Ended: Sept. 20, 2018
Relentless and ruthless. Those words show up repeatedly in the following pages. They are extreme but familiar values at most successful companies. Getting the lethal combination precisely right has been Bezos’s prodigious talent and perhaps Amazon’s greatest asset.
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.
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
“Amazon isn’t happening to the book business,” he likes to say to authors and journalists. “The future is happening to the book business.”)
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.
“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.”
Shaw’s rigor extended to more substantive matters as well: any of his computer scientists could suggest trading ideas, but the notions had to pass demanding scientific scrutiny and statistical tests to prove they were valid.
Bezos also revered pioneering computer scientist Alan Kay and often quoted his observation that “point of view is worth 80 IQ points”—a reminder that looking at things in new ways can enhance one’s understanding.
“It’s easier to invent the future than to predict it.” —Alan Kay
Unlike traditional retailers, Amazon boasted what was called a negative operating cycle. Customers paid with their credit cards when their books shipped but Amazon settled its accounts with the book distributors only every few months. With every sale, Amazon put more cash in the bank, giving it a steady stream of capital to fund its operations and expansion.
They agreed on five core values and wrote them down on a whiteboard in a conference room: customer obsession, frugality, bias for action, ownership, and high bar for talent. Later Amazon would add a sixth value, innovation.
Looking for a way to reinforce Walton’s notion of a bias for action, Bezos instituted the Just Do It award—an acknowledgment of an employee who did something notable on his own initiative, typically outside his primary job responsibilities. Even if the action turned out to be an egregious mistake, an employee could still earn the prize as long as he or she had taken risks and shown resourcefulness in the process.
During one memorable meeting, a female employee pointedly asked Bezos when Amazon was going to establish a better work-life balance. He didn’t take that well. “The reason we are here is to get stuff done, that is the top priority,” he answered bluntly. “That is the DNA of Amazon. If you can’t excel and put everything into it, this might not be the place for you.”
Amazon wouldn’t make another significant acquisition for years, and when it did, Bezos carefully considered the lessons from his reckless binge.
An executive in the finance group used Suria’s name to coin a term for a significant mathematical error of a million dollars or more; Bezos loved it and started using it himself. The word was milliravi.
Kim Rachmeler shared a favorite quote she heard from a colleague around that time. “If you’re not good, Jeff will chew you up and spit you out. And if you’re good, he will jump on your back and ride you into the ground.”
“Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
He gave Blue Origin a coat of arms and a Latin motto, Gradatim Ferociter, which translates to “Step by Step, Ferociously.”
An interviewer once asked Bezos why he was motivated to accomplish so much, considering that he had already amassed an exceedingly large fortune. “I have realized about myself that I’m very motivated by people counting on me,” he answered. “I like to be counted on.”
Wilke had burned a boat in mid-voyage, and for the Amazon armada, there was no turning back. Along the way, he was exhibiting a style—leadership by example, augmented with a healthy dose of impatience—that was positively Bezosian in character. Perhaps not coincidentally, Wilke was promoted to senior vice president a little over a year after joining Amazon. Jeff Bezos had found his chief ally in the war against chaos.
The junior executives recommended a variety of different techniques to foster cross-group dialogue and afterward seemed proud of their own ingenuity. Then Jeff Bezos, his face red and the blood vessel in his forehead pulsing, spoke up. “I understand what you’re saying, but you are completely wrong,” he said. “Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out a way for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.”
Bezos’s counterintuitive point was that coordination among employees wasted time, and that the people closest to problems were usually in the best position to solve them. That would come to represent something akin to the conventional wisdom in the high-tech industry over the next decade. The companies that embraced this philosophy, like Google, Amazon, and, later, Facebook, were in part drawing lessons from theories about lean and agile software development. In the seminal high-tech book The Mythical Man-Month, IBM veteran and computer science professor Frederick Brooks argued that adding manpower to complex software projects actually delayed progress. One reason was that the time and money spent on communication increased in proportion to the number of people on a project.
All new hires had to directly improve the outcome of the company. He wanted doers—engineers, developers, perhaps merchandise buyers, but not managers. “We didn’t want to be a monolithic army of program managers, à la Microsoft. We wanted independent teams to be entrepreneurial,” says Neil Roseman. Or, as Roseman also put it: “Autonomous working units are good. Things to manage working units are bad.”
In early 2002, as part of a new personal ritual, he took time after the holidays to think and read. (In this respect, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, who also took such annual think weeks, served as a positive example.)
There were some head-scratching aspects to Bezos’s two-pizza-team concept. Each group was required to propose its own “fitness function”—a linear equation that it could use to measure its own impact without ambiguity. For example, a two-pizza team in charge of sending advertising e-mails to customers might choose for its fitness function the rate at which these messages were opened multiplied by the average order size those e-mails generated. A group writing software code for the fulfillment centers might home in on decreasing the cost of shipping each type of product and reducing the time that elapsed between a customer’s making a purchase and the item leaving the FC in a truck. Bezos wanted to personally approve each equation and track the results over time. It would be his way of guiding a team’s evolution.
