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How can you tell when the bull-headed and micromanaging boss who trusts his intuition is just crazy and when he’s crazy, but right?
That’s a question I had after reading Amazon Unbound, a new book about Jeff Bezos and the past decade on Amazon by Brad Stone, a journalist and former colleague of mine.
In Stone’s narrative, Bezos is a script of great ideas and he harasses the staff, chooses details and is willing to invest a lot of time and money to make his visions a reality. This has often paid off with innovative and effective technologies such as the voice recognition assistant Alexa and the company’s cash-free go convenience stores.
But other things on Amazon have failed or failed because Bezos tirelessly pursued his ideas. That tendency plagued Amazon’s now-dead Fire smartphone and cast a shadow over its Prime Video streaming service and its one-cow minced meat. (Don’t worry, I’ll come back to that.)
The company likes to say that everything at Amazon starts with what the customer wants and works backwards. An inescapable conclusion from reading Amazon Unbound, however, is how much Amazon is a product of Bezos’ will and his responses to competitive challenges or criticism.
And it’s not exactly easy to diagnose when this was good for Amazon, its customers, its employees, and the world – and when Bezos’ belief in himself appeared to get in the way. It will be interesting to see what happens now when Bezos is about to leave his post as CEO.
Stone delves 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 brain in the cloud that is entirely controlled by your voice”. He refused to let go of his vision for this product, even though it cost a fortune to develop and the language technology was grossly flawed for years. Aside from that $ 20 price tag, the Echo and Alexa are exactly what Bezos envisioned.
At other times, Bezos’ visions led Amazon on the wrong track. The Fire phone was a bad idea at the wrong time, and its failure was largely Bezos’ fault. In one detail, Stone writes that an employee had to assure Bezos that people were using digital calendars on their phones. He also insisted on 3D cameras for the device, which were prone to failure and unconventional.
The same thing happened with this ground beef. After reading a 2015 Washington Post article about why hamburger patties are often made from handkerchiefs mixed from up to a hundred cows or more, Bezos became obsessed with making a single cow burger that people only used at the Amazon Fresh grocery store.
Amazon Fresh did sell individual cow burgers – they’re currently out of stock – but it wasn’t a world-changing idea as Bezos had hoped. As with the Fire phone, it might just have been a waste of your time and energy.
I asked Stone two questions: when were Bezos’ ideas and his relentless ability to implement them helpful, and when did those same traits mislead Amazon? And was it good or bad for Amazon to be guided by a person and their obsessions?
Stone told me that Bezos believes Amazon is in a unique position to do difficult, expensive, and big things, and wants to go against employees’ natural resistance to tough change. His instincts are not infallible, but Bezos was very right, he said.
“The opposing force,” said Stone, “is that the richest person in the world” is no longer really living with us. His personal taste for burgers and technology doesn’t always represent the usual taste. “
Bezos has often said that mistakes are inevitable and even welcome. They show that Amazon is not afraid to try bold things.
But reading Stone’s book, I wondered if Amazon’s failures weren’t always the result of noble fluctuations in big ideas, but sometimes because of blind spots: a lack of self-reflection and a corporate culture that refuses to assert itself against Bezos.
Stone writes that many employees who worked on the Fire phone had serious doubts about it, but it seemed that no one was ready to fight the boss. Stone’s book lists numerous executives who were evicted from Amazon, including some who questioned Bezos or the way the company operated.
There may be an alternate version of Amazon that relies less on Bezos’ vision and self-confidence. It could be worse, or it could be an even more successful company that is better for customers, its employees, and the world. And with a new CEO, maybe we’ll find out. But I suspect Amazon will continue to be the Bezos show.
Before we go …
The government could help pay your internet bill. To get more Americans online, the Federal Communications Commission is now offering a temporary $ 50 per month subsidy for internet access to people on lower incomes or people who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, reported my colleague Cecilia Kang. The Washington Post also has registration details.
A fraud or a game of identity and authenticity? One young woman had tens of thousands of people on Twitter following her motorcycle trips. Then the person behind the account confessed that he was a 50-year-old man who used an app to change his face, the Washington Post wrote. His followers (and children) loved him even more.
Have you seen online videos of gross food like this Toilet ice punch? Eater wrote that many of them are carefully crafted pranks by a group of people connected to a Las Vegas magician named Rick Lax.
Spend a minute with Keith the lamb perched on a snoring pig.
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