It is probably no exaggeration that hardly a day goes by without me having some contact with Amazon. If nothing else, there are usually a few e-mails from them in my inbox. When I’m writing about books, I sometimes link to their listing of the book. I have a library of e-books, many from Amazon on my Amazon Kindle. I’ve ordered everything from books to batteries for my car keys to rice cookers from their website. I guess I’m something of a poster child for “the everything store”.
Brad Stone, a Bloomberg Businessweek writer covered Amazon from its beginnings and gives us a fascinating narrative of both the company and its founder based on insider interviews as well as his long relationship with Jeff Bezos.
The story begins with a child prodigy who never knew his biological father until a few years ago. Years later we meet him working as a highly successful hedge fund analyst for D. E. Shaw as he conceives the idea of an online everything store at the dawn of the internet. He left in 1994 and ended up a year later writing to a former associate to come join him in Seattle to help with a start up he was calling Amazon.com. The rest is history. Tumultuous history.Much of the tumultuousness lies with Jeff Bezos himself who was relentlessly focused on one thing: delivering a great customer experience while scaling up product categories from books to music to toys to most anything imaginable. Stone recounts the harrowing struggles to build an infrastructure capable of providing the service to which Bezos was fanatically committed–from website to fulfillment centers to shipping. Bezos found the investors to buy him the space to trade operating losses for market share, giving him the leverage to relentlessly negotiate the lowest prices from suppliers (a tactic he learned from Walmart). He described his mindset as a cheetah hunting sickly gazelles.
Bezos, like counterparts Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, was known for his legendary temper and withering “Jeffisms” but also his honking laugh. He demanded total dedication from his executives and most found it both exhilarating and exhausting to the point of burnout. A forward of a customer e-mail from Bezos with a question mark would bring everything to a halt while a satisfactory resolution was made. Instead of PowerPoints, Bezos demands six page narratives from executives in business meetings, believing that much gets obscured between the bullet points.
He sought to define Amazon not as a retailer but as a technology leader. The creation of Amazon Web Services led to the advent of cloud computing as Amazon realized that its server capacity could become a profit center. And he had the courage to creatively disrupt the core of his business, bookselling, through the Fiona project to develop an e-reader and to pressure publishers to provide 100,000 titles in e-format by the launch date of the first Kindle. Others had attempted to develop e-readers. Amazon figured out how to use cellular service to instantly deliver titles to those e-readers and to provide a selection that made it a viable product that would change the way we read.
While driving companies like Circuit City and Borders into bankruptcy, Bezos wrestled to define the company in “missionary” rather than “mercenary” terms. And his own struggle perhaps explains why so many of us have a love-hate affair with Amazon as well. We love the flawless ease of downloading a book to a Kindle or other device before going on a trip and the wonder of ordering a last minute gift and having it at your door in two days (for free with Prime). Yet we hate that apparent competitive ruthlessness reminiscent of the robber barons that has contributed to the demise of big booksellers like Borders and some of the smaller indie stores as well. And perhaps we don’t like to admit to ourselves that convenience and sometimes price trump principle and aesthetics in our own purchasing habits. Yet we find ourselves fascinated with the person whose genius and relentless drive built this sprawling enterprise out of a website and very limited warehouse space in Seattle.
What is yet more fascinating is the personal dream Bezos’ Amazon wealth helps to fund–a venture called Blue Origin, aiming to develop commercial space flight from a 290,000 acre ranch in Texas. Brad Stone gives us a narrative of a man with no small ambitions, a razor-sharp intellect, and a relentless focus on the person who will consume his product, whether purchased at Amazon.com or read in his recently acquired Washington Post. I came away from this narrative with a deeper understanding of the incredibly fine line Bezos and his company walk between genius and hubris. The question I wonder about is whether Bezos will be able to sustain walking in that tension and living on that edge.