PEOPLE like Bill Gates of Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jeff Bezos of Amazon have created technology-based companies on the strength of innovative ideas. The commercial success of their companies has stretched to impact the social dimensions of the world. Their ideas so aptly match the demands of the times that they have come to define the current age.
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon is an important addition for those who wish to understand the dichotomy of individual ascend and social descend at some levels. The book is an absorbing tale of the evolution of the online bookstore into a giant “everything store,” as told by business journalist Brad Stone.
Amazon offers a near limitless selection of items below market price with the convenience of quick delivery at your doorstep. Stone traces the turning points in the life of the company and its founder, Jeff Bezos, chronologically. He has produced a deeply personal account in a bid to “decipher the modern enigma that is Amazon.” Stone also has succeeded in projecting Bezos as an “enormously driven” but incredibly demanding and difficult person to work for. In an interview Stone says about the book, “It is really a biography of Amazon. But Jeff is the central figure, and that company is him; it’s an expression of him.”
The book provides insight into the life of a motivated, impatient genius focused on his ambition, who despite incredible success believes his life’s work isn’t near accomplished. “It was never about the … dollars. It was really about changing people’s mentality so they wouldn’t shop anywhere else,” says Vijay Ravindran, a senior employee of Amazon, commenting on the fee for a new two-day shipping service, Amazon Prime.
Amazon was started in 1994 from Seattle by a 31-year-old Bezos who had been working at a Wall Street hedge fund. The initial investment was personally made by him to capitalise on the economic opportunity that the internet provided, and today the company’s projected worth is in billions. “The idea was always that someone would be allowed to make a profit as an intermediary,” explained David Shaw, a computer scientist and Bezos’ former employer, in an interview. “The key question is: Who will get to be that middleman?”
Bezos saw that activity on the web had grown by 230,000 per cent during 1993. “Things just don’t grow that fast,” Bezos later said, citing it as the main reason it jolted him out of complacency. “Its highly unusual, and that started me thinking. What kind of business plan might make sense in the context of that growth?”
He left a settled career to create an online bookstore to pioneer commerce on the internet, to the horror of his parents. That was the start of a roller coaster journey that involved perseverance, long working hours, friction, deceit and manipulation, fired by ambition. “Against that meager start, Bezos would tell investors he projected $74 million in sales by 2000 if things went moderately well, and $114 million in sales if they went much better than expected. (Actual net sales in 2000: $1.64 billion) … And he told investors the same thing he told his parents: the company had 70 per cent chance of failing.”
The pace of growth of the company was so fast that many early employees suffered burn-out. Paul Davis, one such employee, left the company in 1996. He told Bezos he wanted to spend time with his newborn daughter, and later “became an advocate of open-source software and a critic of Amazon enforcing its 1-Click patent.”
John Doerr, “the venture capitalist who backed Amazon and was on its board of directors for a decade,” recalls the 1996 innovation phase: “I walked into the door and this guy with a boisterous laugh who was just exuding energy comes bounding down the steps. In that moment, I wanted to be in business with Jeff.”
Bezos is known as a tough taskmaster. There are several incidents narrated by his current and former team members when they felt humiliated because of his behaviour. Stone does try of justify this harsh behaviour by projecting an image of a man in haste to build an entity envisaged only in theory. Rick Dalzell, Amazon’s former chief information officer is quoted as saying, “[Jeff] is not tethered by conventional thinking ... he is bound only by the laws of physics. He can’t change those. Everything else, he views as open to discussion.” His risk-taking is seen by many as necessary, considering that Amazon’s success was still not guaranteed.
The Everything Store is the story of the making of an innovative company as well as of breaking trust and friendship. Bezos’ self-assessment, “Physically, I’m a chicken. Mentally, I’m bold,” did not simply create a new type of retailer. He has also been fearlessly long-term in his outlook, focusing on expanding his company’s base from books to other merchandise and eventually to the Kindle, instead of focusing on just margins and profits. It took investors and society a long time to comprehend the scale of his ambition. In fact, Amazon has such a strong imprint of Bezos’s personality that it is hard to tell if the company can actually outlast him.
The reviewer is a *Dawn staffer*
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (Biography) By Brad Stone Little, Brown and Company, US ISBN 9780316239905 353pp.