A handful of authors have tried to write the Amazon.com story. But no one had put together a definitive account of the juggernaut’s rise from a Bellevue garage to a global power in less than two decades until Brad Stone wrote “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.”
The book, which debuted last week, includes little-known details about meetings, deals that never materialized, Bezos’ interactions with other corporate giants, and roadblocks that almost derailed Amazon. It provides insight into a company that has been opaque for much of its history.
While Bezos decided not to comment for the book, Stone, a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, still got remarkable access to both current and former executives, as well as Bezos’ family and friends. And in one of the book’s most dramatic moments, Stone unearthed Bezos’ biological father, who gave up his son nearly a half century ago when, as a teenager, he was ill-prepared for parenthood. Stone found Ted Jorgensen running a bike shop in Glendale, Ariz., and entirely unaware of who his son became.
Stone, who will be speaking at Town Hall Seattle in conversation with The New York Times’ Nick Wingfield Tuesday night, chatted with The Seattle Times about reporting the book and the insights he discovered about the company in the process.
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Here’s an edited version of that conversation:
Q: One of the most dramatic parts of the book is your meeting Jeff Bezos’ biological father, Ted Jorgensen. After the meeting, were you worried that some journalist might come along and find Jorgensen before the book came out?
A: Yes. Any piece of news that you uncover in the course of reporting a book has to remain quiet for a year or more because the book gestation process is a really long one.
It seemed unlikely, I guess. Never underestimate the ability of any author to worry about even the smallest thing to go wrong, and I was definitely worried about it.
Q: In the book, you note that 45 years ago or so Jackie Bezos [Jeff Bezos’ mother] asked Ted Jorgensen to stay out of her life and Jeff’s. Did you have any reservations about bringing Jorgensen back into their lives?
A: I definitely did. But you know, Jeff has changed the world. Full stop. He has changed the way that we shop, the way that we read and the way that companies are built now.
I went to explore this untold aspect of his story. I didn’t know what I would find. And I didn’t anticipate that he [Jorgensen] wouldn’t have any knowledge of Amazon, of the influence that his biological son had had on the world. These were unanticipated consequences, and it was uncomfortable all the way around.
Q: Do you think Jeff Bezos knew that the Ted Jorgensen who ran a bike shop in Glendale, Ariz., was his biological father?
A: I have no idea.
Q: You paint Bezos as a polarizing figure — a guy who is brilliant, driven, ruthless and sometimes even cruel. Setting aside judgments about whether that’s good or bad, do you think that personality type was required to create the juggernaut that Amazon has become?
A: Absolutely. Amazon is a company that grew from two guys in a garage in 1994 to almost 100,000 employees today, in addition to 70,000 temporary employees [hired for holiday sales].
Amazon’s biggest adversary has never been Walmart or Barnes & Noble. It’s been chaos and the complexity that comes with a business that grows that fast. Bezos’ insistence on excellence all around and high standards and the way he demands the best from his employees make Amazon an extremely challenging place to work. But it is also one of the biggest factors that contributes to its success.
We’ve seen other companies that have grown that fast, whose outcomes are a lot different. Look at AOL. Look at Yahoo. These are all companies that rode the same wave but eventually crashed and burned because they didn’t have the singular figure at the helm that had the clarity and the drive and the discipline to keep things operating smoothly amid the onslaught of growth.
Q: Is it clarity and drive and discipline, or is it a willingness to think of employees as pieces of the machinery that move the engine forward rather than the way most of us think of them, as people?
A: In the early years of Amazon, everyone left Bezos. That entire management team turned over, most voluntarily. At some point, he must have had to desensitize himself to churn. It’s almost a fact of life in that kind of fast-growing business, when things are so intense.
Q: Jeff Bezos seems of a similar mold to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, super smart guys that launched tech giants, but also polarizing figures. You even make the comparison in the book. Do you think that personality type is a causation or a correlation to building tech giants?
A: I think it’s required. I think it’s no accident that we find these leaders have oversized personalities and are extraordinarily driven and focused.
