“As usual,” says Mark Britto, “it was Jeff against the world.”
This comment from one of Amazon’s business development executives came up when Amazon introduced Marketplace where “used books” were advertised side-by-side with “new books” which caused a surge of complaints from authorized sellers and manufacturers. Jeff Bezos couldn’t care less. His only passion is to give customers the best service he could imagine.
To say that the book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone is good would be an understatement – it’s definitely brilliant! I loved it. After reading a few pages, I’m immediately hooked and wouldn’t stop until it’s finished. I like how it was written – it’s fair, it’s funny, it’s arranged almost chronologically with random inserts of strange trivia about Jeff and Amazon executives. To me, this book seems to be almost fiction-like with Amazon as both the protagonist and the antagonist that fought its way up, raising itself from the challenges of the real and skeptical world.
Some people say that for a movie, a TV show, a book, or any piece of literary work to be appreciated by consumers, they should be able to find themselves in any of the characters or the situation in order for them to really relate to it. And for a person like me who has spent 7 years of my life working for a telecommunications company’s customer service department, this book is highly aspirational. Reading through the text, I hear my thoughts at the back of my head saying, “I wish our company can care this much for the customer and would take this much risk just to serve them well.” And yet I know that it would never happen here even if Amazon proves to be a strong case study because in the ordinary corporate world, sales reports still weigh so much more than the customer’s voice. After all, not everyone is a Jeff Bezos.
Bezos is not just the founder and CEO of Amazon, he IS Amazon. Amazon is what Jeff Bezos believes how it should be – to sell everything at the lowest price for the satisfaction of every customer. Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, shared with the author that for him, “Amazon is a story of a brilliant founder who personally drove the vision.” In Amazon, there is what they call Jeffisms. These are Bezos’ ideologies that are like dogmas for the organization. Here’s one that summarizes what Amazon is all about which Bezos shared with Brad Stone. A verbatim from the book – “We are genuinely customer-centric, we are genuinely long-term oriented and we genuinely like to invent. Most companies are not those things. They are focused on the competitor, rather than the customer. They want to work on things that will pay dividends in two or three years they will move on to something else. And they prefer to be close-followers rather than inventors, because it’s safer. So if you want to capture the truth about Amazon, that is why we are different. Very few companies have all those three elements.” This and other Jeffisms define Amazon’s next move. No matter how crazy the solutions, employees push through with much faith (and also with much fear) and it was worth all the risk. All through out Amazon’s existence, it had to face several crossroads and difficult situations where Jeffisms have helped them decide on what to do next.
We are all aware that Amazon took an uneasy road to success. When people hear about success stories, it’s almost automatically assumed that it is because of a wonderful and perfect kind of leadership – yet more often than not, it is far from the truth. I find it amusing how this book described Jeff from day one until today. This book talked about Jeff, how he is as a person, which translates to how he is as a leader and how perfectionist he is though not exactly a very perfect person. This book is also about Jeff’s life, his childhood, his family, his way of thinking extremely differently, his solid faith on the Internet, and his relentless passion for the customer.
Bezos is very smart and talented and I find that the most important ingredient of his success is his imagination and passion. Bezos, as a leader, is described to be extremely difficult to work for. He is a micromanager who knows exactly what he wants. He has so many ideas and would react harshly to efforts that do not accomplish what he wants or do not meet his rigorous standards. The thing that I like most about what I learned about Bezos is his unfaltering faith on the Internet and the customers. There were many, too many challenges that have shaken Amazon and there were so many people, even its own executives who questioned Amazon’s staying power in the industry. But Bezos never doubted, never blinked, and never thought twice. Bezos is focused, disciplined and precise. He makes people work until the brink but he also gives time to talk and share a piece of himself with them. He can be a lot of things but you can never describe Bezos as a perfect leader.
