It is January 2003. I am sitting in the Seattle headquarters of Amazon.com, surrounded by the “S-Team,” a group of the retail internet giant’s senior-most executives. I find myself the center of attention. Unfortunately, this is because our founding CEO, Jeff Bezos, is shouting at me.
“The answer to that question begins with a number!” he roars.
With less than a year under my belt as an Amazon's director for merchant integration, I am still considered the new guy and now Jeff is challenging me in front of the company’s top executives. I hesitate, frantically juggling responses in my head, seeking the answer to the question he has just posed: “How many merchants have launched since the first of the year?”
My initial answer to his question had been a semi-apologetic explanation that there simply weren’t any merchants, or what we called third-party sellers, to launch. Yet before I could finish, Jeff had erupted.
After a more numeric exchange, he informs us that the answer is pathetic and leaves. As I allow myself to start breathing again, processing what has just happened, I notice that many of the other senior leaders are smiling—and not unkindly. A few make a point of congratulating me as they gather their things and file out of the conference room.
“He likes you,” one explains with a pat on the shoulder.
I was reminded of my time at Amazon and Jeff's reputation for pyrotechnic displays of emotion while reading Bloomberg Businessweek journalist Brad Stone’s new book, “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.” I had the opportunity to launch and scale the company’s third party selling business, which today accounts for 40 percent of all units sold and shipped at Amazon.
My biggest concern when I bought Stone’s work was this: Would the author and book turn into its own “Jeff bot,” essentially becoming a non-discriminating parrot for his infectious personality? To the contrary, Stone outlines the fierce competition, the demanding environment and the cult-like commitment required to be a top-performer at Amazon and the sometimes ruthless nature of working there.
Stone's story is an exciting read — even though I already knew the punch lines — and confirmed all of what I know about Amazon. For people not as familiar with Amazon, the read will be even better.
"The Everything Store" is a vivid and, I believe, balanced picture of Amazon.com, its founder and the oeuvre that drives this disruptive titan of retail, technology and the publishing industry. Stone’s narrative documents the history and breadth of Amazon, as well as the “Cult of Jeff.”
To be sure, there are many topics that beg for deeper exploration. In the final chapter, just after Stone sneaks in the bombshell that he had found Bezos’ biological father working in a bike shop in Tucson, we finally learn about what I believe is the secret sauce at Amazon — its leadership principles. Only a couple of the 14 principles are described, yet I can tell you they constitute the very DNA – the human competitive advantage — of the Amazon miracle.
“Bezos abhors what he calls “social cohesion,” the natural impulse to seek consensus,” Stone writes. “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 in new hires.”
Have a backbone; disagree and commit. Be obsessive about the customer. Own decisions. If you are a leader, be right, a lot. Insist on high standards. Think big. Have a bias for action. And so on.
“All of this comes from Bezos himself. Amazon’s values are his business principles, molded through two decades of surviving in the thin atmosphere of low profit margins and fierce skepticism from the outside world.”
What’s missing from Bezos’ list of principles are a few other values that Amazon should consider stocking in its Everything Store. Among them, civility — or at least avoiding rudeness that borders on assault — and being a good business partner.
Stone reports on how Amazon, led by Bezos, “worked subordinates to exhaustion.” Jeff could show thanks with huge stock grants and vacations, like he did for one executive. Unfortunately, the typical manager was worked to exhaustion with little he or she could do about it.
Amazon, Stone writes, is not transparent with its business partners. It does not believe in a “win-win” negotiation. I recently had coffee with an ex-Amazon colleague who had also read the book. He recalled that he had once used “win – win” language as a strategy, but was called out by the Amazon executive in charge. He was not to use that language or approach.
In "The Everything Store," Bezos worries about becoming another Microsoft bureaucracy: "a monolithic army of program managers." Softies will recognize many of the lessons and stories of Amazon's focus and Bezos' drive. Similarly, Amazon and Bezos should learn from Microsoft’s failures in over-reaching and treating partners unfairly.
Last week a group of former Amazonians spoke on a panel in California with Brad Stone about their time at the company. One panelist talked about Bezos' "maniacal focus on the right answer." Whatever the question, I can tell you with some certainty that it starts with a number.