Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Everything Store
In the early 1970s, an industrious advertising executive named Julie Ray became fascinated with an unconventional public-school program for gifted children in Houston, Texas. Her son was among the first students enrolled in what would later be called the Vanguard program, which stoked creativity and independence in its students and nurtured expansive, outside-the-box thinking. Ray grew so enamored with the curriculum and the community of enthusiastic teachers and parents that she set out to research similar schools around the state with an eye toward writing a book about Texas’s fledgling gifted-education movement.
A few years later, after her son had moved on to junior high, Ray returned to tour the program, nestled in a wing of River Oaks Elementary School, west of downtown Houston. The school’s principal chose a student to accompany her on the visit, an articulate, sandy-haired sixth-grader whose parents asked only that his real name not be used in print. So Ray called him Tim.
Tim, Julie Ray wrote in her book Turning On Bright Minds: A Parent Looks at Gifted Education in Texas, was “a student of general intellectual excellence, slight of build, friendly but serious.” He was “not particularly gifted in leadership,” according to his teachers, but he moved confidently among his peers and articulately extolled the virtues of the novel he was reading at the time, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Tim, twelve, was already competitive. He told Ray he was reading a variety of books to qualify for a special reader’s certificate but compared himself unfavorably to another classmate who claimed, improbably, that she was reading a dozen books a week. Tim also showed Ray a science project he was working on called an infinity cube, a battery-powered contraption with rotating mirrors that created the optical illusion of an endless tunnel. Tim modeled the device after one he had seen in a store. That one cost twenty-two dollars, but “mine was cheaper,” he told Ray. Teachers said that three of Tim’s projects were being entered in a local science competition that drew most of its submissions from students in junior and senior high schools.
The school faculty praised Tim’s ingenuity, but one can imagine they were wary of his intellect. To practice tabulating statistics for math class, Tim had developed a survey to evaluate the sixth-grade teachers. The goal, he said, was to assess instructors on “how they teach, not as a popularity contest.” He administered the survey to classmates and at the time of the tour was in the process of calculating the results and graphing the relative performance of each teacher.
Tim’s average day, as Ray described it, was packed. He woke early and caught a seven o’clock bus a block from home. He arrived at school after a twenty-mile ride and went through a blaze of classes devoted to math, reading, physical education, science, Spanish, and art. There was time reserved for individual projects and small group discussions. In one lesson Julie Ray described, seven students, including Tim, sat in a tight circle in the principal’s office for an exercise called productive thinking. They were given brief stories to read quietly to themselves and then discuss. The first story involved archaeologists who returned after an expedition and announced they had discovered a cache of precious artifacts, a claim that later turned out to be fraudulent. Ray recorded snippets of the ensuing dialogue:
“They probably wanted to become famous. They wished away the things they didn’t want to face.”
“Some people go through life thinking like they always have.”
“You should be patient. Analyze what you have to work with.”
Tim told Julie Ray that he loved these exercises. “The way the world is, you know, someone could tell you to press the button. You have to be able to think what you’re doing for yourself.”
Ray found it impossible to interest a publisher in Turning On Bright Minds. Editors at the big houses said the subject matter was too narrow. So, in 1977, she took the money she’d earned from writing advertising copy for a Christmas catalog, printed a thousand paperbacks, and distributed them herself.
More than thirty years later, I found a copy in the Houston Public Library. I also tracked down Julie Ray, who now lives in Central Texas and works on planning and communications for environmental and cultural causes. She said she had watched Tim’s rise to fame and fortune over the past two decades with admiration and amazement but without much surprise. “When I met him as a young boy, his ability was obvious, and it was being nurtured and encouraged by the new program,” she says. “The program also benefited by his responsiveness and enthusiasm for learning. It was a total validation of the concept.”
She recalls what one teacher said all those years ago when Ray asked her to estimate the grade level the boy was performing at. “I really can’t say,” the teacher replied. “Except that there is probably no limit to what he can do, given a little guidance.”
In late 2011, I went to visit “Tim” — aka Jeff Bezos — in the Seattle headquarters of his company, Amazon.com. I was there to solicit his cooperation with this book, an attempt to chronicle the extraordinary rise of an innovative, disruptive, and often polarizing technology powerhouse, the company that was among the first to see the boundless promise of the Internet and that ended up forever changing the way we shop and read.
Amazon is increasingly a daily presence in modern life. Millions of people regularly direct their Web browsers to its eponymous website or its satellite sites, like Zappos.com and Diapers.com, acting on the most basic impulse in any capitalist society: to consume.