Over the next few years, “one by one, we unplugged our vendors’ modems and we watched as their jaws hit the floor,” says Wegner. “They couldn’t believe we were engineering our own solutions.” When Amazon later opened small facilities in places like Seattle and Las Vegas to handle easily packable items and larger fulfillment centers in Indianapolis, Phoenix, and elsewhere, it would go even further, dispensing with the pick-to-light systems and big Crisplant sorting machines altogether and instead employing a less automated approach that favored invisible algorithms. Employees would bring their totes from the shelves right to the packing stations, their movements carefully coordinated by software.
“The principles and math were on our side, and I realized early on that this was a company where you can carry the day when you have the principles and math on your side, and you are patient and tenacious.”
Around the same time he was ripping televisions off the walls, Bezos made two significant changes to the corporate culture. As part of his ongoing quest for a better allocation of his own time, he decreed that he would no longer have one-on-one meetings with his subordinates. These meetings tended to be filled with trivial updates and political distractions, rather than problem solving and brainstorming. Even today, Bezos rarely meets alone with an individual colleague.
The other change was also peculiar and perhaps unique in corporate history. Up until that time, Amazon employees had been using Microsoft’s PowerPoint and Excel spreadsheet software to present their ideas in meetings. Bezos believed that method concealed lazy thinking. “PowerPoint is a very imprecise communication mechanism,” says Jeff Holden, Bezos’s former D. E. Shaw colleague, who by that point had joined the S Team. “It is fantastically easy to hide between bullet points. You are never forced to express your thoughts completely.” Bezos announced that employees could no longer use such corporate crutches and would have to write their presentations in prose, in what he called narratives. The S Team debated with him over the wisdom of scrapping PowerPoint but Bezos insisted. He wanted people thinking deeply and taking the time to express their thoughts cogently. “I don’t want this place to become a country club,” he was fond of saying as he pushed employees harder. “What we do is hard. This is not where people go to retire.”
Meetings no longer started with someone standing up and commanding the floor as they had previously at Amazon and everywhere else throughout the corporate land. Instead, the narratives were passed out and everyone sat quietly reading the document for fifteen minutes—or longer. At the beginning, there was no page limit, an omission that Diego Piacentini recalled as “painful” and that led to several weeks of employees churning out papers as long as sixty pages. Quickly there was a supplemental decree: a six-page limit on narratives, with additional room for footnotes.
Bezos refined the formula even further. Every time a new feature or product was proposed, he decreed that the narrative should take the shape of a mock press release. The goal was to get employees to distill a pitch into its purest essence, to start from something the customer might see—the public announcement—and work backward. Bezos didn’t believe anyone could make a good decision about a feature or a product without knowing precisely how it would be communicated to the world—and what the hallowed customer would make of it.
Bezos was prone to melodramatic temper tantrums that some Amazon employees called, privately, nutters. A colleague failing to meet Bezos’s exacting standards would predictably set off a nutter. If an employee did not have the right answers, or tried to bluff the right answer, or took credit for someone else’s work, or exhibited a whiff of internal politics, or showed any kind of uncertainty or frailty in the heat of battle, the vessel in Bezos’s forehead popped out and his filter fell away. He was capable of both hyperbole and cruelty in these moments, and over the years he delivered some devastating rebukes to employees.
Bezos battled a reaction that he dubbed the institutional no, by which he meant any and all signs of internal resistance to these unorthodox moves. Even strong companies, he said, tended to reflexively push back against moves in unusual directions. At quarterly board meetings, he asked each director to share an example of the institutional no from his or her own past. Bezos was preparing his overseers to approve what would be a series of improbable, expensive, and risky bets. He simply refused to accept Amazon’s fate as an unexciting and marginally profitable online retailer. “There’s only one way out of this predicament,” he said repeatedly to employees during this time, “and that is to invent our way out.”
Bezos and Dalzell came to call these satellite locations remote development centers. The idea was to place the offices in regions with rich pools of technical talent and set teams to work on specific, isolated projects, harnessing the energy and agility of a startup while minimizing the need for communication with the mother ship in Seattle.
Bezos believed that high margins justified rivals’ investments in research and development and attracted more competition, while low margins attracted customers and were more defensible. (He was partly right about the iPhone; its sizable profits did indeed attract a deluge of competition, starting with smartphones running Google’s Android operating system. But the pioneering smartphone is also a fantastically lucrative product for Apple and its shareholders in a way that AWS has not been, at least so far.)
But the emergence of Amazon Web Services was transformational in a number of ways. Amazon’s inexpensive and easily accessible Web services facilitated the creation of thousands of Internet startups, some of which would not have been possible without it, and it provided larger companies with the ability to rent a supercomputer in the cloud, ushering in a new era of innovation in areas like finance, oil and gas, health, and science. It is not hyperbole to say that AWS, particularly the original services like S3 and EC2, helped lift the entire technology industry out of a prolonged post-dot-com malaise.