Amazon’s behavior is a manifestation of Bezos’ competitive personality. True enough, his Jeffisms are also the main influence of Amazon’s core values. Amazon began with five core values and these are customer obsession, frugality, bias for action, ownership, and high bar for talent. Later on, they added the sixth value, which is innovation. Bezos makes sure that he personally sees to the constant practice of these core values across the organization. An interesting example is the reason behind letting employees pay for their parking space. Bezos and Amazon practice frugality. First, he doesn’t want to provide bus ride allowance to his employees because this would force employees to leave early to catch the bus. Jeff wants his employees to bring their own car and work for as long as they are needed, thus the parking space. Jeff also decided to subsidize only a portion of the parking fee because anything that Amazon does not spend is a saving for the customer. Another example is that Amazon executives are never booked in business class flights whenever travelling.
Amazon has tried several advertising strategies in order to reach customers. They also do press releases and interviews. But the strongest customer communication weapon they carry is their consistently very low prices! That’s how they want customers to remember them – an online store that sells everything from A to Z that offers the lowest price in the market. Amazon believes that they don’t make money when they sell things; they make money when they help customers make purchase decisions. Because of this, suppliers, manufacturers, and the like take the strongest blow in order for Amazon to sell the lowest price in the market. I’d like to think that during the established years of Amazon, they started bullying and harassing their business partners and suppliers in order to stay competitive, and that I would never want to be on that side of the food chain.
When faced with competition, this is a useful Jeffism to remember, “Look, you should wake up worried, terrified every morning. But don’t be worried about our competitors because they’re never going to send us any money anyway. Let’s be worried about our customers and stay heads-down focused.”
Internally, there are many interesting factors that make Amazon unique. Some of which are brilliantly toxic. To make sure that Amazon’s talent pool is always improving, every time there is a new hire, he or she should raise the bar for the next hire. Bezos does not believe in wok-life balance but rather, he believes in work-life harmony. To him, an Amazon employee must be able to do everything all at once. Jeff also abhors “social cohesion.” He would rather his executives and staffs to battle it out and argue about the things that has to be done because he believes this could result to something greater than settling for a mediocre decision. There was a time though when meeting rooms are called war rooms because it’s more fitting to be called such. Amazon and Jeff Bezos continuously make changes and improvements in its management and it is until today a work in progress.
I have already said much yet the most important takeaway for me from this book is Bezos’ view of communication. Bezos has two interesting beliefs about communication that I find to be worth sharing. First, Bezos believes that for any good decision to be made about a feature or a product, one must know precisely how it would be communicated to the world and what the customer would make of it. For a lot of companies I know, products are designed for the company to make a sale, not for customers to get what they need. And communication is usually planned at the end of the product design. It is only when a product is created that the communication part begins to be strategized. If more organizations can think like Bezos, products would be designed better and more customer-centric, which might make customer service departments unnecessary.
Second, when dealing with internal communication, Bezos said, “Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out a way for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.” This is the most interesting for me. As a communication specialist in our organization, I find this statement intriguing and unsettling. This for me is a new way to look at the situation. I always believed that communication is crucial in every part of work. But what Bezos said was very true – people often communicate to clarify and resolve. When employees work together on a same clear goal, there would be less need for communication. His statement isn’t entirely correct because communication is so much more than plainly discussing but his point definitely makes sense.
I sure hope I could give justice to this book because I got so much more out of it than what I initially expected – from just wanting to know more about Amazon and Jeff Bezos, I end up getting inspired and challenged. In fact, this book got me thinking about my work and how much improvements can still be made. I got even more excited when I learned that Bezos also started a company that aims to let people tour the outer space like visiting a local museum. How I wish we could all live to witness that future. Though the outer space doesn’t have much to do with Amazon, it’s a concrete example of how genius and eccentric is the mind of Jeff Bezos. And this very mind is at the center of Amazon’s nervous system. It’s a given that every leader and every organization is made up of good and bad decisions, great challenges, and grand achievements. Amazon is not an exemption and it is continuously improving itself in every aspect possible. Outside, our eyes are carefully and eagerly watching out for more magic tricks that Amazon could conjure. Inside, everybody knows how hard it is to work at Amazon and chooses to be there with Jeff.
It’s amazing for someone who thinks so differently from the crowd knows exactly what is best for the crowd. Yes, I would like to believe that it’s Jeff Bezos against the sales-rating-worshiping world.