Blog Post

The Growing Ex-Amazon Club and Why It's a Good Thing

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 (s amzn) 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 (s yhoo) and Google (s goog), 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 (s 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.

22 Responses to “The Growing Ex-Amazon Club and Why It's a Good Thing”

  1. Interesting!! Out of a lot of startups started by ex-Amazon employess, I find a number of online bookstores. But is it legal that ex-Amazon employees walk out of Amazon and start up online bookstores? Isn’t there any legal implication?

  2. ramviswa

    I could think of few more such startups from India.

    Arjun Shetty, Founder & COO,
    Vijay Subramanian, Founder,
    Sachin & Binny Bansal, Founders,

    And as Rahul pointed out, it is indeed a great time to reap rewards in India. With increasing broadband penetration and mobile adoption, India is now an extremely attractive market for tech startups.

  3. Nice artcile, Om. Thought I’ll mention a few ex-Amazon India folks who have set up their own businesses.

    Anand Rao, Founder & CEO,
    Bal Krishn Birla, Co-founder & CTO,

    Those are the names I can think of off the top of my head. However, there are plenty more who are hoping to strike gold in the still nascent economy of India.

  4. It was great catching up with you, Om — I really enjoyed the conversation. I meant to comment here earlier, but got pulled aside by my wife for yard/housework; seems that I haven’t been very helpful around the house of late.

    It looks like commenters have pretty well filled out the list, but I thought of another:

    * Kushal Chakrabarti – Vittana

    Let me know when you get up to Seattle — will have you out to a Thursday night Hops and Chops event to meet with some of the very early startups taking shape.

  5. As an ex amazon employee I can verify the pros and cons of the place. The way employees are treated are at times unethical at best. As you will find anywhere there are good employees that will help you and be good friends for life. Yes they are doing great things but instead of caring about the people that are making the company work they let them go or treat them like crap until they leave. I saw good people and bad people work for the company and alot of the problems caused were by people further up the food chain. Programs that were used were so far out of date and awful to use. I had a job there I loved but was told I couldn’t have it because I lacked vision, even though I did a great job I was booted back down the ranks. It also seemed that if you needed a FMLA for any reason you were treated badly until you wanted to quit. In the end because I had a doctor’s note that limited my physical capabilities and was taking percoset I was fired for being a safety hazard. Word of the way you are treated there as spread and it has become very difficult for them to get help over the holiday season.

  6. post-Amazon

    There are a few more folks who come to mind as well –

    –Gaurav Oberoi and Chuck Groom founded BillMonk, which sold to Obopay (two years ago?). They also started the Seattle Tech Startups alias, which like many Seattle tech groups is disproportionately ex-Amazon-heavy.

    –Neil Roseman is CEO of Evri, a Paul Allen-funded semantic web startup.

    –Vijay Ravindran was just named Chief Digital Officer of the Washington Post, after a CTO gig for a political consultancy in DC.

    –Scott Ruthfield has some things going on, I don’t know the details.

    –Ben Black is a VP of Research at Joyent and is starting a Seattle office.

    –Jesse Robbins is CEO of a stealth startup.

    etc. etc. The Amazonians are out there doing interesting things all over the place.

  7. 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.

  8. @Joe: well as an investor in both Dave Schappell / & 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,

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.