Tom Schonhoff joined Amazon as its fifth employee in 1995.
He had just graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in computer science (he had been working as software developer throughout the 1980s, but never got around to completing college until he was in his early 30s.)
Not long after the graduation ceremony, he got a phone call from Jeff Bezos.
At that point, Amazon’s site wasn’t even live, but Schonhoff had been beta-testing it. Somebody had given Bezos his name.
The founder was looking for a highly skilled developer, but Schonhoff didn’t have the right specialisation. Bezos insisted he would find a spot for Schonhoff and he ended up building its customer service department from scratch.
It was an important job, but taking phone calls and delivery packages to the Post Office didn’t exactly take advantage of Schonhoff’s new degree. He chose to take the job anyway though, partially because of his huge confidence in Bezos, who he had been talking back-and-forth with for several months.
“I questioned Jeff really hard about what his business plan was, about his financing, about the software and the design of the store, and so forth,” Schonhoff tells Business Insider. “I remember noting very early that I couldn’t come up with a question that Jeff didn’t have a really well thought-through answer for, right in hand. And I tried very hard, to punch holes in his plan.”
Schonhoff says that, try as he might, he couldn’t come up with a scenario or possibility that Bezos hadn’t already considered carefully. He couldn’t come up with a question that Bezos couldn’t answer extremely well.
“And that’s a rare experience,” he says.”My sense about Jeff was that he really had covered all his bases and thought it through incredibly well. And that gave me great confidence.”
That confidence inspired him to join the tiny startup. He stayed for about six years. In its early days, Amazon wasn’t an “Everything Store” which also makes drones and smartphones; It only focused on books. In the first month, Amazon shipped to people in all 50 states and in 45 different countries.
Schonhoff remembered that those early orders clearly demonstrated how much of a need people had for the ability to find books not present in their local libraries. People wanted books about obscure topics — the “deeply buried treasures,” as Schonoff puts it — like antique pipe organ repair People would order every book ever written by a specific author. One man in Japan ordered everything in Amazon’s catalogue that was in any way related to the musical “Annie.”
“We were not serving the generic, central, high-volume best-seller market,” he says. “That was there, but we were giving people a new option that was long-anticipated. That made us really proud.”
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.