Explosive. That’s how the cover of Bloomberg BusinessWeek bills The Everything Store by journalist Brad Stone. That’s an overstatement – but the meticulously reported book has plenty of gems for anyone who cares about Amazon, Jeff Bezos, entrepreneurship, leadership or just the lunacy it took to build a company in less than two decades that now employs almost 90,000 people and sold $61 billion worth of, well, almost everything last year.
From moment one, Bezos, who named his company after the river that blows all other rivers away, had what Stone calls a limitless spring of new ideas, and Amazon has already seen boom, bust and boom – as well as both fawning adulation and deep skepticism.
Bezos – who encouraged friends, family and executives to talk to Stone but didn’t himself cooperate – asked the author how he was going to deal with the concept of narrative fallacy. He was talking about Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s contention in his book The Black Swan – required reading for all Amazon senior executives – that humans use narrative to turn complex realities into soothing but oversimplified stories.
It’s hard to accuse The Everything Store of being overly simplistic, perhaps because Bezos defies easy description.
Bezos comes across as a polarizing figure who has inspired many people but traumatized others. Some of his ideas are so crazy that employees call them fever dreams, and his rants are so deranged that internally they are known as nutters.
Stone describes Amazon’s culture as notoriously confrontational, and it begins with Bezos, who believes that truth springs forth when ideas and perspectives are banged against each other, sometimes violently.
He is also a man of many contradictions. While his fans say he is distinguished by his relentless quest for truth, Stone calls the happy platitudes that Bezos generally uses to explain his company to outsiders Jeffisms. Internally, top executives who are selected to implement Bezos’ ideas are derisively known as Jeff Bots, which is not exactly a sign of a healthy, open corporate culture.
Amazon has developed a reputation for incredible ruthlessness, stemming from its less-than-straightforward dealings with publishers along with programs such as the Gazelle Project, so named because Bezos once suggested that Amazon should approach small publishers the same way a cheetah approaches a sick gazelle.
And yet, Bezos recently wrote a memo to his top leadership called Amazon.love in which he talked about the importance of Amazon being a company that is loved, not feared.
While Bezos seems to be monomaniacal about his company, he also has absorbing outside interests, including the Clock of the Long Now, which is aimed at measuring time for 10,000 years; his space-exploration company Blue Origin; and most recently, his purchase of the Washington Post. Bezos also made an entirely separate fortune as one of the first investors in Google, which would eventually become one of Amazon’s frenemies.
Nor is Amazon a simple success story. Its stock, which hit a high (adjusted for splits) of almost $107 per share in the first dot-com boom, plunged to below $6 in the wake of the bust – almost living up to the nickname Amazon.bomb, famously bestowed on it by Barron’s – but has since soared to more than $300 per share.
The process of getting all of us everything we order, on time, is a fiendishly complex one, and Amazon’s internal systems were worse than anyone ever suspected.
Stone recounts how, during the hell of the 1999 holidays, Amazon’s employees staffed customer-service lines and worked in distribution centers, where some later swore the situation was so desperate that they were working among furloughed prisoners. (Stone notes that’s hard to prove.)
Indeed, Amazon failed at many things it tried, from auctions to venture capital, and at the time of the Barron’s story, its internal financial analysis showed that at its rate of spending, the company wouldn’t be profitable for decades.
But Bezos, who had been on a relentless quest for growth, was able to do what most of us could never do: rewire Amazon and his own brain to begin a drive for efficiency that ultimately crushed the nonbelievers.
Bezos has never hesitated to do what is impossible for most leaders, like selling products from other merchants alongside his own, a decision that caused a huge amount of corporate infighting but turned the company into a platform for small online merchants.
Later, just as Amazon was being categorized as a low-margin retailer, Bezos succeeded – not easily – in transforming it into a true technology company, one that provides basic computer infrastructure such as storage and computing power to other companies.
Stone resists the easy Steve Jobs comparison, but Bezos clearly isn’t a joy to work for. There’s a quote that made its way around the company: If you’re not good, Jeff will chew you up and spit you out. And if you are good, he will jump on your back and ride you into the ground.
In a smaller example, Bezos has also done what would be unthinkable in most companies: He has banished PowerPoint presentations because, an acolyte explains, it is fantastically easy to hide between bullet points. Bezos, the skeptic of narrative, now requires six-page narratives from his staffers that are written in prose to better stimulate critical thinking.
Stone, perhaps wary of being accused of narrative fallacy, doesn’t draw many grand conclusions, but he is clearly a believer in the company. He writes: That is its future, to keep weaving and growing, manifesting the constitutional relentlessness of its founder and his vision. And it will continue to expand until either Jeff Bezos exits the scene or no one is left to stand in his way.