By that time, Bezos and his executives had devoured and raptly discussed another book that would significantly affect the company’s strategy: The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen. Christensen wrote that great companies fail not because they want to avoid disruptive change but because they are reluctant to embrace promising new markets that might undermine their traditional businesses and that do not appear to satisfy their short-term growth requirements. Sears, for example, failed to move from department stores to discount retailing; IBM couldn’t shift from mainframe to minicomputers. The companies that solved the innovator’s dilemma, Christensen wrote, succeeded when they “set up autonomous organizations charged with building new and independent businesses around the disruptive technology.”
Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a futuristic novel about an engineer who steals a rare interactive textbook to give to his daughter, Fiona.
“Jeff does a couple of things better than anyone I’ve ever worked for,” Dalzell says. “He embraces the truth. A lot of people talk about the truth, but they don’t engage their decision-making around the best truth at the time. “The second thing is that he is not tethered by conventional thinking. What is amazing to me is that he is bound only by the laws of physics. He can’t change those. Everything else he views as open to discussion.”
Jeff Blackburn, Amazon’s chief of business development, said that Amazon’s bruises from the 1990s helped to create a “building culture” there. Every major company faces decisions over whether it should build or buy new capabilities. “Jeff almost always prefers to build it,” Blackburn says. Bezos had absorbed the lessons of the business bible Good to Great, whose author, Jim Collins, counseled companies to acquire other firms only when they had fully mastered their virtuous circles, and then “as an accelerator of flywheel momentum, not a creator of it.”
Bezos (and the few Jeff Bots that Amazon allowed to speak in public) perfected an attitude of bemused perplexity when addressing criticisms. Bezos often said that Amazon had a “willingness to be misunderstood,” which was an impressive piece of rhetorical jujitsu—the implication being that its opponents just didn’t understand the company.1 Bezos also deflected attacks by claiming that Amazon was a missionary company, not a mercenary one. That dichotomy originated with now former board member John Doerr, who formulated it after reading his partner Randy Komisar’s 2001 business-philosophy book The Monk and the Riddle. Missionaries have righteous goals and are trying to make the world a better place. Mercenaries are out for money and power and will run over anyone who gets in the way. To Bezos, at least, there was no doubt where Amazon fell. “I would take a missionary over a mercenary any day,” he liked to say. “One of those great paradoxes is that it’s usually the missionaries who end up making more money anyway.”
“Amazon’s attempt to avoid sales tax is one more sad example of the short-term thinking that rules American business,” blogged Web evangelist Tim O’Reilly, knowing just how to push the buttons of Bezos, who prided himself on long-term thinking.
In the midst of this debate, Amazon found a technical way to prevent a Lovefilm IPO. If the company was going to free up stock to sell to the public, it needed to amend its own bylaws, or articles of association—and as the largest shareholder, Amazon could block this change. It effectively had a veto over an IPO, and Amazon made it clear that it was not going to authorize or publicly endorse the move, according to multiple board members and people close to the company. This was an enormous problem. Potential investors were likely to balk if the company’s biggest shareholder was not visibly showing its support for the offering. Lovefilm executives had several meetings with attorneys to try to find a way to extricate themselves from the situation. They also attempted to entice other potential acquirers, hoping to spark a bidding war, but without success. Everyone saw that Amazon was squatting over the asset.
Amazon’s culture is notoriously confrontational, and it begins with Bezos, who believes that truth springs forth when ideas and perspectives are banged against each other, sometimes violently.
The people who do well at Amazon are often those who thrive in an adversarial atmosphere with almost constant friction. Bezos abhors what he calls “social cohesion,” the natural impulse to seek consensus. He’d rather his minions battled it out in arguments backed by numbers and passion, and he has codified this approach in one of Amazon’s fourteen leadership principles—the company’s highly prized values that are often discussed and inculcated into new hires.2 Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.
The rhythms of Amazon are the rhythms of Bezos, and its customs are closely tuned to how he prefers to process information and maximize his time. He personally runs the biannual operating review periods for the entire company, dubbed OP1 (done over the summer) and OP2 (done after the holiday season). Teams work intensely for months preparing for these sessions, drawing up six-page documents that spell out their plans for the year ahead. A few years ago, the company refined this process further to make the narratives more easily digestible for Bezos and other S Team members, who cycle through many topics during these reviews. Now every document includes at the top of the page a list of a few rules, called tenets, the principles for each group that guide the hard decisions and allow them all to move fast, without constant supervision.
Later, when asked why there was so much animosity toward Amazon in the book world, Bezos was unapologetic. “The Internet is disrupting every media industry, Charlie,” he said. “You know, people can complain about that, but complaining is not a strategy.”
Such ambitious dreaming is represented among Amazon’s thirteen leadership principles. Think Big Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.