A timeline of Amazon's evolution from bookstore to global powerhouse

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December 7, 2018
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A timeline of Amazon's evolution from bookstore to global powerhouse

Selling everything from A to Z, Amazon is the world’s third-largest retailer. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t bought something from the online superstore, but Amazon hasn’t always been the company it is today. Many of us forget that the company started in a rented Seattle garage, and that at one point, only sold books.

Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos’ philosophy has always been to “get big fast.” And while it doesn’t seem that Amazon could get any bigger, it's likely it will continue to find ways to do just that. Amazon could even become the first company to earn a $1 quadrillion valuation.

Stacker put together a brief history of Amazon, highlighting the company’s most defining moments from its humble origins to its $1 trillion market cap. Here’s everything you never knew about the global powerhouse.

July 5, 1994: Amazon Founded

After a cross-country move from New York City to Seattle, Washington, Jeff Bezos opens Amazon.com on July 5, 1994 in the garage of a rented house. Originally called Cadabra.com (as in "abracadabra"), Amazon is only the second online bookstore, born of Bezos' brilliant idea to capitalize on the Internet's 2,300% annual growth.

July 16, 1995: The First Order

Following the beta launch of Amazon's official website (designed by Amazon's first employee, Shel Kaplan) a handful of friends and family members place orders designed to help test and troubleshoot the system. On July 16, 1995, the first “real“ order is placed: a copy of "Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought" by Douglas R. Hofstadter. 

Early 1996: Amazon Moves

Amazon continues to operate out of Bezos' garage. The company's 11 employees take turns packing boxes and working from desks made from doors. After its first six months and a net $511,000 in sales, Amazon relocates headquarters to a warehouse south of Downtown Seattle.

Late 1996: Million Dollar Revenues

By the end of 1996, Amazon has amassed a whopping $15.7 million in revenue. Now offering 2.5 million titles and employing 151 people, Amazon moves its corporate offices to central Seattle and its warehouse to a 93,000-square-foot building.

May 15, 1997: Amazon Goes Public

On May 15, 1997, Bezos takes Amazon public. With an initial offering of three million shares, trading starts at $18. Amazon's stock rises to a valuation on $30 its first day, before closing at $23.25. The initial public offering raises $54 million.

November 1997: The Delaware Fulfillment Center

From its first weeks, Amazon makes sales in the tens of thousands of dollars. By the end of 1997, however, the company is still not profitable. Bezos explains to investors that he planned on deferring profitability for up to five years to work on building infrastructure and technology. While this puts investors on edge, it doesn't scare them away entirely. In November 1997, Amazon opens the first of its fulfillment centers in Delaware.

December 1997: The One Millionth Order

At the end of 1997, Jeff Bezos hand-delivers Amazon's one-millionth order: a major milestone for the company. The order is placed by a customer from Japan, who purchases a Microsoft Windows NT manual, and a biography of Princess Diana.

June 1998: Music and Videos

When he began Amazon, Bezos made a list of 20 products he thought would sell well over the Internet—books won out. He never saw Amazon as simply a bookstore, however, but a platform that sold a range of items. In 1998, the company took its first foray into offering music and videos

December 1998: Amazon Goes International

Bezos dips his toe in international waters by expanding Amazon to the United Kingdom in 1998. Acquiring booksellers in Germany and England, Bezos is able to sell to customers abroad while still keeping costs low and inventory high.

December 1999: Time Magazine's Person of the Year

By December 1999, Amazon has shipped more than 20 million items to all 50 states and more than 150 countries around the world. Time magazine honors this accomplishment by naming Jeff Bezos its Person of the Year. He's dubbed the “king of cyber commerce“ and is the fourth-youngest person to be recognized by the magazine (35 at the time of publication).

January 2000: Amazon Unveils a New Logo

Amazon makes the official transition from "bookstore" to "everything store." To acknowledge the company's change in focus, Amazon unveils a new logo. The iconic “smile“ logo, designed by Turner Duckworth, replaces the abstract rendering of the Amazon River (which inspired the company's name).

January 2001: The Dot Com Bubble Burst

Amazon stays above the fallout of the dot-com bubble burst that has affected competitors for months. In January of 2001, however, it finally begins to feel the effects. Amazon lays off 1,300 employees, closes a Seattle call center and distribution center, and downsizes operations at its Seattle warehouse in the same month. Investors worry whether the company will survive.

November 2002: Amazon Sells Clothes

In 2002, Amazon begins selling clothes. The company's millions of users help gain a foothold in the fashion industry. Amazon partners with 400 apparel brands in a bid to appeal to a diverse range of customers.

June 2003: Web Hosting Business

The company launches its web hosting platform in 2003 in an effort to make Amazon profitable. Licensing its website to other companies like Borders and Target, Amazon.com quickly becomes one of the biggest cloud hosting companies in the market. Web hosting now makes up a huge portion of their annual revenue.

