on 14 January 2014
I bought from amazon pretty much since its inception and became a loyal customer. That's why I enjoyed reading this book (on my kindle, of course) to reconstruct the company's history that I knew from a customer's perspective: the vast book offering at first, then the additions such as "search inside this book", customer reviews, amazon marketplace, the increasing addition of categories such as music, the e-reader, etc. This book elaborates quite a lot about the behind-the-scene discussions and compromises the company made when launching these and other features and expanding into new markets (Amazon Web Services).
My only criticisms are that the book is a) very US-centric, and b) a bit weak when describing Bezos' initial motivations to launch an online bookstore. (It seems at first that Bezos' decision to tap into the book-market was primarily simply prudent as the market's distribution systems were of benefit for online retail; but increasingly, the reader learns that Bezos also has a true passion for books.)
I was frankly shocked about some internal policies at amazon: not only how they treat their own staff (something that got some press-coverage recently as well), but also how they systematically bully publishers and smaller retailers who don't necessarily want to abide to their terms. Though probably a libertarian by heart, I did not like how a multi-billion-turnover company seeks to systematically avoid paying taxes and manipulate local authorities/politicians.
In fact, reading this book made me research more ethical alternatives - the "ethical consumer" seems a trustworthy source - to avoid amazon whereever possible. So yes, in that way this book was very inspiring.
This book is the story of Jeff Bezos and Amazon, from the perspective of a journalist who had plenty of access to employees and ex-employees as well as Jeff Bezos himself. The author makes clear both the faults and the successes of Bezos and Amazon, but limits the book's scope in some ways. While hinting at the devastation caused to traditional shopping (by Apple's iPod as well as Amazon's Kindle and other products), there isn't a lot of discussion here. Fair enough, as there will surely be other books about how Apple, Amazon and others have devastated local communities.
The author also says very little about Amazon's operations outside the USA, although I found it interesting that the reason Amazon haven't yet set up in Russia (the biggest economy still without an Amazon website) is because the infrastructure is inadequate just now. Perhaps that means South Korea will be next, though it doesn't get a mention.
Even within the main story of Amazon.com, a lot is omitted, one effect of which is the simplistic assertion that Amazon serves customers superbly while squeezing suppliers ruthlessly and expecting employees to devote themselves to Amazon without any regard for a work / family life balance. I have heard bits and pieces over the years about the way Amazon treat their employees, all of it reinforced by this book and then some. As for the author's distinction between customers and suppliers, that overlooks the fact that some customers have voluntarily contributed content to Amazon's website in the form of reviews, Listmanias, "So you'd like to ...." guides, tags, customer images and other stuff. The author occasionally mentions reviews in passing (listed in the index under customer reviews), but very few other software features are mentioned. Associates get a mention, as does Mechanical Turk (in its case, far more space than it deserves).
Customers who have contributed such content know that Amazon's attitude towards any problems or complaints about reviews, etc. is, for the most part, far less enthusiastic than their attitude regarding any problems or complaints about orders. Occasionally, a customer may get a fantastic response to a problem or complaint about reviews, etc., but this is a comparative rarity. What Amazon seem unable to understand is that some people who have felt badly treated because of problems with reviews or other content have stopped buying from Amazon altogether. These quitters obviously don't show up in Amazon's metrics that the author sometimes mentions, but they have made themselves heard on forums and blogs. I haven't quit, nor will I, but I am only one customer - and I am addicted to reviewing. Very few customers are as addicted as I am.
The author discusses third-party sellers originally via Auctions, then z Shops, then finally putting the option to buy from third parties in the main "Buy" box. Amazon's 1-Click option also gets discussed, but there was and is so much more to Amazon's software than this book covers.
The author is much more interested in Amazon Web Services and Amazon Kindle, both of which get plenty of coverage, along with Amazon's battles with Google, eBay and Apple. These are not things that especially concern me (yet), but I expected them to be discussed and they are interesting.
Amazon's quest to become an everything store carries dangers that the author does not mention. I remember that when Woolworth UK went bust, it was reported that the problem was that it lacked focus. In other words, it was a victim of the very diversity that had made it successful originally. Amazon's retailing diversity is already far greater than any brick-and-mortar retailer ever was, and it has also branched into other areas such as Amazon Web Services and Amazon Kindle, with the likelihood of more to come. The internet world is still young and none of us can predict the future, but it will be interesting.
My first impressions of Amazon were very positive, but over the years I have learned to be more critical. This book reinforces my misgivings. Despite Amazon's diverse product range, I prefer to buy locally where possible even if the price is a little higher (it's sometimes lower). The devastation caused by Apple, Amazon and others is clear for all to see, and while acknowledging that my reviews may contribute, I know that some other customers also use Amazon reviews but sometimes buy locally.
