Once the dust settles, Amazon seems unlikely to create a seismic shift of the same magnitude as the one caused by Microsoft’s boom mainly because, while Amazon is creating gobs of wealth, it’s nothing compared with the jackpot of Microsoft stock options.
With Amazon.com gobbling up much of downtown Seattle, it’s an interesting time to look at the company’s effect on the region and compare it to the impact Microsoft has had, especially during its surge in the 1990s.
If you’re in Seattle, surrounded by construction cranes, frozen traffic and hordes of techies wearing blue building-access cards, it may seem like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Eastsiders who brave the trip across Lake Washington may just feel déjà vu.
A similar spurt of tech growth happened in Redmond and surrounding areas two decades ago when Microsoft’s afterburners went off and it became, for a while, the most valuable company in the world.
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That created a broad and steep wave of prosperity, the likes of which may never be seen again.
Even as its business and stock cooled, Microsoft kept growing and now owns or leases 14.3 million square feet of space locally, mostly in Redmond and Bellevue. That’s a third more than what Amazon’s renting or building in Seattle.
Microsoft generated so much growth so fast that the city of Redmond declared a moratorium until its infrastructure could catch up. Seattle’s doing the opposite, holding the door open for development while using it as an excuse to reduce road capacity, but that’s a topic for another column.
What I’m waiting to see is the ripple effect Amazon will have on the region’s tech industry and overall economy, beyond the current bonanza for commercial real estate.
It’s a gift to have a second giant tech company rise in our midst, especially one that’s shaping the future of multiple industries. But once the dust settles, Amazon seems unlikely to create a seismic shift of the same magnitude as the one caused by Microsoft’s boom.
That’s mainly because, while Amazon is creating gobs of wealth, it’s nothing compared with the jackpot of Microsoft stock options.
Amazon and tech companies in general are more judicious about compensating employees with stock these days.
It used to be that every employee at young tech companies got stock. Now it’s granted mostly to people in high demand, and it’s rare to see a company where more than half of employees receive equity, according to Brant Shelor, a Los Angeles partner with Mercer’s talent consulting business.
The shift occurred largely because of a 2005 change in accounting rules, he said. Market downturns in 2000 and 2007 also highlighted the risk of options, which gave employees the right to buy shares at a particular price.
Investors also pressured tech companies to spread around fewer shares, thereby reducing dilution.
Microsoft abandoned options in 2003, shifting to stock awards, which are more secure but have less potential upside.
It’s hard to directly compare the stock grants of Microsoft and Amazon, but their earnings reports give you a sense of scale.
Last year, Amazon reported stock-based compensation expense of $1.51 billion. Divided among all 154,100 employees, that’s an average of $9,799 apiece. If the stock grants went only to perhaps 20,000 employees at its Seattle headquarters, they would average $75,500.
For comparison, Microsoft in its 1999 fiscal year granted 226 million shares valued at $4.72 billion. It employed 31,575 people that year, so if they each received grants, those awards would have averaged $145,593. In 2014 dollars they’d be worth $206,885.
Many of those options lost value when the stock fell after the dot-com implosion. But for a few years before the fall, Microsofties were cashing in, exercising about $8 billion worth of options per year, noted Seattle economist Dick Conway. That’s an average of about $253,000 per employee in 1999 alone.
The $1.5 billion in stock compensation that Amazon paid employees last year is a lot of money, but “that’s peanuts compared to Microsoft in their heyday,” Conway said.
That explains why we’re not seeing a phenomenon similar to the appearance of “Microsoft millionaires” — plus a smattering of billionaires — who made the Puget Sound region strikingly more cosmopolitan, entrepreneurial and philanthropic in the previous boom.
Stock is just one way to look at how these companies affect the region.
The overall wealth Amazon generates is trickling around, though we haven’t seen the same kind of housing gold rush that Microsoft produced.
It’s also hard to distinguish how much of the recent surge is attributable just to Amazon. Its current growth spurt is occurring as companies from around the world are streaming into Seattle, opening engineering offices and hiring veterans of Amazon, Microsoft and others.
Satellite offices of Google and Facebook are growing into major operations in their own right, expanding into larger and larger offices.
Another question is whether Amazon’s success will generate as many new companies as Microsoft’s did.
While Amazon veterans have launched all sorts of startups, we have yet to see any to rival the size of Microsoft descendants such as Expedia and RealNetworks, much less grandchildren like Isilon and Zillow.
Perhaps Amazon alums are being scooped up by California companies before they can start their own ventures.
“Anecdotally, that’s what’s going on with most of the ex-Amazon people I know,” Greg Linden, an early employee turned entrepreneur, said via email.
Linden worked at Amazon from 1997 to 2002 before starting a company, personalized news site Findory.com, which Microsoft bought in 2007.
As Amazon matures, the area will see more veterans start companies, “but I doubt it will ever reach the level of Microsoft,” he said.
“Microsoft is a massive, old, high margin, highly profitable software company, so the comparison is a little apples to oranges with a low margin, relatively young, mostly unprofitable retailer,” he said. “There just aren’t as many people or as much wealth available in the pool of ex-Amazons.”
Still, Linden believes Amazon is having a larger effect on Seattle proper than Microsoft, even counting Paul Allen’s investments and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“The city of Seattle, and in particular the urban core, is now of major interest to tech companies, which it wasn’t before, and Amazon deserves credit for being a big part of that,” he said.
It’s weak tea, but a search of LinkedIn last week found 3,043 Amazon veterans who used the term “founder” in their profiles, including 1,001 in the Greater Seattle area. A similar search for Microsoft veterans found 17,656 founders, including 4,467 locally.
Perhaps the best result is the combined contribution of both Microsoft and Amazon.
Searching for people who worked at both of the tech giants found 20,293 whose profiles include the term “founder,” including 5,231 such entrepreneurs here in the Seattle area. Let’s see if one of them produces the next boom.