December 2003: Amazon Finally Turns a Profit

Record holiday sales in 2003 finally put Amazon in the black. For the first time, nearly a decade after its founding, Amazon.com makes a profit of $35.5 million. Compared to the close of 2002 (a loss of $149.1 million), this is a huge milestone for the world's largest online retailer.  

August 2004: China

In a pricey landmark deal, Amazon buys Chinese retail giant Joyo.com in August 2004. The $75 million investment gives the company access to a major market, and Amazon begin selling books, music, and videos through the platform.

February 2005: Amazon Prime Debuts

As of March 2018, Amazon has an estimated 90 million Prime subscribers. For $119 a year, subscribers get free two-day shipping and access to a host of movies and TV shows, along with a range of other benefits. When the loyalty program first launches in February 2005, subscribers only pay $79 a year, and benefits are limited to free two-day shipping.

November 19, 2007: The Kindle Debuts

Amazon's first branded product, the Kindle, launches in November 2007. Featured in Newsweek magazine, the first-generation Kindle is dubbed "the iPod of reading," and costs $399. It sells out within hours, sparking demand for digital books.

January 2008: Amazon Acquires Audible

Amazon looks to dominate the print and digital book markets as well as audiobooks. In January 2008, Amazon outbids Apple to acquire audiobook giant Audible for $300 million.

January 2010: The Macmillan Lawsuit

After buying Audible, Amazon officially owns 41% of the book market. In January 2010, Amazon finds itself locked in a legal battle with Macmillan over pricing. In one of its biggest legal brushes to-date, Amazon eventually allows Macmillan to set its own prices.

March 2012: Kiva

In 2012, Amazon buys robotics company Kiva. The company manufactures robots that move packages weighing up to 700 pounds. The robots cut the fulfillment centers' operating costs by 20%, and drastically improve efficiency—creating an even wider gap between the giant and its competitors.

July 2013: President Obama's Amazon Speech

As of February 2018, Amazon employs 566,000 people worldwide. Many of these jobs qualify as middle-class, which is why in President Obama chooses to deliver a 2013 economic policy speech in an Amazon warehouse. He praises Amazon as an example of a large company doing its part to rebuild the economy. 

November 2013: Sunday Package Delivery

Mail usually isn't delivered on Sundays, but in late 2013, Amazon works out a confidential deal with the U.S. Postal Service to have USPS carriers deliver their packages all weekend long. The first company to make this type of deal, Amazon's goods are finally available to their customers 24/7.

June 2014: The Fire Phone

An uncharacteristic misstep, Amazon's Fire Phone is released in June 2014. Factors like its price ($650 without a contract) and a lack of popular apps (like Google Maps or Starbucks) render the phone a flop with consumers. In the end, Amazon loses more than $200 million on the unpopular device.

August 2014: Twitch Interactive

Amazon buys Twitch Interactive Inc., a new video game streaming company, for $970 million in cash. The acquisition bolsters Amazon's growing game product division, and pulls the entire gaming community into its orbit.

November 2015: Brick and Mortar Bookshops

Many consumers view the opening of Amazon's first brick and mortar bookstore as an ironic twist of fate. The tech giant has long been blamed for the decline of independent bookshops, and when its first location opens in Seattle—with lines around the block—people have a lot to say. Today, there are 15 Amazon bookstores around the country.

June 2017: Amazon Acquires Whole Foods

While Amazon dominates almost all of the markets it enters, the company has long struggled to gain a foothold in the highly competitive grocery business. In 2017, Amazon buys all of Whole Foods' 471 stores for $13.4 billion. Amazon has since integrated the two companies' distribution systems, and combined discounts to loyalty members of both stores.

September 2018: The $1 Trillion Market Cap

In a historic moment, Amazon crosses the $1 trillion valuation threshold in September of 2018. The second company in history to meet that benchmark (Apple hit it only months before), Amazon hasn't consistently remained above $1 trillion. Nevertheless, it's wavered around the 13-digit mark ever since.

October 2018: The Minimum Wage Boost

Jeff Bezos has been the world's richest man for years. He's also faced heavy criticism over employees' wages. In early 2018, the company's median wage was $28,446. Challenged by progressive leaders, Bezos announces in October that the company's minimum wage would be raised to $15—almost double the country's minimum wage.

November 2018 and February 2019: HQ2

On November 13, 2018, after almost a year-long search, Amazon announces that its new headquarters (HQ2) will be split between New York City and Virginia. Hundreds of cities put in bids for the $5 billion project and its promised 50,000 jobs.

However, on Feb. 14, 2019, Amazon announced it was scrapping its plans for the Queens-based campus due to intense opposition from local politicians and activists. The company will move forward with the Virginia campus.  

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