Once a startup housed in a garage, Amazon is now one of the most powerful entities in the world economy, touching countless aspects of our lives. There’s probably a good chance you have placed orders in its marketplace, shopped at Whole Foods, read the Washington Post, streamed a movie made by Amazon Studios, or chatted with Alexa in your home. How has Amazon become so ubiquitous and where is it headed? In a virtual CHM live event on May 12, 2021, Brad Stone, Bloomberg executive editor for global tech, discussed his new book, Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire, with colleague Emily Chang, anchor and executive producer of Bloomberg Technology and Studio 1.0.
Stone’s first book on the company, The Everything Store, was published in 2013 and quickly became outdated. Indeed, in 2010, Amazon was a $34 billion company and Bezos’ worth $16 billion. Today, it’s a $1.6 trillion company and Bezos is worth $191 billion. It’s clear that Amazon is one of a handful of defining companies of the age.
Stone had access to dozens of Amazon executives, engineers, and current and former employees who shared recollections and stories of a decentralized, complex company doing a million things at once. Ultimately, Amazon reflects the vision and ambition of one man: Jeff Bezos.
Stone says that Jeff Bezos is “central to Amazon’s inventiveness” and explains that many ideas originated with the founder, including Alexa.
Alexa’s voice is that of a voice-over actress in Colorado, who was not able to talk to Stone about her experience with Amazon. Like most company’s, Amazon likes to keep things private. So does Bezos, but he’s not always successful.
Bezos’ divorce was announced just when Stone sent his book off to his publisher. An affair revealed by the National Enquirer surprised Stone and others, who were used to Bezos’ meticulous choreographing of his public and family life. He’s human, of course, and Stone says Bezos’ transformation into a public figure—and tabloid subject—was actually there for all to see. Teaming up with Hollywood to produce movies for Amazon Studios put him on a first-name basis with LA stars, and buying the Washington Post in 2013 as a distressed asset provided him with access to political players in Washington, DC.
Bezos likely saw his rescue of the Post as an opportunity to apply his resources and business acumen to turning an important American institution into a profitable business, says Stone. He could not have foreseen how Donald Trump’s antipathy to the paper would actually increase subscribership and burnish his image as a champion of a free press, as well as cause Amazon to lose lucrative government contracts. Then again, the paper’s connections to Amazon have been helpful. Amazon customers can now get special access to it on Kindle, and there are special Post apps preinstalled on tablets. The technical acumen of the Post has increased, and it now sells software to other media institutions.
Casting a wide net to prepare for future growth is reflected in Bezos’ big bets, whether it’s healthcare (Haven Healthcare), self-driving vehicles (Zoox), or even his sole funding of Blue Origin to develop space travel. It’s visionary, and also messy, as Bezos’ well-publicized competition with Elon Musk demonstrates.
Inside Amazon, the “Grand Challenge” group looks for the next land rush, seeking opportunities to bring Amazon devices and services into new industries. Bezos meets with them weekly. The company culture encourages everyone to constantly push forward, often in a haphazard way with small “two-pizza” teams or “single-threaded” leaders. It seems to have worked, but lately there’s been a lot of turnover in the upper ranks and, Stone says, investors might be worried about the loss of veterans accustomed to this strange way of working.
Investors may also have gotten a shock with Bezos’ recent announcement that he was stepping down as CEO. The old guard is moving on, whether because they’re ready for a change after decades of running at full speed, because of demands for more diverse leadership (which has been overwhelmingly white and male), or because calls to break up the company and congressional scrutiny has become too much to deal with. Indeed, while Amazon has big competitors (Google, Walmart, Shopify) and is clearly not a monopoly, the Biden administration seems willing to take a tough line. There’s bi-partisan support for looking into how Amazon treats third-party sellers.
Despite legitimate complaints about Amazon’s marketplace from third-party sellers and small businesses, Stone doesn’t believe Congress will deal a “death blow to Jeff Bezos and his empire any time soon.” But, there is opportunity for entrepreneurs to create a safe space for brands that want to connect directly to their customers and don’t want to participate in a marketplace with their competitors. Ironically, developing this kind of platform will help make Amazon’s case that they aren't a monopoly. But they do have other worrisome issues.
Stone referenced an explosive 2015 New York Times article that called out the brutal workplace culture at Amazon, describing people “people weeping at their desks.” In response, Amazon changed the review process and made it easier for people to transfer away from managers. Today, things are better, but Stone explained that the lack of empathy in the office culture was deliberate. Bezos said he didn’t want people to get comfortable, that he didn’t want a “country club,” and that everyone should be oriented toward moving quickly to achieve the next goal.
Outside of headquarters, Stone talked to employees to uncover the reality of work in Amazon warehouses, where raises are never guaranteed.
So, as employees and consumers, are we better off with Amazon or without? While Bezos argues that the company’s impact is positive, creating jobs and making shopping easier for customers, Stone notes that there are also serious costs. The company’s delivery trucks and planes have a huge carbon footprint, the marketplace has put small companies out of business, and by making things so easy to acquire Amazon promotes a perhaps unsustainable materialism. However, he admits to being a customer himself and thinks that as a “convenience engine for the Western world” it probably balances out on the positive side. He suggests, however, that before clicking “Buy Now,” everyone should think about how those dollars could nurture a local business in their community.
Now that he’s retired as CEO, what will Bezos do? Stone notes that although he’s been late to philanthropy, Bezos is aware that his legacy will in part be due to how he spends his fortune. So far, he’s funding early childhood care and tackling climate change with the Earth Fund.
Perhaps the man who built a complex, life-changing, global empire just might be able to help create an Amazon-sized solution to the greatest challenge of our time.