Amazon’s First Non-Employee Customer and What He Bought

The story of John Wainwright and his journey to the first purchase at Amazon.

Sean Kernan
Dec 5, 2020 · 4 min read
Author purchased rights via adobe stock photos

Vincent Van Gogh once wrote that, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”

In many ways, the beginnings of a business is a canvas, an idea that’s initiated with a scary, committal brushstroke, evolving into a beautiful final product, or a botched and forgotten disaster.

It’s particularly interesting looking at the humble origins of ubiquitous, global companies. Their beginnings are almost always inspirationally small, the first half of their founder’s proof of perseverance.

Jeff founded Amazon in 1994, walking away from a well-paying finance job in New York City. His supervisor implored him not to leave, namely because Bezos was a good employee and worth keeping, but also because he thought Jeff was on a fool’s errand. He’d seen so many great minds fall into the abyss of failed startups.

Most of you know the rest of this story. But let’s go back, and see the part most don’t know: the story of their first sale.

The Path to the First Purchase

Jeff spent a full year testing before they made their first sale. His math and finance background has always anchored his decisions in strong data. When the product was finally working, they started testing the site with their employees. The original site is underwhelming, at best, but standard for its time:

Amazon in 1995. The original logo concept was to show an amazon river flowing through the letter ‘A’. (author via Wikimedia Commons)

Insert John Wainwright. He was a bay area programmer, who was a longtime friend of Shel Kaphan. They worked together at an Apple/IBM joint venture called Kaleida Labs. In 1994, Shel said to John, “I’m thinking about going off to Seattle to work with this guy named Jeff Bezos. We’re going to sell books online.”

Like many, John thought Shel was crazy for leaving a great programming role at a known company. Yet Shel did and became the first employee of Amazon and the founding CTO. History has validated his decision and, today, unsurprisingly, he is a very wealthy man.

Making the First Non-Employee Sale

When it was time to test, they did a private pilot program. It was open only to immediate friends and family, as was common practice for tech companies.

Kaphan and Wainwright remained friends after parting ways. In the summer of 1995, Kaphan sent Wainwright an email asking him to create an account and order some books. Wainwright later admitted, during an interview with Marketwatch, that he thought he was getting books for free so he went in on it and was surprised they charged him.

Ordering was more difficult back then. Amazon was buggy and it didn’t save your credit card. But Wainwright managed to figure it out. In true tech-nerd Silicon Valley fashion, he ordered, “Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought” by Douglas Hofstadter. It was a collection of essays, from the 1990s, on Artificial Intelligence. Not exactly a bedtime story.

The book is still available on the site for those who wish to own it.

There Was a Plot Twist When He Ordered It

Because it was such a niche book, they didn’t have it in stock at Amazon. Their warehouse had very limited space at the time.

Jeff Bezos found a workaround that exempted him from having to drive and buy it. Their supplier required them to order books in a minimum of 10. Yet with one of their suppliers, if the books were out of stock, they’d send you the 1 book and reimburse you for the other 9, which is what happened. It would have been amazing if Jeff Bezos hand-delivered this first order, but history isn’t catered to our liking.

Today, Wainwright is the Chief Technology Officer of Kollective. He still has that book along with his purchase slip

Purchased on April 3rd, 1995, with his payslip. (Author via img labeled for reuse)

He is also still an Amazon customer and says nearly half the things he buys comes from the company. Interestingly, he’s able to go all the way back to 1995 on his Amazon account history to see the order. Additionally, making his journey even more interesting, an entire building is named after him at the South Lake Amazon campus:

The building at the south lake campus. (pic via Internet History Podcast)

Lastly, if you’ll allow me to add my own personal note, I couldn’t help but wonder what my own first Amazon purchase was. You can look it up in your order's summary, selecting by year. I’d recommend you try it. It’s a fun little exercise.

My first order from 2012. It was incredibly domestic:

Source: author via Amazon

But yes, the takeaway here. A very smart programmer from outside the company bought a thick read on Artificial Intelligence in the summer of 1995.

Mr. Wainwright, we salute you for keeping that book intact. I’m sorry they made you pay for it. If it's any consolation, I suspect you could garner a few more dollars than the $19.99 you paid.

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