Oct 17 12:00 PM

What drives Jeff Bezos? ‘The Everything Store’ author Brad Stone weighs in

From left to right: Book cover for "The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon," author Brad Stone.
(Book cover courtesy Little, Brown and Company. Photo by Cynthia E. Wood)

Brad Stone, a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, joined Antonio Mora to discuss his new book, “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” on the Oct. 15, 2013 edition of Consider This. In this Web exclusive interview, Stone shares his perspective on Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, the reach of Bezos’ company, and Bezos’ ambitions for the future.

Q. Based on what you’ve learned while writing your book, how pervasive is the reach of Amazon? For instance, if Amazon were to go dark as a company tomorrow, what would go with it? What would people miss?

A. I think for Amazon's customers, it offers a kind of addictive service — the ability to shop without leaving your house, the ability to read without going to a bookstore or a library. Amazon really does reach into lots of different parts of its customers lives, and even in ways that maybe people don't appreciate. For instance, maybe the most vital part of Amazon is its cloud business. If Amazon goes away tomorrow like you speculated, a lot of companies stop operating, a lot of government agencies stop operating. Amazon’s become this kind of foundational structure, this foundation of the Internet.

Q. How do you think the expansion of Amazon compares to the expansion and ambitions of a company such as Google?

A. I think actually those are two companies whose ambitions are very similar. We see Google experimenting in so many places outside of its core search and advertising business, whether that’s bringing broadband Internet to the world or funding an entirely separate company to pursue solutions to disease and mortality. Amazon’s one of the few other companies that thinks as big as Google does. Its process is a little bit different. It prefers to keep everything in house and all of its businesses are tightly aligned in a way that Google's businesses are not. For instance, Amazon's retail site runs on top of Amazon's cloud business. Its digital business — the Kindle tablets and Kindle readers — allow[s] its customers to make more purchases on the Amazon retail site. Google’s ambitions and innovations aren’t as tightly aligned. Often it has one thing going on over here and one thing going on over there and there’s not much correlation between them.

Q. Do you perceive that as being a potential competitive advantage for Amazon down the line? Or a potential liability?

A. I think it's a competitive advantage that both Amazon and Google and other tech companies have over a lot of their counterparts. They take big risks and are pioneering new markets with the promise of big rewards. It's why Amazon is kind of reliably starting new businesses and opening kind of new frontiers.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos attends a launch event for the Bezos Center for Innovation at the Museum of History and Industry on Oct. 11, 2013 in Seattle, Washington.
(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Q. One of the things you mention in your book is that Bezos had a lack of empathy, early on. Do you think that hurt the company?

A. I think it probably did hurt the company. A lot of Amazon's early executives came in and left and the turnover rates were very high, and they still are probably unusually high in a way that probably is not true at Google — since we’re using it as an example — where really the Google management ranks are still full of the people who started with Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] in the very early days of the company. Google elevated all of those people and they grew with the company. At Amazon, because of its unique circumstances, and maybe because it was a little bit of a tougher place to work, a lot of the early employees didn’t grow with the company. And did that hurt Amazon? It’s hard to say whether the outcome would have been different had they stayed.

Q. In terms of the lack of empathy, do you think Bezos has gotten better over time?

A. I think he definitely has gotten better. There’s a rumor inside of Amazon that he had a leadership coach. You know, generally, like all great managers, you evolve and you grow over time and you tailor your management techniques for the stage of the company. Amazon has 90,000 employees right now, and what worked 10 years ago is not going to work again today.

Q. What do you think drives Jeff Bezos?

A. He wants to create a lasting company that's very kind of focused on its customers. I think that's what he would say, and I think it’s true. And I think it's also true that he wants Amazon to be one of the companies standing at the end of this period of incredible transformation and change brought about by the Internet. And if that means competing hard and winning and dominating competitors, you know, he’s willing to do that because there's really only going to be one website that people open to do their shopping on the Internet and he wants Amazon to win.

From left to right: Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk.
(Photo credits from left to right: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, and Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Q. Jeff spends a day each week working on Blue Origin [his firm devoted to innovations in space travel]. I’m wondering, why space? You’ve got [Virgin Group founder] Richard Branson, you’ve got [Google co-founder] Sergey Brin, you’ve got Elon Musk [PayPal co-founder and Tesla Motors CEO] — what do you think drives all of them to pursue space?

A. They grew up in the age of the NASA space program — you know, the Apollo missions — and Star Trek, and it’s lit the fire of the imaginations of many children in the 1960s and 1970s. And in recent years, the federal space program['s] ambitions have been curtailed by budget realities. And so a lot of these kids who grew up watching Star Trek now have the resources to make some of those dreams come true.

Q. What do you think would happen if these moguls pooled their resources toward space exploration?

A. Interesting. Then you'd have less experimentation. One of the interesting things about this moment is that they're all taking different approaches. From reusable spaceships, to spaceships that go up and come down vertically and you can reuse them, to mounting spaceships on airplanes and launching them from the air ... there's a lot of value in the fact that all these individual space programs are pursuing different paths.

Q. In the book, you mention 3-D printing as a technology that Bezos might embrace. Can you talk more about that beyond what you reference in your book?

A. It's [3-D printing] exactly the kind of technological revolution that he's interested in. He’s invested in startups that are pursuing the technology. They sell 3-D printing appliances and supplies on Amazon itself. And it’s not hard to imagine a day where instead of shipping atoms across the country – back and forth – and finally to a customer’s doorstep, you can cut out some of that process, you know, manufacture the products from a fulfillment center and cut the costs dramatically.

Brad Stone’s interview has been condensed and edited. Read an excerpt from “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” in Bloomberg Businessweek. You can follow Stone on Twitter: @BradStone.


Internet, Retail

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