Updated: Call it a coincidence, but over the past few days I have spent a lot of time with folks who used to work for Amazon but are now out doing new things. It all started with Jason Kilar, the CEO of Hulu, who was a […]

Updated: Call it a coincidence, but over the past few days I have spent a lot of time with folks who used to work for Amazon but are now out doing new things. It all started with Jason Kilar, the CEO of Hulu, who was a keynote speaker at our NewTeeVee Live conference. Then last night I met with Dave Schapell, founder and CEO of TeachStreet, an e-marketplace for teachers. And this morning I had coffee with Jeff Lawson, co-founder of Twilo.

My buddy Dave McClure was the one who pointed out that they are all part of the Ex-Amazon club. Just like the rising number of ex-Google entrepreneurs I wrote about last year, these guys are leaving top jobs at one of the best technology companies in the U.S. Here is a list of just some of those names, their current companies and their previous positions at the e-tailer:

Plus Jason Kilar, CEO of Hulu (Amazon Marketplace)

Now this isn’t even a comprehensive list, and slowly and surely, it is expanding. The easy availability of capital in Seattle certainly helps, but more importantly it speaks to the amount of top-quality talent that Amazon has been able to attract over the years. Lawson, who stopped by for a cup of tea this morning to pitch his company, Twilio, said that one of Amazon’s biggest strengths has always been its ability to recruit and hire great minds.

It is because of this hiring policy that the company has not only stayed ahead of the technology curve, but established itself as the leader in Web 2.0 innovation. That’s in stark contrast to other tech giants such as Yahoo and Google, which have instead taken their cues from small startups. For talented people, the allure of working with Jeff Bezos can be what clinches the deal, according to Schappell of TeachStreet, which counts Bezos Expeditions as one of its investors. His company has essentially developed a place where you can go to find things like a French teacher, or someone to give you trombone lessons. I like to call it the Yellow Pages with brains, and it’s the kind of service a company like eBay should have launched instead of mucking around with things like Skype.

Those who know Bezos well say that he isn’t afraid of losing and wants to win big — and that means making big bets. This “nothing-in-the-middle” attitude is particularly attractive to folks with an entrepreneurial gene.

Of course, it also has its downside. Bezos’ big-play approach frustrates those who want to unleash small ideas, and nurture them over a period of time. Eventually some great people couldn’t live within the corporate structure of Amazon and went on to do their own thing. Like Lawson, who was the CTO of Stubhub in that company’s early days before starting Twilio, a company that has developed an easy way for web application developers to add voice capabilities to their offerings using standard web-programming techniques.

Should Amazon be worried about this brain drain? Absolutely not, for the company continues to attract talent the way lights attracts moths. I’ve often wondered what Amazon would do next, and I have a few ideas as to where I think they’re going. Someday I’ll blog about that, too.

Check out my video interview with Jeff Bezos.

  1. Bruce D'Ambrosio Friday, November 21, 2008

    You left out Dave Selinger and RichRelevance!

  2. Amazon has a reputation for hiring bright people, giving them sparse compensation and resources, then squeezing tons of work out of them until they finally realize that Amazon is good only to shareholders, customers and Bezos, not to its employees.

    That this model worked for the past 5 years is impressive. Hats off to Bezos. And declining alternative options should keep Amazon’s bright people at their door-and-saw-horse desks for another 2-3 years, unless the diaspora can make enough progress to shelter the poor bastards still trapped within Stalag 1516.

  3. [...] The Growing Ex-Amazon Club and Why it’s a Good Thing by Om Malik at Gigaom [...]

  4. Owen Van Natta – COO of Facebook now CEO of Project Playlist.

  5. Come on Om, you need to be a bit more circumspect when you look at stories like this. Yes, people are leaving Amazon and starting companies. No, most of them are not going to succeed.

    On your list, Twilio and Hulu are interesting. The rest are just silly web 2.0 garbage that is never going anywhere. These are not technology companies, but media companies (and very niche media companies at that).

    Pelago on the other hand is going to fail exactly because of its Amazon roots and the hubris and lack of real skill of its ex-Amazon management team.

  6. I agree with Paul. I’d thought of working for Amazon until I heard about what a sh#@hole it was. I’ve been tearing it up for a different fortune 50 tech company since then. They should try either a) taking care of their people or b) if that rumor is false, demonstrating that to the rest of the (recruiting) world.

  7. @Joe: well as an investor in both Dave Schappell / http://TeachStreet.com & in Dave Selinger / http://RichRelevance (another ex-Amazon startup), also advisor to Jeff Lawson / Twilio, I sure hope you’re the one who’s full of shit and not me.

    on the other hand, it’s exactly that kind of attitude that could get you a nice safe job doing powerpoint over at Sequoia. best of luck with your developing “playa-hater” career. maybe Ted Dzuiba could use a right-hand hatchet man at UnCov.

    thanks for the upbeat perspective,

  8. [...] has a great story about "The Growing Ex-Amazon Club and Why It’s a Good Thing”. This is essentially an extension of the Fairchildren model for seeding companies and talent. [...]

  9. People leave Amazon because it’s a terrible place to work, not because they’ve generated good ideas or experience while working there.

  10. Interesting story, Om. Another interesting story would be to trace the roots all the way back to D. E. Shaw. Both Bezos and Holden worked at Shaw before Amazon, and there are a number of Shaw alums doing their own businesses elsewhere (such as John Overdeck, who founded Two Sigma after working at Shaw and then Amazon).

    By the way, of the folks trashing Amazon, how many have actually worked there? I was at Amazon from 2004 to 2007. Like any big company, it has its pros and cons. Sure, the pager duty is notorious (although it’s way better on some teams than others), it can be a high-pressure environment, and it burns a lot of people out. At the same time, there are a ton of great people there, making for an environment where you can respect your peers and learn from them; they’re a pioneer in their field and thus have a ton of innovative, interesting projects; and there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity to take ownership and responsibility if you’re capable of it, especially owing to the “two-pizza team” model. Plenty of people have had long careers there that they wouldn’t trade for anything. There are a lot of things Amazon could improve about its working environment, no doubt. But to describe it using vulgarities or to call it “a terrible place to work” is just not accurate.


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