Like many of today’s tech icons, Jeff Bezos brandishes a withering intellect that he often uses to eviscerate underlings who fail to meet his exacting standards.
But none of Bezos’ rebukes was as devastating as his dismissal of Amazon.com’s first employee, Shel Kaphan, detailed in “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon,” a new book by Bloomberg Businessweek senior writer Brad Stone that chronicles the Web giant’s rise.
As Bezos’ first hire, Kaphan created the technical infrastructure that guided Amazon in its early years. Kaphan has become a footnote in Amazon’s colorful life, but Bezos once described the one-time hacker as “the most important person ever in the history of Amazon.com.” As Seattle-based Amazon grew, though, different skills were needed, and Kaphan became expendable in Bezos’ eyes.
Marginalized, Kaphan notified Bezos in fall 1999 that he was quitting, a decision that Bezos didn’t try to reverse. Kaphan described Bezos’ decision to remove him from active participation at Amazon “a betrayal of a sacred trust,” telling Stone that his treatment “was one of the biggest disappointments of my entire life.”
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Bezos often says that being an innovator requires a willingness to be misunderstood. But “The Everything Store” offers previously untold anecdotes to provide deep insight into the executive and the company he created. It’s a deeply reported and deftly written book revealing how Amazon is a reflection of the drive of its founder.
Stone repeats Bezos’ well-worn “Jeffisms” — maxims from the CEO, including the strategy of starting with the customer and working backward, or that the company is long-term focused. But then Stone uses them to explain how they’ve shaped the company, for better and worse. Near the end of the book, Stone offers up what amounts to his core thesis about Amazon and Bezos.
“In a way, the entire company is scaffolding built around his brain — an amplification machine meant to disseminate his ingenuity and drive across the greatest possible radius,” Stone writes.
Bezos is the keeper of Amazon’s mission, and any executive who diverges from it endures his wrath. While Stone portrays both Bezos and Amazon as relentlessly ambitious, and ruthless in their collective bids to achieve goals, the book
is no screed. There clearly are Amazon critics who would love the definitive chronicle of Bezos and the company he built to knock both down a few pegs. This isn’t that book.
Instead, Stone seems to accept that the harsh tactics are a prerequisite for creating one of the dominant Web giants of the era. Even as Stone chronicles some of Bezos’ more colorful upbraidings, the author remains largely indifferent to the casualties that the CEO’s tactics have generated.
“In the company at the time, the culture was self-perpetuating, and those who couldn’t channel Bezos’ fervor on behalf of Amazon and its customers didn’t stay with the company,” Stone writes about the unrelenting drive inside the company as it developed the original Kindle e-reader. “Those who could do it stayed and advanced.”
He describes Bezos as “sphinxlike with details of his plans, keeping thoughts and intentions private, and he’s an enigma in the Seattle business community and in the broader technology industry.”
Stone finds no flaw in those characterizations, though. Indeed, Amazon exists as the force that it is, he suggests, because of them. Stone reveals Bezos’ vision, long before he ever launched Amazon, to create an online store with a near-endless supply of goods — The Everything Store. It was an idea Bezos plotted when he worked as a young vice president at D.E. Shaw, a New York hedge fund. Even though Bezos launched Amazon as a bookseller, he had visions from the very earliest days of selling much, much more.
Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of “The Everything Store” is that Bezos decided not to comment for the book, outside of a brief conversation recounted in the prologue. Stone writes that Bezos didn’t feel the time was right for a reflective look at the company. Bezos, though, did open many doors. That remarkable access to company executives, as well as Bezos’ family and friends, allows Stone to recount anecdotes and offer insights heretofore unknown outside the company’s headquarters in the South Lake Union neighborhood.
And while Bezos didn’t comment for the book, his voice is heard throughout. Stone goes through old speeches and interviews in magazines, newspapers and on television. He relies on recounted conversations with other Amazonians to capture Bezos’ ideas, insights and invective.
The only times Bezos feels absent are in those moments when the story cries for reflective commentary. It would be interesting to hear Bezos’ account of nudging Shel Kaphan out the door or hear him opine about the tactics that have reduced some rivals to the dustbin of history and drove others into deals with Amazon.
While Bezos didn’t comment for the book, it’s not because he didn’t find Stone worthy of his time. Stone is among the longest-tenured journalists watching Amazon, having interviewed Bezos about a dozen times over the years. The book is peppered with references to articles Stone has written, including a particularly memorable Dumpster-diving anecdote that led to his scoop of Bezos’ space-exploration endeavor, Blue Origin. That episode includes an email exchange with Bezos about Blue Origin that suggests a respectful working relationship between the two.
The book is full of other scoops as well. Stone got his hands on a memo Bezos penned for top executives about how to ensure Amazon is a company revered by customers. The memo, which Bezos titled “Amazon.love,” lists companies with great customer support, such as Apple, Nike and Google, among others. And Bezos singled out four companies that tended to be feared: Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil.
“I believe that the four ‘unloved’ companies are inventive as a matter of substance,” Bezos wrote. “But they are not perceived as inventors and pioneers. It is not enough to be inventive — that pioneering spirit must also come across and be perceived by the customer base.”
Stone also suggests that Bezos recognizes a need to change perceptions about his volatility. He writes about a rumor that Bezos has hired a “leadership coach” to “keep his notoriously eviscerating assessments of employees in check.”
Perhaps Stone’s biggest scoop was unearthing Bezos biological father, news that was revealed Thursday in an excerpt in Bloomberg Businessweek. Bezos found Ted Jorgensen running a bike shop in Glendale, Ariz., and discovered he had no idea who Bezos was. The book offers more detail than the excerpt, including a brief description of an email exchange between Bezos and his biological father, aided by Jorgensen’s stepson because Jorgensen doesn’t use the Internet.
According to Stone, Bezos sent a “short but heartfelt” note, empathizing with his biological father’s impossibly difficult choice, and noting that he harbored no ill will. “And then he wished his long-lost biological father the very best,” Stone wrote.
It’s the sort of detail that flows from “The Everything Store.” Like Steven Levy’s “In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives,” and “Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry — and Made Himself the Richest Man in America” by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, it is the definitive account of how a tech icon came to life.
Jay Greene: 206-464-2231 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: iamjaygreene