I have been hoping for many years that a customer would write a book about Amazon from the perspective of a reviewer or other contributor of content. So far, no such book has been written, but I have a feeling that 2014 may be that year.
So this book is fantastic in so many ways in describing Amazon's history from a business perspective, and also plenty of information about Jeff Bezos, even mentioning his e-mail address. I won't be using that again, although I used to use it occasionally a few years ago. When I last mentioned it on a forum, my post was replaced by the message "Deleted by Amazon".
Meanwhile, although this book misses out a lot, it is brilliant at those aspects that it covers. For anybody who is interested in the history of Amazon and Jeff Bezos, this book is well worth reading.
on 20 August 2015
Read this book while I was working at Amazon and it was a perfect introduction to the company culture and ethos. Although not entirely aligned with the experience I had, learning more about how it grew and the conviction to put customers first made me better understand the startup and innovative culture in the company. While some parts were portrayed Bezos as an unscrupulous businessman and boss, squeezing everyone in the supply chain and Amazon internally to keep prices low, it is honestly that brutal competitiveness that has allowed consumers to achieve the level of value and service quality that is demanded industry-wide today.
I highly recommend this book for any entrepreneur or business person looking to formulate strategies to launch innovative products and differentiate their company from the rest. Amazon has transformed commerce in this age, and regardless of the good or bad that this has brought, it is definitely worth a look to better understand what has made it into the company it is today.
on 5 February 2014
There has been heaps of information in the media about Amazon over the past two decades. I have been remiss in not reading much of it at all. Consequently, I though this book would fill me in on the main threads and events on the life of a huge global force in retail and technology. On this front, I have not been disappointed.
The book is fairly well researched, but does suffer from chronology problems. I think this is due to the selection of the chapters. The end result is that there is quite bit of repetition and is sluggish in parts. The storyline does dovetail broadly over the firm's life but is insufficiently linear to build a good rhythm and momentum for the reader. That said, for someone of limited knowledge on the subject (like me) it was tolerable. For Amazon buffs, this may be a problem.
I found the criticism to be fairly balanced in also highlighting quirky management styles, testosterone, ruthless negotiating, threats to staff that left of their own free will and the financial stinginess. Bezos, was depicted as an intelligent, eccentric, driven, relentless innovator, with enormous dreams. His ego too is not spared criticism, yet the Writer's terms both missionary and mercenary seem most apt.
I would have liked more insights into the thinking and the strategy of the technical heads regards their development and evolving of their information strategy and data mining. (if possible of course) The brains trust that created a computer software network that was sold or rented to big clients intrigues me. Also, the 'scorched earth' style pricing strategy to clear competition and win market supremacy is controversial and would have created many enemies.
Only passing paragraphs are given to companies bought, sold and dumped. Many mistakes were made on the way and the shareholders were notoriously forgiving. Bezos certainly was mooted to have the Midas touch even when losses were relentless.
The book is not sordid or tacky, venting needless gossip. It also doesn't go into depth, as I mentioned earlier, so as a first step into finding out about Bezos, the consumer strategist - this is a book I liked and recommend.
Grab an armful of business leadership books from your nearest bookshop and look through them for advice on how to treat staff. I doubt you'll find any of them encouraging business leaders to humiliate their colleagues in public more frequently.
Yet one of the most memorable stories in Brad Stone's account of how Jeff Bezos made such a success of Amazon is just such an encounter with a senior manager. They were giving answers that Bezos did not believe about the speed with which the phones were being answered by the customer service team. So in the middle of a meeting with senior managers, Bezos put a phone on loudspeaker, dialed Amazon's customer service number and started ostentatiously timing how long it took to be answered. He'd been told that calls were being answered in less than a minute, but the meeting had to sit in excruciating silence as the minutes ticked up before finally the phone was answered.
A devastatingly effective way of making a point, true. But how do you combine such a brutish attitude at times with an ability to recruit, retain and motivate the sort of brilliant staff you need, especially when Amazon wasn't paying high wages? The mystery is deepened by the grimly humorous collection of stories of other technology CEOs and their abrasive behaviour that Brad Stone presents in the book.
As with Steve Jobs, reading about Jeff Bezos and all his quirks in dealing with other human beings (not to mention Amazon's huge sums spent on failed takeovers) leaves you wondering for much of the time if you're reading an account of a brilliant success or a tragic failure. Clearly the path Amazon has taken shows he - like Jobs - is the former.
