eWEEK at 30: How Amazon Survived the Dot-Com Crash to Rule the Cloud

eWEEK 30: Amazon's decision early on to take a slow road to profitability, focus on the customer and always be innovating changed the world of online retailing and cloud computing.

Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos once said he wanted to minimize the number of regrets he would have when looking back on his life. And one regret that would haunt him every day was never having tried his hand at building an Internet company. It was that revelation in 1994 that led Bezos to quit his job at a Wall Street firm, move across country and, in his garage, start up an online bookstore.

Today, Amazon is more than just the company that helped popularize online shopping: It is also a virtual landlord hosting thousands of e-commerce sites and a technology-for-hire company whose cloud computing services will, by some estimates, bring in $4 billion in revenue in 2013.

From selling books (and just about everything else, including the kitchen sink) online to offering cloud services and possibly a radical delivery system, Amazon certainly isn't afraid to try something different, always innovating and transforming.

It's the classic story of the rabbit and the tortoise. The cocky dot-coms of the mid-'90s were—just like jack rabbits—popping up everywhere, with dollar signs in their eyes, making a mad dash for some fast and easy cash, and lots of it. Young entrepreneurs were living the high life, and venture capitalists were ignoring all they were taught, believing the Internet was some sort of magical moneymaker. Amazon, meanwhile, was the proverbial tortoise, with Bezos deciding that a slow and steady pace to profitability would ultimately win the race—much to the dismay of his investors.

Nearly 20 years later, Bezos still stands by that approach. In the same Dec. 1 "60 Minutes" interview in which Bezos revealed that his company is developing airborne drones capable of delivering packages to customers in 30 minutes, he discussed why he believes Amazon's long-term approach to ROI gives it a distinct edge.

"The long-term approach is rare enough that it means you're not competing against very many companies because most companies want to see a return on investment in, you know, one, two, three years. … I'm willing for it to be five, six, seven years. So just that change in timeline can be a very big competitive advantage," he said.

Of course, keeping true to the rabbit-and-tortoise tale, Amazon went six years from its launch in 1995 before it finally reached profitability in the fourth quarter of 2001. As for many of the other dot-com companies, the Internet bubble burst in 2000, and they never even reached the finish line.

Amazon's success, however, wasn't just due to its slow and steady approach. For one thing, the company looked at the customer. Plus, it had a business model that actually worked. "Amazon survived the dot-com bust because it had a viable and innovative business model built around a market-changing customer value proposition and a radical profit formula," wrote Mark Johnson in Businessweek.

Indeed, the company's mission is "… to be earth's most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online."

In his "60 Minutes" interview, Bezos said, "I would define Amazon by our big ideas, which are customer centricity, putting the customer at the center of everything we do, invention. We like to pioneer, we like to explore, we like to go down dark alleys and see what's on the other side."