April 12, 2024

Amazon is a giant with 1.6 million employees, yet former execs say working there often feels like they’re running their own company, due to strict adherence to Amazon’s 16 leadership principles around accountability, innovation, and focusing on customers.
Founder Jeff Bezos developed these prinicples in the company’s early days, and CEO Andy Jassy tweaked them in 2021 after he replaced Bezos.
These principles have been instrumental in helping many Amazon staffers build their own companies. And Amazon’s surging advertising business, which ballooned into a $31 billion business that rivals Google and Facebook, has proven to be an incubator of new entrepreneurial talent.
These business owners are building firms that help advertisers get better service and insights from Amazon ad campaigns, and help advertisers take advantage of Amazon’s new ad formats like streaming TV and influencer marketing.
“We operate with a ‘Day 1’ mentality – a startup way of thinking that keeps us nimble and pushes us to make smart, fast decisions,” a company spokesperson said. “For many, this mentality shapes how they view the world and stays with them far beyond the time they spend at Amazon.”
Insider identified 23 former Amazon employees who have founded advertising and marketing companies through a mix of our reporting and nominations from their peers in the industry.
Andrews was at retail tech company Quidsi for only a week, heading up marketing for its pet business Wag.com, when Amazon acquired it in 2011.
In 2013, she left Amazon and founded online alcohol delivery service Minibar Delivery. The inspiration came when she and cofounder Lara Crystal (who did not work at Amazon) had no wine to drink with their Thai food during one of their weekly “takeout Tuesdays.” 
There was a steep learning curve for starting and running her own business, but Andrews says her time at Amazon prepared her to scale Minibar Delivery and anticipate changes in the marketing landscape. In 2021, e-commerce liquor company ReserveBar bought Minibar Delivery for an undisclosed amount, and Andrews is now waiting for “that aha moment” to start her next business. 
Andrews isn’t the only entrepreneur to grow out of the Quidsi/Amazon team. She said she can name at least 10 other startups, including Teju Prabahar’s Share Local Media and Ajay Kori’s flower delivery service UrbanStems.
Burdick cofounded Pacvue in 2017 to help advertisers and ad agencies organize and measure multiple ad campaigns. She also wanted to offer advertisers features that Amazon’s own ad-buying tools didn’t, like the ability to target ads at certain times of day.
But as clients asked for more technology and fewer managed services that agencies typically provide, she pivoted to adtech, she told AdExchanger in 2021.
Today, Pacvue sells technology that can buy and measure Amazon ads, and it’s expanded to work with retailers like Walmart, Instacart, and Kroger that are building advertising technology. Pacvue was acquired in 2021 by e-commerce software firm Assembly.
Burdick got her start at Amazon helping packaged goods, health, and beauty brands sell on the the platform, and launched some of Amazon’s early ad products like display formats and homepage takeovers. 
“I like to say that Amazon was the cheapest MBA I didn’t have to pay for because I just learned so much there,” she told AdExchanger.
Caveille and Leon were among Amazon’s first advertising hires in the UK.
During that time, they realized that big ad agencies were limiting their investment into e-commerce platforms. Instead of unleashing ad budget, they were dipping into the trade budgets that brands pay retailers for selling their products.
“There was just a huge gap in a media agency’s understanding of Amazon’s role to their brand,” Leon said. “We were in a unique position where we had an understanding of their retail relationship.”
That understanding became the basis for the e-commerce adtech firm Acorn-i that they founded in 2019.
Acorn-i’s technology uses AI to help advertisers buy e-commerce ads, and the firm also offers analytics and insights to advertisers about e-commerce sales. For example, Acorn-i can analyze the lifetime value of someone who buys a product through a Shopify store compared to someone who buys a product through Amazon. The technology then recommends how much marketers should spend on advertising.
The 30-person firm sold in June to marketing technology firm The Brandtech Group for an undisclosed amount.
Figueroa joined Amazon’s advertising org in 2014, where he worked closely with Amazon ads boss Paul Kotas on a customer support team to build out Amazon’s relationships with advertisers and agencies.
In 2018, he left to found Gradient.io — a startup that sells tools that help advertisers track how their products rank in search results compared to the competition, and that suggests which products marketers should advertise. Although Figueroa worked at Amazon, Gradient.io also tracks results across a dozen other retailers. 
“I realized that every single marketplace was a black box,” Figueroa said.
His company was acquired by French adtech company Criteo in 2020.
Before joining Amazon as a marketing manager in 2014, Folley side-eyed the company’s public platitudes around customer centricity.