But whilst Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs does answer the question of how Jobs and Apple ended up so successful despite his manner, in the case of Bezos and Amazon, Brad Stone leaves that question only partly answered. Early on in the book Amazon is but one amongst many online book selling startups. Stone explains well why traditional bookselling firms found it difficult to move into the online business, constrained as they were by their heavy investment in offline stores. Why, though, did Amazon triumph from all those different online startups? That Stone doesn't tell us.
The more successful Amazon gets, the better Stone's book does explain its gathering momentum, especially thanks to Bezos's insistence on using Amazon's scale to drive prices as low as possible. There are two types of company, Bezos says. Those that looks to charge as high a price as possible (think Apple) and those that look to charge as low a price as possible (think Amazon). Amazon's low prices may have kept its profits down, but they have hugely boosted its size and, while Apple's high margins have attracted big competitors eating into its market, Amazon's low margins have kept competitors out of the market, leaving more space for it to grow even further.
It's a shame though that the initial crucial breakthrough remains unexplained even by the end of an enjoyable book.
Disclaimer: Several reviewers (including MacKenzie Bezos) have challenged the accuracy of some of Stone's material and I am unqualified to address any of those issues.
* * *
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book by Brad Stone, one that combines a biography of Jeff Bezos with a biography of his greatest business success thus far, Amazon.com, a commercial empire that he founded in 1994, in his garage in Bellevue (WA), as an online bookstore. He selected the name because it was also the name of the largest river in the world. His BHAG then was to establish the largest "store" in the world, one that offered everything for sale. There seems to be no limit to the possibilities and opportunities that await Bezos' interest and attention. Based on the material that Brad Stone provides in this book, nothing that Bezos does in months and years to come will surprise me.
Based on what I have learned from the book, I would cherish his personal friendship and welcome the opportunity to work with and for him. However, given my current age and circumstances, neither will happen. That said, I admire his intelligence, energy, integrity, passion, and enthusiasm...all of which Amazon exemplifies throughout its operations. Bezos is a ferocious but principled competitor who boldly embraces new opportunities to nourish his insatiable curiosity, especially if they challenge him to make a best effort. I also think it odd that one of his defining characteristics is a honking laugh that can rattle windows.
Here are two of several especially significant developments that Stone examines. In Chapter 4, he discusses a breakfast meeting that Bezos had with Jim Sinegal, founder and then (2001) CEO of Costco. They met at the Starbucks inside the Bellevue (WA) Barnes & Noble.
Sinegal explained the Costco business model to Bezos: it was all about customer loyalty. "Though the selection of products in individual categories is limited, there are copious quantities of everything there - and it is all dirt cheap. Costco buys in bulk and marks up everything at a standard, across-the-the-board 14 percent, even when it could charge more. It doesn't advertise at all, and earns most of its gross profit from annual membership fees."
Sinegal observed, "The membership fee is a one-time pain, but it's reinforced every time customers walk in and see forty-seven-inch televisions that are two hundred dollars less than anyplace else. It reinforces the value of the concept. Customers know they will find really cheap stuff at Costco.
"My approach has always been that value trumps everything. The reason people are prepared to come to our strange places to shop is that we have value. We deliver on that value constantly. There are no annuities in this business."
The Monday after that meeting, Bezos met with his senior managers and announced that Amazon.com would immediately be cutting prices of books, music, and videos by 20 to 30 percent. Later during a quarterly conference call with analysts, he observed, "There are two kinds of retailers: there are those folks who work to figure how to charge more, and there are companies that work to figure out how to charge less, and we are going to be the second, full-stop."
* * *
The second development occurred later during an offsite in which Jim Collins participated. After several intensive discussions , Collins told Bezos and his colleagues, "You've got to decide what you're great at."
Stone then explains, "Drawing on Collins's concept of a fly wheel, or self-reinforcing loops, Bezos and his lieutenants sketched their own virtuous circle, which they believed powered their business. It went something like this: "Lower prices led to more customer visits. More customers increased the volume of sales and attracted more commission-paying third-party sellers to the site. That allowed Amazon to get more out of foxed costs like the fulfillment centers and the servers needed to run the website. This greater efficiency then enabled it to lower prices further. Feed any part of this flywheel, they reasoned, and it should accelerate the loop." Bezos remains convinced that this is Amazon.com's "secret sauce."
During one of my interviews of Collins, he explained it this way:
"Picture a huge, heavy fly wheel -- a massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds. Now imagine that your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and as long as possible...You're pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster. Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort."
