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When Amazon Was Just A River In Brazil: An Early Chat With Jeff Bezos

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This new chapter in Amazon's history inspired us to look at its past. We found an interview with Jeff Bezos from the mid-1990s.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

At the time, the Internet giant was just getting started, but it was on a roll. It had found a winning formula in selling books online. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED commentator Andrei Codrescu flew up to Seattle to report on startups, including Amazon. And Bezos explained to him how he came up with this strategy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JEFF BEZOS: World Wide Web usage was growing at 2,300 percent a year, and there are very few things that ever grow that fast. And you could tell just from anecdotal evidence that the baseline usage of the Web was not tiny. So given those two facts, it was clear that the Web was going to be a big deal very soon.

So I started casting about, thinking about what would - you know, what's a great business plan in the context of this amazing growth rate - pretty quickly decided that interactive retailing was a very interesting area. And then the question was, what's the first best product to sell online? And I made a list of 20 different products and sort of force-ranked them and ended up choosing books as the first best product.

ANDREI CODRESCU, BYLINE: Well, what are the books? Do you have them here?

BEZOS: We have - not here. This is our - sort of our headquarters and our main offices. There - we have a warehouse about three miles south of here. Our warehouse is really primarily a fulfillment center.

CODRESCU: The fulfillment center - I'm going to build one of those at my house.

BEZOS: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Codrescu and Bezos we're speaking in Amazon's headquarters at the time. It was an office building that the company shared with others in downtown Seattle. Being Seattle, home of the famous Pike Place Fish Market, the conversation took a turn which now seems telling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CODRESCU: What's your favorite fish?

BEZOS: (Laughter) I guess it would have to be the piranha.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: A hungry piranha is not a bad metaphor for how Jeff Bezos has run Amazon in the two decades since that interview. The company today is valued at nearly half a trillion dollars. It has hundreds of millions of customers worldwide and sells them a lot more than books.

SHAPIRO: Shoes, electronics, diapers. And along the way, it has consumed a lot of its competitors in those fields. Now it even sells organic produce thanks to Amazon's recent purchase of the Whole Foods grocery store chain.

CHANG: All that has led critics, including some in Congress, to call for greater scrutiny of its seemingly insatiable appetite for growth.

SHAPIRO: And we should add, Amazon is among NPR's corporate sponsors. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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