“You look at that stuff skeptically, like it’s just pure marketing and PR,” Folley said.
But at his first Amazon all-hands meeting, Jeff Bezos said something that Folley still remembers today: If you follow your customers, you’re headed in the right direction, but if you follow your competitors, you might just follow them off a cliff.  
Amazon’s principles around how to view, identify, and solve customer problems influenced Downstream, the firm Folley founded in 2017. Downstream developed products based on brands’ challenges with Amazon, and companies like HP and Bic used those products to buy and manage their Amazon ad campaigns. Last year, Downstream was acquired by Jungle Scout, whose software helps companies sell on Amazon.
It’s not a coincidence that so many entrepreneurs come from Amazon.
“They provide you an ability to contribute to the organization, beyond just the hard-defined borders of your role, and the experience to come up with big ideas and present them to leadership,” Folley said.
While the idea of starting a company can be daunting, Folley was more fearful of regret.
“I was much more scared of laying on my deathbed and wondering, ‘What if?'” he said. “In my view, that was the biggest risk.”
Amazon isn’t known as a place that sells cars. 
Yet Goering joined the company in 2017 to convince automakers and dealerships to use Amazon’s ad-buying platform to place ads off Amazon’s main site.
Many of those clients had limited ad budgets, and they struggled to understand how Amazon’s ad products applied to them.
“Ninety percent of people don’t understand how to track something down to the source of where an ad is coming from, and they’re not associating that with Amazon,” he said.
Goering used his knowledge of how business results can eventually be traced back to Amazon as the basis for the firm he founded in 2019, Revive. Revive has since grown to 30 employees who manage $40 million in ad spend, Goering said.
Lagoni was graduating in 2012 from Harvard Business School when he heard Amazon’s now-CEO Andy Jassy speak at his school about working at the company. During a one-on-one afterwards, Jassy encouraged Lagoni to apply at Amazon.
At the time, Lagoni was considering starting his own company but decided to go to Amazon to get an insider’s perspective on e-commerce. He joined Amazon’s retail leadership development program that brings in recent MBA grads and rotates them around different departments.
That’s when he realized how Amazon’s unique structure made it so influential across a variety of businesses, including retail, advertising, media, and healthcare.
“Amazon is a collection of hundreds or even thousands of small businesses, basically all rolled into one,” he said. “They are really good at carving up these independent teams who are launching new businesses, products, or services all throughout the company and making sure that those teams have the resources to grow and scale.”
In 2013, Lagoni left Amazon to start Stackline, a firm that helps more than 4,000 brands manage their e-commerce operations with major retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Target, and Wayfair. And he has used those lessons from Amazon to extend his business beyond advertising and into market data and tools for brands to manage e-commerce sales.
At Amazon, Kowalski helped camera companies like Canon and Nikon set up promotions and deals on the platform.
At the time, clients had to rely on Amazon staff to set those up, so Kowalski advocated internally for tools that the brands could use to build promotions themselves. He also pushed Amazon to develop its first relationships and affiliate models with influencers.
Despite having no technical expertise, Amazon gave Kowalski a team of five engineers to help launch and manage those products.
That experience gave him the skills to cofound his company ProductWind in 2020, which helps marketers work with influencers to launch new products. The venture-backed startup has raised $1.7 million, according to PitchBook.
Amazon’s culture also influenced the way Kowalski runs his company. Kowalski favors the concise documentation he learned at Amazon to crystalize his thinking and guide the discussion during meetings. 
“It’s so much easier to discuss something when you look at an argument laid out on paper versus in slides, which can be much fluffier,” Kowalski said. 
Kowalski also is influenced by Amazon’s intense frugality. For instance, he breaks out the cost of meetings — something Amazon does to decide if a meeting is worth holding based on salary expenses.
Leigh spent 10 years at Amazon helping manufacturers sell things like baby products and food on the platform, when she realized that her clients weren’t getting enough one-on-one help to maximize their sales.
“I saw how far a little bit of education and support could help take their businesses — that’s the anti-Amazon approach,” she said.
Since then, she’s worked at three companies that help Amazon sellers. When she left Amazon in 2015, she started an e-commerce consultancy firm. In 2017, she joined her husband Justin Leigh’s Amazon-focused agency Ideoclick. And in 2022, she founded Allume Group, which provides brands and agencies with educational courses about how to sell products on Amazon.
Leigh applies three things from Amazon’s culture to her company: Customers always come first, she isn’t afraid to fail, and she controls how much investment she puts into an initiative instead of worrying about the results. So instead of stressing over profitability, she focuses on making sure her company has the resources it needs.