There are probably some disadvantages to being too nice. There are also some disadvantages to being too brutal. We’ve seen a lot of that, particularly on Wall Street. There’s a middle ground. I’m not sure where it is.
Q: Bezos often talks about a willingness to be misunderstood as he comes up with new innovations at Amazon. But then, you came across a memo he wrote for the senior leadership about the need to make Amazon better loved. Are those two ideas in conflict?
A: In a way, both address how Amazon is looked at by the media and, to a certain extent, by shareholders. I’ve always viewed the willingness to be misunderstood as an impressive piece of rhetorical jujitsu.
In way, it’s saying: “You don’t understand. We’ve got a long-term vision here. We’re going to stick to our principles and not engage in the criticisms.”
In the “Amazon.love” memo, Jeff is being very analytical about a problem that all big retailers face, which is when you get to a certain size, you inevitably attract negative attention, particularly discount retailers because you’re not just putting the big guys out of business, but the small guys, too. Often, there’s a reflexive negative response to big companies.
He was thinking out loud about when Amazon gets to be the size of Walmart — and it still has a long way to go — how does it avoid falling into the Walmart trap, which is that a lot of people, just instinctively, don’t like you?
And in brainstorming, he derives one lesson, which is as long as people think you’re inventing, and trying to improve yourself, and doing things for your customers, they’ll give you a little bit of a pass. We’ll see in the coming years if that’s true or not.
Q: I spoke with a former Amazonian recently who said the day Jeff Bezos announces his retirement is the day he’ll sell his stock. You write about the Jeff-bots at the company [loyal executives who try to channel the CEO]. But is there anyone at the company who understands the vision as clearly as Bezos and could help the company pursue it?
A: Right now, the company is tailored toward the way that Jeff Bezos thinks and the way he processes information and the priorities he sets for the company and its culture.
And it’s such a diversified company, that it’s hard to imagine anybody who’d be as versatile to run all parts of it from the retail side to the digital side to Amazon Web Services.
That said, there are some executives who have been with him for over a decade and have really grown up by his side who would be the obvious candidates. The names that come to mind are Jeff Wilke, who runs the North American retail business; Andy Jassy, who runs Amazon Web Services; and Diego Piacentini, who runs Amazon’s international businesses. They think, in large part, the way he thinks.
Q: You write that it’s nearly inevitable that Amazon will introduce a mobile phone and a Web-connected television set-top box because the company wants to control the way its services are offered. Why do you think the company hasn’t introduced those yet?
A: Because Jeff has an extremely high bar, and because they want to introduce something that’s distinctive and inventive.
I think that the set-top box is imminent. With the mobile phone, it’s a crowded market and they haven’t quite figured it out exactly what Amazon’s play is there.
I called the book “The Everything Store” for a reason: It’s expanding its limits in every single direction, internationally, devices, enterprise. They want to be everywhere.
Q: With both those markets, there would seem to be first-mover advantages. Amazon doesn’t have that, and the longer it waits, the harder it becomes for them to produce something that could be truly meaningful for and desirable by consumers.
A: They have demonstrated two things.
One, the ability to be incredibly patient. The tablet market they were late on. And while they haven’t had outsized success, by all accounts, the Kindle Fire is a nice business. The first Kindle Fire wasn’t that good. They’ve improved over the last two generations, and now they look pretty good.
And second, they are willing to try new things and stop them if they don’t work. The second Kindle device had a text-to-speech function where it read aloud from your book in a robotic voice. And they couldn’t get a lot of the rights [to use that technology)] to books. People didn’t really use it. And it’s not around anymore.
Q: Have you sent a copy of the book to Jeff Bezos?
A: I did.
Q: Have you heard anything from him about it?
Q: How often are you checking the Amazon Sales Rank of your book?
A: Like almost every other author, obsessively, and at a rate that disturbs my significant other. It’s an illness like you can’t stop.
Jay Greene: 206-464-2231 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: iamjaygreene