Today with Amazon embroiled in a battle with publisher Hachette over pricing and a hassle with the FTC over the way it deals with children buying aps, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Brad Stone’s well researched story of the rise of the internet retail giant and its growth into a tech phenomenon is an even more essential read, if that’s possible.
Stone combines a biographical sketch of Bezos with a history of the company he built and the philosophy that led it to its dominating marketing share. It is neither hagiography, nor a hatchet job. The picture it paints of both Bezos and his company seems quite fair. Stone is certainly critical when criticism is called for, but he is equally willing to praise when praise is due. And there seems to be little question that both praise and criticism are deserved — determining the proportions will no doubt depend on individual values.
Innovators and value seeking consumers will find little to complain about in Bezos’ methods and less in what he achieved. Luddites will lament the disappearance of the village smithy from under the spreading Chestnut Tree. Most will buy their discounted books and other products, pocket the savings and cry crocodile tears for the brick and mortar operations that may be going the way of the horse and carriage.
Bezos, as portrayed by Stone, was a man obsessed with a big idea — an on-line store where the customer could buy anything he wanted, buy it at the cheapest price, and get it yesterday or quicker. How can a customer argue with that?
Driven by this obsession, as an employer he comes across as something of a martinet. He wants what he wants when he wants it, and has no tolerance for excuses. He’s tough on his employees. He has a commitment and he expects them to have the same commitment. Unlike the typical dot.com powerhouse, he provides them with few amenities. They, Stone repeats on numerous occasions, pay for parking. They buy snacks from vending machines. They don’t fly business class. Bezos’ Amazon is cheap when it comes to the staff. Okay, not generous with the employee perks, but if that’s what it takes to get my copy of The Everything Store cheaply and quickly, it’s hard to complain.
They may have started with books, but Bezos always had a larger vision for his company. Seemingly he was willing to try almost anything. He believed that reach should exceed grasp, so if was willing to tolerate failure in pursuit of big ideas, and he encouraged his executives to think outside the lines, to find new ways to solve problems.
Amazon, Stone points out, bullies its suppliers, undercuts its competitors, and has even been known to back stab a friend. Certainly none of this is very nice, but since when have successful capitalists been nice? Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs: nice is not a word in their vocabulary. They build their companies, make their fortunes and then they’re ‘nice.’ They fund libraries. They start foundations. They develop a millennial clock. They buy the Washington Post.
Still it is reasonable to ask what happens when one company becomes so dominant that they control the market place. Will they still be customer friendly when there is only one place for the customer to go? We have seen what happens when companies get too big for their own good. Even friendly giants can hurt you if they don’t know their own strength, and Amazon is far from friendly.
But Amazon haters can take solace that in business, the rule is the survival of the fittest. Today’s fittest, may well be tomorrow’s bloated beer belly. If Amazon is on top today, the next Amazon may be waiting for its big moment in the wings, and future Luddites will be lamenting its demise.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00BWQW73E,B00LF1SJFG]