A former technical assistant to Jeff Bezos, Amit Agarwal now directs India operations for Amazon. He reflects on Bezos’ leadership and how the India e-commerce market is unfolding.
BANGALORE, India — Take a look at Amazon.in, the retail giant’s shopping site in India. It’s pretty familiar terrain for any Amazon shopper. You can search for everything from books to detergent, just as you would do in any of the 10 other countries where Amazon runs retail operations.
But the company has had to rethink its entire business process to build a presence here. Its warehouses are a fraction of the size of those in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. It has come up with a cash-on-delivery system because, in India, rupees are still king. It has even designed mobile-photo studios to snap professional quality images of products from the small merchants who sell on its site.
The company quickly figured out that the playbook it has used to grow so large in the developed world won’t work in India, said Amit Agarwal, Amazon’s India country manager. In an interview, Agarwal talked about the need for Amazon’s Indian workers to think like cowboys rather than computer scientists.
Here’s an edited version of that conversation:
Q: How does the cowboy metaphor work for you?
Agarwal: It is a mental model that allows us to think about the landscape and the business situation we are in. We often use it in phrases. Someone might come to me and say “I cannot do this because of this constraint” and we often use the phrase “You need to put on your cowboy hat and go back and think about it.”
It creates a mental model for the team to think about, and feel more control of their destiny, than to feel victims.
Q: My understanding of the origin of the cowboys-in-India metaphor is that you presented a review for the business and Jeff Bezos said, “You’re going to fail. I don’t need computer scientists. I want cowboys.”
Is that the way you remember it?
Agarwal: It’s more of an internal story but, yeah, Jeff is one of those visionary leaders who is very good at situational leadership.
What works in a highly mature landscape, when you’re shipping tens of millions of items, you need to be very precise on the processes and what the defects are. But we’re just getting started in a landscape where we’re trying to get big fast. The mental model has to be very different.
In the case of India, the objective of his feedback was to make us realize that it was very early, we need to get big fast. It’s important for us to not think like computer scientists in a very methodical, thorough, precise way, but to think like cowboys where we’re not afraid to take risks, where we’re not afraid to fire and then aim.
It was something we knew when we got started. But his very targeted advice helped us make it an integral part of what we do.
Q: Targeted advice is a good euphemism.
Agarwal: You see, I am a computer scientist. It did feel a little jarring when he said, “I don’t need computer scientists.”
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Q: When you revised the plan, how did you change things?
Agarwal: For us, it was very important that at the end of the day we need to understand that we need to control our destiny. How do we empower the team to take more risks, to not fear failure? Failure becomes an option. Fear is not an option. That is very liberating.
Q: When Jeff came to India last year, he announced that the company would invest $2 billion here. The announcement came right after rival Flipkart said it raised $1 billion. Was the Amazon announcement more than just showmanship?
Agarwal: The timing was just a coincidence. You don’t make such decisions in a 24-hour period.
Q: What is the time frame for spending that $2 billion?
Agarwal: I would say we would not hesitate to invest what is needed to deliver on the customer experience. It’s hard for me (to be more specific about timing).
Q: Have you come close to exhausting the $2 billion?
Agarwal: I have no idea.
Q: How sustainable is Amazon’s rapid growth rate in India?
Agarwal: We continue to see that. Just recently, when we had our Great Indian Summer Sale, it was very exciting to see that the first day of that sale was bigger than the two biggest days during Diwali (the widely celebrated five-day festival of lights) last year, combined.
Q: There is no Amazon Prime offering in India.
Q: Is India a place, with its infrastructure challenges, where Prime can work?
Agarwal: India is a place where same-day guaranteed (delivery) is working (for Amazon), and next-day guaranteed is working on Amazon. We have seen customers paying for premium deliveries. So I don’t see any reason why not. …
Q: You were Jeff Bezos’ technical assistant. What did you learn?
Agarwal: There is hardly any company that doesn’t talk about customer focus. (With Jeff) you get to see customer obsession in very close quarters.
The first lesson is that you need to obsess about customers, and start from there.
The second lesson is you need to invent. …
The third one is you need to think long term.
When you are obsessing about customers, when you are inventing, you’re going to fail. You are going to make mistakes. People are going to misunderstand you. The only way you are going to deliver value is if you have a long-term outlook.
India is very, very early. This is not for the lighthearted. This is about planting seeds that will take many, many, many years for us to really transform the way India buys and India sells.