It is worth noting, also, that compound interest is the "secret sauce" of Warren Buffet's success as an investor. One winter in Omaha when he was a child and sledding with friends, he observed a snowman that had fallen over and was rolling down the hill, becoming an increasingly larger snowball.
* * *
This may not be the definitive historical account of Jeff Bezos and Amazon but it will certainly do, for now.
on 27 December 2013
I am writing this review for Amazon and I am a longtime user of Amazon as a bookstore. I scarcely buy books from other sources. Before, I was regular user of the best bookstore in my city, but now I go there seldom and don't buy much. In addition, I am a fan of the new Kindle fire which for me is the best way to read books and acquire them. So, for me Amazon has changed everything as a book buyer. I should be thankful for Jeff Bezos. Still I am very divided. I am glad that there are physical bookstores and I am very sorry to see them disappear. When I was young, there was a large and lively bookstore in our neighbourhood, but now there are perhaps two or three real bookstores in the whole city.
Brad Stone tells the story of Amazon's development from the meagre beginnings to the present situation where it is the Everything store giant growing irresistibly. He is quite open about the negative side of this development, both for the employees and for the competitors. He is less good in presenting the life and personality of Jeff Bezos who seems to belong in the category of somewhat pathological but driven and creative capitalists who has created a completely different enterprise. The paradox of Amazon that its share price does not seem the react at all to the normal indicators and that it has a licence to do things which would be fatal for most other firms does not, however, find a satisfactory explanation. Also the fact that Amazon survived the first IT-crash is interesting bot not really treated by Stone. Still the book is highly readable and gives good background for understanding what is happening with Amazon. The story of Amazon is still quite short and we cannot say how it will end. Especially when Bezos leaves the controls. My bet is that Amazon is only one stage in the development towards a more decentralized system. The worst part about Amazon is surely its treatment of the warehouse workers (as long as people are cheaper than machines, they are being exploited...)
Not exactly an authorised version of Amazon's history but all the better for it. If you're at all interested in how internet business works, what makes Amazon tick or to peek behind the curtains at the mind and personality of Jeff Bezos, this is the book.
Although dry in places and with a tendency, from time to time, to feel like nothing more than a list of events, overall this is a fascinating account of a remarkable journey. It's the story of how, as with Apple and, to an extent, Microsoft, a global company can be propelled to break the mould by the genius, strength and personality of one person. I wouldn't want to work there, though...
on 17 September 2014
A must read for people believing e-commerce is the future. It's full of details about how Amazon started up , the encountered difficulties and challenges and how it reached today's size and success , driven by its founder and his strong believe in innovating the way to interact and taking care of consumers. Through the book comes up clearly even the singolar personality of Jeff Bezos and how he continuosly investigated new ideas and modus operandi with a clear and strong long term view in all the decisions taken, how differentiate his company from others and how to be recognised by the consumers as best in class in customer service.
on 26 April 2015
Most people use Amazon insatiably. I certainly do. It suits the relentless pace of modern life, its very cheap, its fast, you can rely on its delivery and service. Most convenient of all, you can buy anything (well most things anyway). Hence the title to the book – in fact Amazon's founder, Jeff Bezos was unusually far sighted as at the birth of the Internet in 1996 he realised that if you could build a store that would offer everything you could dominate global retailing. So he quit his job with a New York hedge fund, DE Shaw, drove across America to Seattle and started Amazon. It took a while to find the name, in fact to start with it was going to be called “Relentless.com” and if you type that name into the Internet you will still find yourself on Amazon.
“Relentless” also sums up the character of the CEO. This readable account of Amazon has its limitations – there is virtually nothing about how Amazon expanded outside the US, for example. The book is really about Jeff Bezos (pronounced “Bay zos” not “Bee zos”) its driven, charismatic CEO. His character (probably fortunately) is one of a kind. Aged 12 he was already highly competitive and driven, working long hours to try and build a cheaper “infinity cube”. He tried to organize a programme at his school to assess and rank all his teachers on how they taught (sound familiar?) He is “relentless” in driving his employees to work harder. He used to drive his staff on “death marches” in the early days to achieve key project goals. Like a lot of Internet pioneers he moved out (there is a less polite word for this) the people who started the company with him, a number of whom felt incredibly bitter about the way they were treated. If you want another example of this, watch “The Social Network” about Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and the way he pushed out and treated his fellow founder, Eduardo Saverin. He also regularly humiliated his staff. One of the most famous stories about Amazon is about a senior manager who was telling Bezos something that he didn’t think was true (that the customer service line was picking up the phone in time). So in the middle of the meeting Bezos put the phone on loudspeaker, and dialled. And waited. And waited. And waited. Bezos, like Steve Jobs, regularly had screaming fits at his employees, or at least that’s what the author tells us. Then there’s the seemingly cavalier way Amazon treats issues which impact society as whole like tax, as has been well documented recently in the UK. Finally there’s the wreckage of shattered businesses, starting with all kinds of independent booksellers and ending up, if trends continue, with most retail in most categories being if not swallowed then certainly damaged by Amazon.
