Sometimes, a person has to be badgered into making a brilliant career choice.
That’s what happened to David Selinger.
Today he is cofounder and CEO of a cool big data company called RichRelevance, backed by $58 million from investors like Greylock Partners’ David Strohm and Tugboat Ventures’ Dave Whorton.
But it almost didn’t happen because he said no, repeatedly, to the job at Amazon that lead him here.
The story begins in 2003. That’s when Selinger, a.k.a. Selly, had built an ecommerce site that sold coffee makers. He was doing so well, he caught Jeff Bezos‘ attention. Amazon wanted him to run a new data mining R&D group called Amazon Research.
“I had no credentials that justified me taking the job,” Selinger laughs now. He was a software engineer, not a data scientist.
Plus, “data mining was so uncool and un-sexy at the time, they literally made me the offer five or six times and I turned it down, thinking, eh, boring. But they just kept coming after me,” he says.
Eventually he relented and took the job. And it was awful.
“I got bounced around a lot, reported to a bunch of different people,” eventually working directly for Bezos.
The goal of the team was a big one: sift through Amazon’s data and come up with new ways to grow revenue and increase profits.
So he learned how to build algorithms and use data to find business ideas.
His team discovered Amazon could make a lot of money by selling ads.
Selinger told Bezos and “he absolutely hated the idea,” Selly says. “He was pretty blunt: ‘This is a stupid idea. We’re a retailer. Why would we want to show ads?’”
Even though he hated it and would not support it, Bezos recognized that Selly had done as asked.
So Bezos let Sully’s team run a small test on the live website and “it ended up being one of the most profitable projects ever run at Amazon,” he says. Amazon doesn’t disclose its ad revenues but Selinger believes it’s will hit the $1 billion mark this year.
The big lesson he learned from Bezos: always use data, not feelings, to make business decisions.
Flash forward to 2006 when he and another ex-Amazonian, Darren Vengroff, founded RichRelevance. RichRelevance sells an Amazon-like product recommendation engine to online retailers and advertisers. It’s customers include Walmart, JC Penny, Sears, Target, Overstock.com, and drives about $3 billion a year in sales for them, he says.
Today Selinger is CEO to 200 employees and hopes to take the company public in “a couple of years,” he says.
None of it would have happened if Amazon didn’t beg him to take a job he didn’t want.
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