July 1996 - 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Catalogue specialist

What he's doing now: Business intelligence trainer at T-Mobile

Strauss had a variety of jobs at Amazon, including answering customer service calls, writing code, packing books, giving presentations, and 'anything else you can imagine.'

Barrie Trinkle was a National Spelling Bee champion before she joined the company in 1996.

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 - 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Site merchandiser / editor

What she's doing now: Trinkle is a writer, editor, investor, and volunteer

Trinkle won the National Spelling Bee in 1973 with the word 'vouchesafe' and has served on the Bee's Word Panel since 1996, the same year she joined Amazon. After graduating from MIT, she spent more than a decade at NASA's Jet Propulsion lab before joining Amazon.

Rebecca Allen was an early Amazon engineer. She now lives on the East Coast.

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 - 1998

Most recent Amazon title: Software engineer

What she's doing now: Often writing about tech on her blog.

Software engineer Ellen Ratajak worked on Amazon's early IT.

Ellen Ratajak is on the board of Organically Grown Company

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 - 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Director of IT

What she's doing now: She's a board member of Organically Grown Company, an organic produce wholesaler, and an independent IT consultant

She and Shel Kaphan, Amazon's first employee, shared an office and would sometimes blast rockabilly music as they hacked away on the site, even late on Friday nights.

She's admitted that Bezos could be a 'royal a**hole' with 'irrational stubbornness,' but that it all came from his unrelenting desire to delight customers.

Scott Northrop was Amazon's 'Unix Shaman.'

Some wacky Stark Raving Pizza marketing and Scott Northrop

Date worked for Amazon: 1995 - 2000

Most recent Amazon title: Unix Shaman

What he's doing now: Owner of Stark Raving Foods, which makes gluten-free frozen pizza

When Northrop joined Amazon way back in 1995, employees were allowed to put whatever they wanted on their business cards, so he chose Shaman.

''Wizard' was way too nerdarrific and 'Jedi' wasn't cool yet,' he jokes on LinkedIn. He wrote the code that did the automatic layout of Amazon's packing slips and built the site's payment system, which he notes scaled from '300 sales on a big day' to $US1 billion a year while he worked on it.

Jonathan Kochmer now plays in a band called Two Loons For Tea.

Jonathan is in a band called Two Loons For Tea. That's him in the back.

Date worked for Amazon: 1995 - 2000

Most recent Amazon title: Kochmer had many positions at Amazon

What he's doing now: Director of research and development at nonprofit Earth Economics. He's also in a band called Two Loons For Tea.

While at Amazon, Kochmer helped develop the browse system for books and worked in the teams that developed the company-wide data infrastructures. He also did 'stealth online promotion' and vendor negotiation.

Knute Sears and Fred Eiden were Amazon's 9th and 10th employees.

Here is some of the furniture that Eiden has designed.

Mike Hanlon, Amazon's seventh employee, remembers that Knute Sears and Fred Eiden were Amazon's 9th and 10th employees, hired in 1995. Eiden now designs customer furniture, a craft he took up after he left Amazon in 2001.

Amazon's eighth employee, Laurel Canan, gave up coffee when he joined Amazon.

Here's what Amazon's warehouses look like these days.

Date worked for Amazon: 1995 to at least 1998 (we weren't able to find further information on Canan)

First job at Amazon: Operations

What he's doing now: Unknown

Laurel Canan, Amazon's eighth employee, was a 24-year-old carpenter who was planning to return to school to become a Chaucer scholar. Instead, he joined Amazon, taking over operations in the company's warehouse.

He completely gave up coffee soon after. 'You can't do a job like that on caffeine. You have to do it on carbs,' he told Brad Stone.

Mike Hanlon, Amazon's seventh employee, brought his girlfriend to the warehouse and Bezos made her sign an NDA.

Date worked for Amazon: 1995 - 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Operations / Software development

What he's doing now: Hanlon recently cofounded a company called Abett that uses data to help you make stressful decisions. The company's first product identifies outfits from the clothes in users' closets. He and his wife, Molly, now run The Hanlon Foundation.

According to his LinkedIn, Hanlon managed real estate operations and administrated UNIX and telecom systems from 1995 to 1997. From 1998 to 2001, he worked as a software engineer, developing finance and customer service applications.

He shared this fun anecdote via email:

During Christmas 1995, the site really took off. Everyone was working long hours, and my girlfriend (now wife) Molly would come hang out in the warehouse in the evenings to help us pack up shipments. That was really the only chance that Molly and I had to see each other, and her help enabled us to get home earlier than we would have otherwise.

When Jeff Bezos realised that Molly was helping us in the warehouse, he came down and had her sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Shel Kaphan was Amazon's first employee besides Bezos and his wife.

Date worked for Amazon: Fall 1994 - 1999

First Amazon job title: VP of Research and Development

Most recent Amazon title: CTO

What he's doing now: Philanthropy and pursuing his personal interests

Although he's not officially considered a cofounder, he and Bezos were discussing the company even before it was incorporated, and Bezos once referred to him as 'the most important person ever in the history of'

He decided to leave after Bezos hired two new tech managers and named him CTO, essentially taking him off the front lines and making him feel helpless to make any real change within the company. Bezos and Kaphan are no longer in touch.

MacKenzie and Jeff met at work.

MacKenzie Tuttle, a D.E. Shaw research associate, married Jeff Bezos in 1993 and the duo founded Amazon together. She became the fledgling company's first accountant and, according to Brad Stone, was the one 'handling the finances, writing the checks, and helping with hiring.'

She's now a novelist.

Jeff Bezos has been the CEO of Amazon since the very beginning.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

Since founding Amazon, Bezos has donated $US42 million and part of his land in Texas to the construction of The Clock Of The Long Now, an underground clock designed to work for 10,000 years. In 2012, he donated $US2.5 million to defend gay marriage in Washington. In August 2013, Bezos bought The Washington Post for $US250 million. He funds a private space company called Blue Origin, which is working on developing technology for private space travel.

Learn much more about his life here.

Now, meet another group of people who helped build a major company:

Heather Cairns was one of the original Googlers

Google's first 21 employees: Where are they now?>>

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