“That’s an exercise I do now whenever I’m doing a new endeavor, because you can’t control what customers do,” she said.
When Meyer was an Amazon Ads account executive, her clients kept complaining about the lack of coordination between Amazon’s advertising team with its retail team, which helps brands with their online sales.
This was a problem because managing pricing and inventory impact how much sellers want to spend on ads, said Meyer.
Meyer also participated in a training program at Amazon that taught her the basics of e-commerce and retail. This additional training, as well as her experience as an account executive, influenced the formation of her company Horizon Envisions in 2015.
Horizon Envisions is now a 45-person e-commerce agency and adtech firm that helps third-party brands sell and advertise on Amazon. Beauty and skincare brands make up about half of Horizon Envision’s clients.
The agency got its start running Amazon search ads for sellers and has since expanded to include Amazon’s brand-building ad products, including a demand-side platform that places ads outside of Amazon’s website. Horizon Envisions also sells tools that track metrics like lifetime value and repurchase rate.
Morse and Spencer are the founders of Alt Group, an eight-person firm that makes content like videos and buys ads on behalf of clients like Adobe and food company Sabra. Alt Group also manufactures and sells its own products, like home decor, on Amazon.
Morse and Spencer met while working at Amazon Ads, where they saw that brands needed marketing help that went beyond an Amazon-only strategy.
At the time, Morse was working with direct-to-consumer brands that sold on Amazon but also bought a lot of ads on social media sites like Facebook.
“Amazon was not the only means to be successful with direct-to-consumer brands,” Morse said.
The pair also realized that agencies helping brands on Amazon mostly focused on advertising, and didn’t offer other in-demand services like managing supply-chain issues, testing beta programs, and handling inventory.
Morse said Amazon primed him to run his own company because its leadership principles like customer obsession hold people to high standards.
“You’re driving your own ship,” he said.
Naim felt like a startup founder when he was at Amazon working with computer and electronics brands, where his responsibilities included everything from handling problems with pricing to managing ad spend.
“The beauty and the curse of Amazon is you’re the CEO, you’re the junior analyst, and everything in between,” he said.
Naim left Amazon partly because the company offered bonuses and raises across teams instead of on individual performance. In 2014, he founded an Amazon agency called eShopportunity, because there weren’t many agencies that helped direct-to-consumer brands do everything from managing their Amazon accounts to advertising. His firm was acquired in 2021 by the agency Advantage United Commerce.
Amazon’s culture informed how Naim ran his own business. He prefers the brief, informative written communication favored at Amazon, which encourages less than 30 words per sentence, replacing adjectives with data, and making sure every message answers “so what.” 
Naim also wants brand managers at eShopportunity to make decisions quickly based on data — another trait he learned at Amazon.
O’Rourke started at Amazon in 2017 to market Amazon Ads’ measurement and analytics tools before leading product marketing for Amazon’s OTT ad products. 
But while there was huge demand for product marketing, talent was hard to come by, and he struggled hiring for his team. At the same time, he was “being recruited left and right.”  
Product marketers are hard to find because the job sits between software engineers and sales teams, and it requires expertise in multiple areas, O’Rourke said. They help guide product development using sales feedback and build marketing strategies. 
In 2020, O’Rourke left Amazon to found Fluvio, a product marketing consulting firm. The company leads short workshops and longer-term consulting projects, and has helped brands like StackOverflow build go-to-market plans for its software.
O’Rourke always considered Amazon a stepping stone to either lead a startup or build his own. He deployed Amazon’s well-known strategy of first drafting a press release and FAQ to envision what the company would look like at launch and working backwards from there, O’Rourke said. 
Fluvio went live at the start of the pandemic with O’Rourke and one client on board. Its business took off, O’Rourke said, because more companies hired remote help.
The company has since grown into a team of nine that works with about 15 clients.
Susi was a creative director at Amazon when he interviewed Kazantzis for a position as a fellow creative director in 2014. Kazantzis had just finished a stint at Rockstar Games, leading creative development and marketing for the wildly popular “Grand Theft Auto V.” 
“We thought Mike was way, way too cool for us,” Susi said. 
Eventually, Susi became Amazon Ads’ first executive creative director, and Kazantzis led Amazon’s advertising design and user experience team for CPG and household grocery. 
As Amazon’s advertising business grew, they took on a key project called the Trusted Creative Partnership program. Kazantzis and Susi would fly around the world to clients’ headquarters, from Philips in Amsterdam to Nissan in Japan, to teach them how to best reach customers through Amazon. 