The Amazon site is a smorgasbord of selection, offering books, movies, garden tools, furniture, food, and the occasional oddball items, like an inflatable unicorn horn for cats ($9.50) and a thousand-pound electronic-lock gun safe ($903.53) that is available for delivery in three to five days. The company has nearly perfected the art of instant gratification, delivering digital products in seconds and their physical incarnations in just a few days. It is not uncommon to hear a customer raving about an order that magically appeared on his doorstep well before it was expected to arrive.
Amazon cleared $61 billion in sales in 2012, its seventeenth year of operation, and will likely be the fastest retailer in history to surpass $100 billion. It is loved by many of its customers, and it is feared just as fervently by its competitors. Even the name has informally entered the business lexicon, and not in an altogether favorable way. To be Amazoned means “to watch helplessly as the online upstart from Seattle vacuums up the customers and profits of your traditional brick-and-mortar business.”
The history of Amazon.com, as most people understand it, is one of the iconic stories of the Internet age. The company started modestly as an online bookseller and then rode the original wave of dot-com exuberance in the late 1990s to extend into selling music, movies, electronics, and toys. Narrowly avoiding disaster and defying a wave of skepticism about its prospects that coincided with the dot-com bust of 2000 and 2001, it then mastered the physics of its own complex distribution network and expanded into software, jewelry, clothes, apparel, sporting goods, automotive parts — you name it. And just when it had established itself as the Internet’s top retailer and a leading platform on which other sellers could hawk their wares, Amazon redefined itself yet again as a versatile technology firm that sold the cloud computing infrastructure known as Amazon Web Services as well as inexpensive, practical digital devices like the Kindle electronic reader and the Kindle Fire tablet.
“To me Amazon is a story of a brilliant founder who personally drove the vision,” says Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google and an avowed Amazon competitor who is personally a member of Amazon Prime, its two-day shipping service. “There are almost no better examples. Perhaps Apple, but people forget that most people believed Amazon was doomed because it would not scale at a cost structure that would work. It kept piling up losses. It lost hundreds of millions of dollars. But Jeff was very garrulous, very smart. He’s a classic technical founder of a business, who understands every detail and cares about it more than anyone.”
Despite the recent rise of its stock price to vertiginous heights, Amazon remains a unique and uniquely puzzling company. The bottom line on its balance sheet is notoriously anemic, and in the midst of its frenetic expansion into new markets and product categories, it actually lost money in 2012. But Wall Street hardly seems to care. With his consistent proclamations that he is building his company for the long term, Jeff Bezos has earned so much faith from his shareholders that investors are willing to patiently wait for the day when he decides to slow his expansion and cultivate healthy profits.
Bezos has proved quite indifferent to the opinions of others. He is an avid problem solver, a man who has a chess grand master’s view of the competitive landscape, and he applies the focus of an obsessive-compulsive to pleasing customers and providing services like free shipping. He has vast ambitions — not only for Amazon, but to push the boundaries of science and remake the media. In addition to funding his own rocket company, Blue Origin, Bezos acquired the ailing Washington Post newspaper company in August 2013 for $250 million in a deal that stunned the media industry.
As many of his employees will attest, Bezos is extremely difficult to work for. Despite his famously hearty laugh and cheerful public persona, he is capable of the same kind of acerbic outbursts as Apple’s late founder, Steve Jobs, who could terrify any employee who stepped into an elevator with him. Bezos is a micromanager with a limitless spring of new ideas, and he reacts harshly to efforts that don’t meet his rigorous standards.
Like Jobs, Bezos casts a reality-distortion field — an aura thick with persuasive but ultimately unsatisfying propaganda about his company. He often says that Amazon’s corporate mission “is to raise the bar across industries, and around the world, for what it means to be customer focused.” Bezos and his employees are indeed absorbed with catering to customers, but they can also be ruthlessly competitive with rivals and even partners. Bezos likes to say that the markets Amazon competes in are vast, with room for many winners. That’s perhaps true, but it’s also clear that Amazon has helped damage or destroy competitors small and large, many of whose brands were once world renowned: Circuit City. Borders. Best Buy. Barnes & Noble.
Americans in general get nervous about the gathering of so much corporate power, particularly when it is amassed by large companies based in distant cities whose success could change the character of their own communities. Walmart faced this skepticism; so did Sears, Woolworth’s, and the other retail giants of each age, all the way back to the A&P grocery chain, which battled a ruinous antitrust lawsuit during the 1940s. Americans flock to large retailers for their convenience and low prices. But at a certain point, these companies get so big that a contradiction in the public’s collective psyche reveals itself. We want things cheap, but we don’t really want anyone undercutting the mom-and-pop store down the street or the locally owned bookstore, whose business has been under assault for decades, first by the rise of chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and now by Amazon.
