How can you tell when the bullheaded and micromanaging boss who trusts his intuition is just nuts, and when he is nuts but right?
That is a question I had after reading “Amazon Unbound,” a new book about Jeff Bezos and the last decade or so at Amazon by Brad Stone, a journalist and a former colleague of mine.
In Stone’s telling, Bezos is a font of big ideas, and he badgers staff, nitpicks over details, and is willing to devote gobs of time and money to make his visions a reality. That has often paid off with novel and effective technologies like the voice-recognition assistant Alexa and the company’s cashierless Go convenience stores.
But other things at Amazon have failed or foundered because of Bezos’ relentless pursuit of his ideas. That tendency plagued Amazon’s now dead Fire smartphone, and it was a shadow over its Prime Video streaming service, and its ground beef made from just one cow. (Don’t worry, I will come back to this.)
The company likes to say that everything at Amazon begins with what the customer wants and works backward. But one inescapable conclusion from reading “Amazon Unbound” is how much Amazon is a product of Bezos’ will and his responses to competitive challenges or criticisms.
And it is not necessarily easy to diagnose at what point that was good for Amazon, its customers, its employees and the world — and when Bezos’ belief in himself seemingly got in the way. It will be interesting to see what happens now that Bezos is scheduled to leave his chief executive post.
Stone digs deep into the origins of Alexa and the company’s Echo speakers. In an email 10 years ago, Bezos told his lieutenants that Amazon “should build a $20 device with its brains in the cloud that’s completely controlled by your voice.” He refused to let his vision for this product go, even when the development cost a fortune and the voice technology was badly flawed for years. Apart from that $20 price, Echo and Alexa are just how Bezos imagined.
At other times Bezos’ visions led Amazon down the wrong path. The Fire phone was a bad idea at the wrong time, and its failure was largely Bezos’ fault. In one detail, Stone writes that a staff member had to assure Bezos that, yes, people used digital calendars on their phones. He also insisted on 3D cameras for the device that were glitch-prone and gimmicky.
The same thing happened with that ground beef. After reading a 2015 Washington Post article about why hamburger patties are often made from tissues mixed from as many as 100 cows or more, Bezos became obsessed with making a single-cow burger that people could buy only from the Amazon Fresh grocery service.
Amazon Fresh did sell single-cow burgers — they are out of stock now — but it was not a world-changing idea as Bezos had hoped. Like the Fire phone, it might have just been a waste of time and energy.
I posed two questions to Stone: When have Bezos’ ideas and his relentlessness to pull them off been helpful, and when have those same qualities led Amazon astray? And has it been good or bad for Amazon to be guided by one person and his obsessions?
Stone told me that Bezos believes Amazon is in a unique position to do difficult, expensive and big things, and he wants to push against employees’ natural resistance to hard changes. His instincts are not infallible, but Bezos has been right a lot, he said.
“The countervailing force,” Stone said, is that the world’s richest person “doesn’t really live among us anymore. His personal taste in burgers and technology don’t always represent the common taste.”
Bezos has often said that failures are inevitable and even welcome. They show that Amazon is not afraid to try bold things.
But while reading Stone’s book, I wondered if Amazon’s failures were not always the result of noble swings at big ideas but sometimes because of blind spots: a lack of self-reflection and a corporate culture that resists standing up to Bezos.
Stone writes that many employees who worked on the Fire phone had serious doubts about it, but it seemed that no one was willing to fight the boss. Stone’s book recounts numerous executives who were driven out of Amazon, including some who challenged Bezos or ways in which the company operated.
There may be an alternative version of Amazon that is less reliant on Bezos’ vision and self-assurance. It might be worse, or it might be an even more successful company that is better for customers, its employees and the world. And with a new chief executive, maybe we will get to find out. But I suspect Amazon will continue to be the Bezos show.