The story goes back to what Bezos did exactly 27 years ago today, so that would be May 23, 1994. I’m going to give you a few hints, and then I’ll explain the answer and we can explore why this little bit of trivia is illumniating,
Let’s start with the hints:
- First, Bezos was really into science fiction as a kid. He read voraciously, and played Star Trek with his friends in grade school every day. And, he closely watched the original Star Trek series. “We were all Trekkies,” his mother recalled. “It got to the point where Jeff would quote the lines, he was so captivated.”
- Next, Bezos was valedictorian of his high school class in 1982. Part of his speech focused on his belief that humans needed to preserve the Earth and explore the stars. What was his last line? “Space, the final frontier. Meet me there.”
- Finally, you might already know that before Bezos settled on the name Amazon.com, he considered calling his company Cadabra (as in, “abracadabra”). But, the other early name that “he liked best,” according to one account, was different: MakeItSo.com, after the catch phrase used by Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
By now, either you’re among the small subset of “enterprising” readers who will have figured this out, or not. So let’s disclose what happened on May 23, 1994, and get into why it matters.
If we set the date in context, it was just after Bezos had decided to leave his highly lucrative hedge fund job to head west, and start an Internet company. The description of what he did that day (evening, really) comes from Brad Stone’s book, The Everything Store:
Bezos started planning for his journey. He held a party at his Upper West Side apartment to watch the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Then he flew out to Santa Cruz, California to meet two experienced programmers …
That’s it; on May 23 of that year, Bezos threw a party and watched the last episode of TNG.
People who are really into Star Trek apparently regard that finale as one of the best installments in the canon. I’m not going to get too bogged down in describing the episode, but it’s symbolic of the degree to which Star Trek, and more broadly, science fiction in general, have inspired Bezos and Amazon.
In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that the single thing that motivates Bezos most — at least the thing he would hope that one day, centuries from now, people might remember him for, isn’t Amazon at all (Bezos says few companies even last 100 years), but instead: space exploration.
Of course, if it weren’t for starting Amazon and becoming a mega-billionaire, Bezos would never have been in a position to found Blue Origin or fund his space pursuits, to begin with.
When you look back now, it makes sense. SciFi and Star Trek are everywhere. For example voice-activated computer on Star Trek, Bezos has said, was the inspiration for the Amazon Echo.
For that matter, of the six products that Bezos has personally reviewed on Amazon, one was a science fiction story, and another was the true story of a failed attempt to explore the solar system.
Moreover, if you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ll already remember that it was Amazon that saved the series The Expanse after it was shut down by the Syfy network. Heck, Bezos managed to get a cameo in the movie, Star Trek: Beyond, playing an alien.
(“For years, I have been begging Paramount, which is owned by Viacom, to let me be in a Star Trek movie,” Bezos later said. “I said, ‘Look, I’ll put any amount of makeup on. I’ll be invisible, nobody will know it’s me. But I want a speaking part, and I want it to be in a scene that is central to the story line so that I cannot end up on the cutting-room floor.”)
While Blue Origin lost out to SpaceX on the competition to take astronauts back to the moon in a few years — well, lost out at least for now; Blue Origin is appealing the decision — Bezos has arguably already achieved one of his big goals in space, which was simply to get people excited again about space exploration.
“Something that [Jeff] wants to do is not just to have success in space–to make rockets that are reusable–but to reinvigorate interest in space,” says Christian Davenport, a Washington Post reporter and author of The Space Barons.
I know it’s a bit specific to point at a single television show Bezos watched more than a quarter of a century ago. But, we spend a lot of time looking for the things that influenced some of the entrepreneurial icons of our age.
The degree to which science fiction and particularly Star Trek motivated Bezos hasn’t exactly been ignored, but I do think it’s worth emphasizing and exploring.
Anyway, now Bezos is stepping down as CEO, taking on a new role as executive chairman, and launching another chapter of his life.
That just happens to be yet another lesson derived from Star Trek: No matter how you finish one chapter of the story, there’s always room for another sequel.
(Don’t forget the free ebook, Jeff Bezos Regrets Nothing.)