What Happened To 7 Of The Earliest Employees Who Launched Amazon

Jeff bezos
Jeff Bezos’ official Amazon portrait. Amazon Inc.

When Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie started driving northwest from New York 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” helped us figure out the names of some of Amazon’s first critical employees.

Meet the people who got Amazon off the ground:


Shel Kaphan’s Twitter pic

Shel Kaphan

Kaphan was Amazon’s first official employee besides Bezos and his wife, and Bezos convinced him to join the fledgling company over blueberry pancakes.

Although he didn’t get founder’s stock in the company, he considers himself a co-founder and Bezos once referred to him as “the most important person ever in the history of Amazon.com.”

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.

Date worked for Amazon: Fall 1994 to 1999

First Amazon job title: Developer

Most recent Amazon title: CTO

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

Paul Davis

Flickr / Paco Riviere

Paul Davis

Davis was Amazon’s second employee, joining before the company launched its website and working with Kaphan to make Bezos’ dreams a reality. When he left his job at the University of Washington, his coworkers passed around a coffee can to collect a few dollars for him in case the risky venture failed.

Although he only stayed with Amazon for two years, he was absolutely critical to the development of the site, helping to create the entire back-end. In his own words:

“I left, despite significant stock and other inducements to remain, because I am a technical person and had little interest in playing a role in the growth of the company. I was intimately involved with many aspects of getting this now-extremely successful company started.”

Date worked for Amazon: Fall 1994 to 1996

First Amazon job title: Developer

What he’s doing now: Founder of Linux Audio Systems, Lecturer at Berlin’s Technische Universitat

Amazon door desk

Door desk.

Nicholas Lovejoy

Lovejoy worked with Bezos at D.E. Shaw, and was a high-school maths teacher in Seattle before moving to Amazon. Once he arrived, he made the suggestion to put packing tables in Amazon’s warehouse. To most it would seem obvious, but Bezos, who had suggested buying knee-pads to make packing easier, praised him for years for the completely “brilliant idea.”

All of Amazon’s desks were subsequently (and cheaply) made out of doors.

He left the company in 1998 to go backpacking around the world with his girlfriend. The two eventually got married and founded the philanthropic Gordon-Lovejoy Foundation.

Date worked for Amazon: Summer 1995 to 1998

First Amazon title: Recruiting

What he’s doing now: Philanthropy

Amazon warehouses

This is what Amazon’s warehouses look like these days.

Laurel Canan

Canan 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.

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

Amazon shipping boxes

AP Photo/Ben Margot

Tom Schonhoff

Schonhoff, often regarded as Amazon’s fifth employee, had just earned a computer science degree at the University of Washington when Bezos brought him on board. Schonhoff remembers that Bezos asked him for his SAT scores; he was a boss that valued intelligence and believed that having a superstar team was the secret to building a successful company.

Schonhoff said of the work environment at Amazon as the company started to grow: “We had a Rhodes scholar and a winner of the National Spelling Bee. We had a rocket scientist. … I knew a customer service rep who had a Ph.D. in some sort of bioengineering. [Bezos’] preference was to hire brilliant people and let them do their thing.”

Date worked for Amazon: 1995 until at least 2011, based on patent filings

What he’s doing now: Inventor

Tom benson


Eric Benson

Benson was a former colleague of Kaphan’s before 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.

Benson largely built the site’s personalisation system, called “Similarities,” which recommended books based on what users had already read. He completed the preliminary version in only two weeks.

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 – 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Engineer

What he’s doing now: Retired

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

REUTERS/Gus Ruelas
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

Susan Benson

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, personalised 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.

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 – 2001

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

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