“Our program started to become known as the ‘I didn’t know you could do that’ presentation,” Kazantzis said. “After most of these meetings, inevitably someone would approach me and say, ‘I wish there was an agency out there who knew all of this information you just shared with us.'”
To Kazantzis and Susi, it was clear that brands and agencies struggled to understand Amazon’s evolving capabilities as an advertising platform. 
Kazantzis left Amazon in late 2018 and founded KANE, which Susi joined shortly after as a partner. Susi describes KANE as a “small but nimble group of ex-Amazonians” who leverage their insider knowledge of Amazon’s data and algorithms to discover what customers are searching for. The group, helmed by five core leaders, has worked to craft Amazon marketing campaigns for brands like Hershey’s, Doritos, and Axe.
Prabhakar worked in marketing for two of retail tech company Quidsi’s verticals, Diapers.com and Soap.com, before Amazon acquired them in 2011. He stayed on for two more years directing marketing and managing profit and loss for Soap.com.  
Prabhakar said that Amazon’s requirement that employees pitch ideas with written documents rather than slideshows helped him develop his own startup, Share Local Media, which launched in 2016 and develops direct mail strategies for e-commerce companies like Lyft and Grubhub.
“It forces you to have to construct a really logical, rational case for anything you wanted to argue for,” he said.
Prabhakar’s experience doing direct mail at American Express during the mid-aughts was also crucial for building Share Local Media.
“My cofounders and I were consistently surprised at how undervalued most offline marketing — especially direct mail — was by the tech and e-commerce industry as a whole,” Prabhakar said.
When Share Local Media began, its employess were just Prabhakar, one full-time employee, and one part-time employee. It has since ballooned to a team of more than 70 people.
Schultz and D’Alessandro launched their agency Altico while simultaneously working at Amazon Ads in 2020. 
They saw an opportunity to manage advertising for smaller sellers, who Schultz said didn’t get as much service by Amazon as big brands. Yet, these smaller sellers needed specialized help with their ad campaigns too.
“Advertising is a complex topic and if you don’t have any background in advertising, it can be too much for small businesses — it’s almost a full-time job,” Schultz said.
Altisco has services to oversee small business’ retail accounts at Amazon as well, but 80% of clients only use the firm’s advertising services, he said. Those clients spend an average of $50,000 on advertising a month.
Internally, Amazon has standard operating procedures which are used as how-to guides for everything from how to onboard staffers and policies for sellers. Schultz said that Altisco uses SOPs to structure ad campaigns — like knowing how many keywords to target in search ads.
“There are a lot of variables [with advertising] and to make sure that you don’t miss anything, there should be a system.”
Originally based in Japan, Umeno started at Amazon in 2015 pitching advertising tools to publishers. He moved to California to work out of Amazon’s Palo Alto office.
While in California, Umeno met execs at adtech startups who were looking to get into the Japanese market but didn’t understand the local language, culture, or business models, he said.
He also saw that Amazon wasn’t providing the same niche products that startups were, like cookieless ad solutions.
“The startups were making very creative solutions and services that I thought were very exciting,” he said.
Umeno returned to Japan and in 2021, struck out on his own and founded Globalive, pitching it to adtech firms with an Amazon-style six-page document that described his company and what it offered.
He has since grown Globalive to 10 employees. The firm helps startups enter the Japanese market by providing marketing, sales, and administrative work like billing and invoicing. Globalive also matches startups with local clients, talent, and investors. Its clients include adtech firms ID5, Browsi, and Acorn-i, and the firm makes money through revenue-sharing or stock options that are based on its clients’ success in Japan.
Walker was an entrepreneur before working at Amazon, where he was a product manager and later ran e-commerce for office product manufacturer ACCO Brands.
When he founded the full-service Amazon agency Expert Edge in 2016, he relied on both his initial experience as an entrepreneur, as well as the insights he got at Amazon.
Expert Edge helps brands manage online selling and advertising, and Walker tailors e-commerce strategies to each client depending on how much of their business relies on online sales.
One of the biggest lessons Walker took from Amazon was the principle of working backwards, a well-known process within Amazon that starts with imagining a customer using the product and then writing a press release for it.
Jennison, who helped fashion and luggage clients in the UK sell on Amazon, joined Expert Edge in 2019. He got interested in entrepreneurship while working at Amazon. 
“One of the things I got from Amazon is that good intentions don’t translate into strategy,” he said. “You need mechanisms and frameworks to create repeatable success in the future.”
Havas Group acquired Expert Edge in September for an undisclosed amount.
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