09/07/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
When he was just 3, Jeff Bezos decided he was ready for a real bed. But his mother said not yet. "Then I came home one day, and he'd found a screwdriver and was trying to disassemble his crib," says Jackie Bezos, now 51. "It was always hard to stay a step ahead of him."
Even in the fast-paced world of cyberspace, Bezos, now 34, has always been ahead of the pack. Three years ago he founded what has become the world's most successful Internet retail venture: Amazon.com, a Seattle-based online emporium of books and music. Amazon claims 3.1 million customers, 1,100 employees (at first, Bezos and a few helpers shipped books out of his garage) and recent quarterly sales of $116 million. "Computers are the ultimate tool," says Bezos of his success, "and humans are defined in a certain sense by being tool-using animals."
The eldest of three children born to Mike Bezos, 52, a Cuban immigrant and a petroleum engineer, and Jackie, a homemaker, Bezos grew up in Miami and Houston. After studying computer science at Princeton, he designed systems to help New York City firms manage investment funds. But when the Web caught fire, Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, 28, headed west to start Amazon out of their rented suburban house.
Amazon is a couple of years away from turning a profit and now has tough competitors such as Barnes & Noble on the Web. Still, industry analysts give Bezos good prospects because he found the perfect online product for armchair shoppers: a book, which won't break in shipping or arrive in the wrong size. And, worst case, jokes Bezos, whose personal worth is estimated at around $2 billion, he could fall back on the skills he learned as a kid on his grandpa's ranch in Cotulla, Texas. "By 16," he boasts, "I could fix windmills, use an arc welder and castrate cattle."