Bezos is an excruciatingly prudent communicator for his own company. He is sphinxlike with details of his plans, keeping thoughts and intentions private, and he’s an enigma in the Seattle business community and in the broader technology industry. He rarely speaks at conferences and gives media interviews infrequently. Even those who admire him and closely follow the Amazon story are apt to mispronounce his surname (it’s “Bay-zose,” not “Bee-zose”).
John Doerr, the venture capitalist who backed Amazon early and was on its board of directors for a decade, has dubbed Amazon’s miserly public-relations style “the Bezos Theory of Communicating.” He says Bezos takes a red pen to press releases, product descriptions, speeches, and shareholder letters, crossing out anything that does not speak simply and positively to customers.
We think we know the Amazon story, but really all we’re familiar with is its own mythology, the lines in press releases, speeches, and interviews that Bezos hasn’t covered with red ink.
Amazon occupies a dozen modest buildings south of Seattle’s Lake Union, a small, freshwater glacial lake linked by canals to Puget Sound on the west and Lake Washington on the east. The area was home to a large sawmill in the nineteenth century and before that to Native American encampments. That pastoral landscape is now long gone, and biomedical startups, a cancer-research center, and University of Washington School of Medicine buildings dot the dense urban neighborhood.
From the outside, Amazon’s modern, low-slung offices are unmarked and unremarkable. But step inside Day One North, seat of the Amazon high command on Terry Avenue and Republican Street, and you’re greeted with Amazon’s smiling logo on a wall behind a long rectangular visitors’ desk. On one side of the desk sits a bowl of dog biscuits for employees who bring their dogs to the office (a rare perk in a company that makes employees pay for parking and snacks). Near the elevators, there’s a black plaque with white lettering that informs visitors they have entered the realm of the philosopher-CEO. It reads:
There is so much stuff that has yet to be invented.
There’s so much new that’s going to happen.
People don’t have any idea yet how impactful the Internet is going to be and that this is still Day 1 in such a big way.
Amazon’s internal customs are deeply idiosyncratic. PowerPoint decks or slide presentations are never used in meetings. Instead, employees are required to write six-page narratives laying out their points in prose, because Bezos believes doing so fosters critical thinking. For each new product, they craft their documents in the style of a press release. The goal is to frame a proposed initiative in the way a customer might hear about it for the first time. Each meeting begins with everyone silently reading the document, and discussion commences afterward — just like the productive-thinking exercise in the principal’s office at River Oaks Elementary. For my initial meeting with Bezos to discuss this project, I decided to observe Amazon’s customs and prepare my own Amazon-style narrative, a fictional press release on behalf of the book.
Bezos met me in an executive conference room and we sat down at a large table made of half a dozen door-desks, the same kind of blond wood that Bezos used twenty years ago when he was building Amazon from scratch in his garage. The door-desks are often held up as a symbol of the company’s enduring frugality. When I first interviewed Bezos, back in 2000, a few years of unrelenting international travel had taken their toll and he looked pasty and out of shape. Now he was lean and fit; he’d transformed his physique in the same way that he’d transformed Amazon. He’d even cropped his awkwardly balding pate right down to the dome, which gave him a sleek look suggestive of one of his science-fiction heroes, Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
We sat down, and I slipped the press release across the table to him. When he realized what I was up to, he laughed so hard that spit came flying out of his mouth.
Much has been made over the years of Bezos’s famous laugh. It’s a startling, pulse-pounding bray that he leans into while craning his neck back, closing his eyes, and letting loose with a guttural roar that sounds like a cross between a mating elephant seal and a power tool. Often it comes when nothing is obviously funny to anyone else. In a way, Bezos’s laugh is a mystery that has never been solved; one doesn’t expect someone so intense and focused to have a raucous laugh like that, and no one in his family seems to share it.
Employees know the laugh primarily as a heart-stabbing sound that slices through conversation and rocks its targets back on their heels. More than a few of his colleagues suggest that on some level, this is intentional — that Bezos wields his laugh like a weapon. “You can’t misunderstand it,” says Rick Dalzell, Amazon’s former chief information officer. “It’s disarming and punishing. He’s punishing you.”
Bezos read my press release silently for a minute or two and we discussed the ambitions of this book — to tell the Amazon story in depth for the first time, from its inception on Wall Street in the early 1990s up to the present day. Our conversation lasted an hour. We spoke about other seminal business books that might serve as models and about the biography Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, published soon after the Apple CEO’s untimely death.
