Though Amazon started off life as an internet bookseller, its visionary founder was never content with that. He wanted Amazon to become The Everything Store, offering limitless selection and convenience at disruptively low prices. Today, Amazon is one of the biggest IT infrastructure companies in the world (Amazon Cloud Services) and dominates the global market in e-books (Amazon Kindle), barely recognisable from the humble bookseller of 1994.
Silicon Valley journalist Brad Stone tells the remarkable story of Amazon by focusing on its founder, Jeff Bezos, and how his unique, abrasive and formidable leadership style built one of the world's biggest names in retail AND technology.
Stone is well-placed to tell the story. From 1998 to 2006, he served as the Silicon Valley Correspondent for Newsweek magazine, before joining the San Francisco office of the New York Times. He now works at Bloomberg Businessweek.
The book reveals much about the inner-workings of modern Amazon, including the "Mechanical Sensei", which tracks all items and orders within Amazon's systems. It automates millions of operational decisions on a daily basis, such as how much of a particular product the company should buy and in which fulfillment centre to store it, based on previous geographic demand for that product.
A constant theme throughout the book is “Bezos kept pushing for more”, even at times when 99% of entreprneurs would surely have applied the breaks. Bezos rarely pauses to enjoy his wealth. In fact, Amazon has never made significant profit, Bezos preferring instead to invest any surplus in a constant expansion of the business, much to the frustration of many shareholders.
"No one placed bigger, bolder bets on the internet than Jeff Bezos. Bezos believed more than anyone that the web would change the landscape for companies and customers, so he sprinted ahead without the least hesitation. "I think our company is undervalued" became another oft-related Jeffism. "The world just doesn't understand what Amazon is going to be." In those highly carbonated years, from 1998 to early 2000, Amazon raised a breathtaking $2.2bn in three separate bond offerings. It spent much of that on acquisitions, but even just a few years later, it was difficult to show that any of those deals helped its primary business. It opened five new state-of-the-art distribution centers in the United States and later had to close two of them and lay off hundreds of workers amid the inevitable retrenchment."
I can't quite make up my mind if I'm impressed by the ambition of Bezos, or intimidated by the ruthlessness of how he's realised it. Probably a bit of both. The book reveals many tales of senior managers, some friends and former colleagues of Bezos, hired from outside yet quickly cast aside when they didn't deliver.
Stone has delivered an incredibly well-researched book that I doubt many others could have produced. I highly recommend it for anyone with even a passing interest in entrepreneurship or the history of the internet.
An interesting aside: I actually bought this book in a Barnes & Noble, yep, a real-life physical bookstore! Sweet irony there, don't you think?
Photo credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz