Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has always been one of the stranger characters associated with the dot.com world. He founded Amazon back in 1995, just as the Internet was beginning to take off. But unlike just about everyone else who opened their online doors that year, Bezos made it. In fact, he made it in a spectacular way, and the company is still innovating and growing by leaps and bounds.
In Richard L. Brandt’s One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com we not only get a concise history of the company, Brandt also profiles the unusual man behind the curtain, Jeff Bezos. What emerges is an extremely driven entrepreneur, and one who seemingly had the vision of Amazon fully formed in his mind all along. According to Brandt, books were always meant to be the proverbial foot in the door for the company. Once established, the goal was then to branch out into other areas such as music and VHS/DVD. These products would eventually be supplemented by just about everything available in a retail environment. Sixteen years have passed since Amazon.com launched, and all of these dreams have more than come true.
The tribulations of the dot.com bubble did not spare Amazon. Even as Bezos was posing as Time magazine’s Man Of The Year in 1999, there were some ominous warning signs. Through a combination of luck, extraordinarily dedicated employees, and a virtual lock on the market, Bezos managed to weather the 2000-2001 shake-out that so decimated his competitors.
One of the qualities of Mr. Bezos that I found most intriguing was his never-ending focus on taking his business into new frontiers. While many in his position would have been happy to just know that they had weathered the storm, and that their online presence seemed assured, Bezos was looking for more. He picked a select group of engineers to work on a side business that we now call cloud computing. Back in 2002, nobody else was even contemplating the idea of renting out time on the massive computer system he had (and continues to grow) at the time.
Brandt does not shirk from the many controversies Jeff Bezos has found himself in, either. There seems to be almost a petulant child reaction from him when he does not get a discount he wants, for example. In a few documented cases, he simply removed the offending publisher’s books from the Amazon site. In other cases, he left the books up, but removed the “Buy” button from the site, which meant customers could see the book, but not purchase it from Amazon.
The sheer scale of business Amazon does is staggering, and continues to grow. It is humorous to look back with Brandt at the various trials that booksellers have been through over the past 20 years. In the early ’90s, there was a great deal of hand-wringing over giant stores — such as Borders and Barnes and Noble, and even big box stores such as Wal Mart — carrying books and forcing independent, neighborhood bookstores out of business. With Amazon to contend with, B&N and Borders were seen as “the little guys,” hopeless to compete with the online giant. The funny thing about all of this, Brandt reports, is that the small indie stores who have managed to stay alive through this are thriving, and seem to have a future, while the others look like toast. (Indeed, the long-struggling Borders pulled up stakes in July 2011.)
“Amazon.toast” was one less than flattering nickname some late ’90s pundits attached to Amazon. It was thought that anyone could copy what Bezos had done. Just get the right software, offer up books — with maybe even a deeper discount — and Amazon would be over.
They clearly missed the most important lesson of the entire dot.com startup era. The success or failure of a company had much more to do with the entrepreneur at the top more than anything else. There is a reason men like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos are practically household names. Their visions for their companies, and for the future of computers as part of society, are almost messianic. Evidently this is part of the whole package as well. Some of the former employees Brandt interviewed even called it Amazon.cult.
In any case, there is no question that Jeff Bezo’s company has changed the online and retail worlds dramatically over its 16 years in existence, and will no doubt continue to. One Click is a nice history of where they have been so far, and where they seem to be headed.