Amazon’s Journey: From Jeff Bezos’ Garage to a $2 Trillion Market Cap

Amazon has become synonymous with American consumerism. Need groceries? Get them delivered with Amazon Prime. Buying a present for your mother-in-law? Amazon Prime. Want to watch Meghan Markle in ‘Suits’ before she became the Duchess of Sussex? Try Prime Video. You get the idea.

Founded by Jeff Bezos in his garage in Washington state on July 5, 1994, Amazon has grown into a $2 trillion e-commerce giant. However, it has also faced criticism, regulatory scrutiny, and financial challenges. As Amazon turns 20, Quartz takes you through the major moments in its history.

1994: Amazon is founded

Princeton graduate Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in his garage in Washington state on July 5, 1994. Initially named ‘Cadabra’—a reference to ‘abracadabra’—the name was changed because it sounded too much like ‘cadaver.’ The company launched its website a year later, becoming an online bookstore that delivered to 45 countries.

1997: Amazon goes public

Amazon listed on the Nasdaq on May 15, offering 3 million shares at an initial price of $18 per share.

‘Although the company has yet to produce net profit, several analysts say…they expect the company to rake in revenue in the multimillion-dollar range within a few years,’ the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.

1998: Amazon sells more than just books

In the summer of 1998, Amazon announced plans to expand its product range to include clothing and computers. At the time, The New York Times described Amazon as ‘the most successful merchant on the Internet,’ with just over 3 million customers.

2001: Amazon raises labor activists’ alarm bells

Amazon laid off 1,300 employees, including workers in Seattle who had been part of union organizing efforts, raising concerns from the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers union about potential targeting. According to Wired, Amazon informed 450 of the 850 employees laid off in Seattle that to receive severance, they had to sign a clause waiving their right to sue the company and promising ‘not to make any derogatory comment in any format whether written, electronic, or oral, to the press or any individual or entity regarding the company.’

2005: Amazon launches Prime

During its 2004 fourth quarter earnings report, Amazon launched its express shipping service, Amazon Prime, for $79 per year.

‘Amazon Prime is “all-you-can-eat” express shipping,’ CEO Jeff Bezos said in a February 2005 statement. ‘Though expensive for the company in the short term, it’s a significant benefit and more convenient for customers.’

The service didn’t gain widespread popularity until years later, reaching over 100 million subscribers in 2018.

2011: Amazon is exposed for labor rights issues

The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania exposed appalling working conditions in an Amazon warehouse. The paper reported that Amazon was hiring paramedics and ambulance drivers to treat workers collapsing in the warehouse due to the lack of air conditioning. At one point, the heat index reached 102 degrees Fahrenheit, causing 15 workers to collapse.

‘Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out on stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time,’ wrote The Morning Call’s Spencer Soper.

On another day, the third floor of the warehouse reached 110 degrees.

‘I remember going up there to check the location of an item,’ one employee told The Morning Call. ‘I lasted two minutes because I could not breathe up there.’

In the years since, Amazon has faced criticism for intimidating workers and suppressing unionization efforts.

2017: Amazon makes its largest acquisition ever

In June, Amazon acquired Whole Foods Market for $13.7 billion, paying $42 in cash per share. This move marked Amazon’s largest acquisition to date as it sought to strengthen its presence in the grocery market.

2018: Amazon (briefly) reaches a $1 trillion valuation

In September, Amazon achieved a market capitalization of $1 trillion, becoming the second U.S. company to reach this milestone. The company’s shares rose 1.9%, surpassing the $1 trillion mark briefly before retreating to $990 billion shortly afterward. Apple was the first company to surpass the $1 trillion mark.

2020: Amazon (briefly) re-joins the $1 trillion market cap club

Amazon surpassed the $1 trillion mark once more following better-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings for 2019. On January 31, the company’s stock surged by 9% in early trading, bringing its valuation to $1.02 trillion. By the end of the day, however, Amazon’s market value settled at $995.9 billion.

2021: Jeff Bezos steps down as Amazon CEO

Jeff Bezos revealed his plan to step down as CEO of Amazon by the end of the year, transitioning to the role of executive chair. In his final letter to Amazon’s shareholders as CEO, Bezos discussed topics including the company’s employees, customers, biology, and death.

2022: Amazon gets its first union, loses $1 trillion

In April, over 2,600 workers in Staten Island voted to establish the first Amazon union in the U.S., amid increasing regulatory scrutiny over the company’s labor practices. This union victory coincided with Amazon’s financial challenges. By November, Amazon’s market capitalization had dropped to $879 billion, down from a peak of $1.88 trillion in July 2021, marking the largest market value loss for any public company at $1 trillion.

Following the unionization in Staten Island, there has been a resurgence of unionization efforts among Amazon workers across the nation. However, Amazon has faced accusations of suppressing union activities and hindering unionization efforts in other states. The company has resisted bargaining with the union, which has yet to finalize its first contract.

2024: Amazon’s big investment, big fines, and record market cap

Amazon finalized its $4 billion investment in the artificial intelligence startup Anthropic. Initially, the company invested $1.25 billion in September 2023, followed by an additional $2.75 billion announced in March.

This significant move into AI contributed to Amazon surpassing the $2 trillion market cap for the first time. Reports indicate that Amazon is developing an AI chatbot named “Metis” to compete with OpenAI’s ChatGPT. This achievement placed Amazon alongside Google-parent Alphabet, which reached a $2 trillion valuation in April.

Around the same period, Amazon faced a nearly $6 million fine for 59,000 violations of California labor laws.


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