We also acknowledged the awkwardness inherent in writing and selling a book about Amazon at this particular moment in time. (All of the online and offline booksellers of The Everything Store undoubtedly have strong opinions about its subject matter. In fact, the French media giant Hachette Livre, which owns Little, Brown and Company, the house that is publishing the book, recently settled long-standing antitrust litigation with the U.S. Department of Justice and regulatory authorities in the European Union stemming from the corporation’s dispute with Amazon over the pricing of electronic books. Like so many other companies in so many other retail and media industries, Hachette has had to view Amazon as both an empowering retail partner and a dangerous competitor. Of course, Bezos has a thought on this as well. “Amazon isn’t happening to the book business,” he likes to say to authors and journalists. “The future is happening to the book business.”)
I’ve spoken to Bezos probably a dozen times over the past decade, and our talks are always spirited, fun, and frequently interrupted by his machine-gun bursts of laughter. He is engaged and full of twitchy, passionate energy (if you catch him in the hallway, he will not hesitate to inform you that he never takes the office elevator, always the stairs). He devotes his full attention to the conversation, and, unlike many other CEOs, he never gives you the sense that he is hurried or distracted — but he is highly circumspect about deviating from well-established, very abstract talking points. Some of these maxims are so well worn that one might even call them Jeffisms. A few have stuck around for a decade or more.
“If you want to get to the truth about what makes us different, it’s this,” Bezos says, veering into a familiar Jeffism: “We are genuinely customer-centric, we are genuinely long-term oriented and we genuinely like to invent. Most companies are not those things. They are focused on the competitor, rather than the customer. They want to work on things that will pay dividends in two or three years, and if they don’t work in two or three years they will move on to something else. And they prefer to be close-followers rather than inventors, because it’s safer. So if you want to capture the truth about Amazon, that is why we are different. Very few companies have all of those three elements.”
Toward the end of the hour we spent discussing this book, Bezos leaned forward on his elbows and asked, “How do you plan to handle the narrative fallacy?”
Ah yes, of course, the narrative fallacy. For a moment, I experienced the same sweaty surge of panic every Amazon employee over the past two decades has felt when confronted with an unanticipated question from the hyperintelligent boss. The narrative fallacy, Bezos explained, was a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan to describe how humans are biologically inclined to turn complex realities into soothing but oversimplified stories. Taleb argued that the limitations of the human brain resulted in our species’ tendency to squeeze unrelated facts and events into cause-and-effect equations and then convert them into easily understandable narratives. These stories, Taleb wrote, shield humanity from the true randomness of the world, the chaos of human experience, and, to some extent, the unnerving element of luck that plays into all successes and failures.
Bezos was suggesting that Amazon’s rise might be that sort of impossibly complex story. There was no easy explanation for how certain products were invented, such as Amazon Web Services, its pioneering cloud business that so many other Internet companies now use to run their operations. “When a company comes up with an idea, it’s a messy process. There’s no aha moment,” Bezos said. Reducing Amazon’s history to a simple narrative, he worried, could give the impression of clarity rather than the real thing.
In Taleb’s book — which, incidentally, all Amazon senior executives had to read — the author stated that the way to avoid the narrative fallacy was to favor experimentation and clinical knowledge over storytelling and memory. Perhaps a more practical solution, at least for the aspiring author, is to acknowledge its potential influence and then plunge ahead anyway.
And so I begin with a disclaimer. The idea for Amazon was conceived in 1994 on the fortieth floor of a midtown New York City skyscraper. Nearly twenty years later, the resulting company employed more than ninety thousand people and had become one of the best-known corporations on the planet, frequently delighting its customers with its wide selection, low prices, and excellent customer service while also remaking industries and unnerving the stewards of some of the most storied brands in the world. This is one attempt at describing how it all happened. It is based on more than three hundred interviews with current and former Amazon executives and employees, including my conversations over the years with Bezos himself, who in the end was supportive of this project even though he judged that it was “too early” for a reflective look at Amazon. Nevertheless, he approved many interviews with his top executives, his family, and his friends, and for that I am grateful. I also drew from fifteen years of reporting on the company for Newsweek, the New York Times, and Bloomberg Businessweek.
The goal of this book is to tell the story behind one of the greatest entrepreneurial successes since Sam Walton flew his two-seat turboprop across the American South to scope out prospective Walmart store sites. It’s the tale of how one gifted child grew into an extraordinarily driven and versatile CEO and how he, his family, and his colleagues bet heavily on a revolutionary network called the Internet, and on the grandiose vision of a single store that sells everything.
Excerpted from The Everything Store by Brad Stone. Now in paperback.
Winner of the 2013 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award
Chosen as a Best Book of 2013 by The Washington Post, Forbes, The New Republic, and Gizmodo, and as one of the Top 10 Investigative Journalism Books of 2013 by Nieman Reports