So far so bad. “Behind every great fortune is a great crime” is a well known saying. That was certainly true of the C19th titans of business like John D Rockefeller who were utterly ruthless in the way they bulldozed anyone in their way. (A great if long read on Rockefeller is “Titan” by Ron Chernow). These oligarchs acquired the nickname “Robber Barons” and it took a great crusading President, Teddy Roosevelt, to reduce them to size. However, with Amazon I think in fairness – and this comes out to a certain extent in the book – that there is a lot one can learn. The book overstates the impact of one man. How much business success is really about “amazing personalities” is an interesting question. When the author of the book, Brad Stone, interviews Bezos he is asked by Bezos at the end “How are you going to avoid the narrative fallacy” The narrative fallacy was popularized by the author of “The Black Swan” Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It describes our limited ability to look at history without tending to force all the myriad events into a simplistic explanation or framework to try and make sense of what happened. An example would be books with titles like “The 10 habits of successful people” or “Manage money the Warren Buffet way” that imply if you follow a few simple rules you will be automatically successful. Having said that, if you want to build a great business there are definitely things that can be learned from Bezos.
I would summarize what they are by quoting Bezos – “We are genuinely customer centric, genuinely long term orientated and genuinely innovative”. All three are true, I think. Amazon is relentless about (most) of its customer service. That’s why it gains business. The best customer service is about putting yourselves in the customers shoes and thinking “what would I want”? Things like Amazons “1 Click” are taken for granted but those of us old enough to remember the early internet (yes I am that old) will recall how convoluted it was to place even a simple order. Long term, absolutely. From day one, Bezos had a vision of what was going to happen and drove to reach it. He didn’t care at all about making money and kept his margins low to drive out the competition. He nearly bust the company at several times and in the early 2000s in particularly was very narrowly saved by his CFO, whom he promptly fired. But, Bezos has been successful because he knows (so far) anyway where the business world is going. The great Canadian ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky said “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be”. Bezos was incredibly far sighted. Thirdly Amazon is genuinely innovative. The Kindle is a very well known example, but much less well known is AWS – Amazon Web Services. This has been a pet project of Bezos and is about building up huge mounts of server capacity to allow Amazon to be the leader in offer cloud hosted computing services. This is a poorly understood area by most people (including me!) but means that Amazon has quietly built up a leading position in an area of great potential. After all, you don’t buy a cow if you want a glass of milk so why own your own computing capabilities if you can rent it? Bezos is certainly a highly successful CEO, but not I think a model of how CEOs should behave. For more on how to be a good CEO see an exciting new concept - “School for CEOs” http://www.schoolforceos.com/ .
What’s a Christian view on all this?. Repelled by rampant “uber capitalists” should Christians become “milksops” and sit around looking out the window waiting for eternity? Should Christians try and achieve business greatness? Is Bezos’s drive for “retail world domination” intrinsically wrong? Personally, I don’t think that ambition to build a great company or provide customer service or revolutionize the Internet is at all bad and may actually be a legitimate human desire. But, only if this drive to build a business doesn’t destroy the rest of our lives. Prioritization is the key – God first, family second, work (which is basically for most of us very tied to ego) third. The natural tendency in hard charging capitalism is the third (i.e. your own ego) at the top, distantly followed if at all by the second, while the first is totally absent. Not only that, Christians should certainly aim to treat our colleagues as we would wish to be treated – love your neighbour as you love yourself. I think the single most depressing characteristic of Jobs and Bezos (assuming the books on them are true) is their routine humiliation of their underlings. So the Christian certainly should not to become like Jeff Bezos, though I think as a businessman we can learn many things from him. But the Christian is called to follow another man, who was humanly speaking one of the greatest “failures” who ever lived. Deserted by his "staff" he ended up nailed to a cross. He humiliated Himself, yet when he met his "staff' again after his resurrection, the first thing He said to them was "Peace be with you". Not "Shame on you" which would have been quite fair given they had all fled and left Him. Now, 2000 years later 1/3rd roughly of the world regard him as God. What the world in 4015 thinks of Jeff Bezos we shall have to see but I think that’s an unlikely status!