While the face may be somewhat familiar and everyone knows his company well, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has not enjoyed the iconic status of a Bill Gates or the ubiquitous (at least in business literature) Steve Jobs. And yet the Amazon story, as told in a new book from Bloomberg BusinessWeek writer Brad Stone called The Everything Store, reflects foresight, courage, vision, hard work and innovation that matches the story of any other major Internet or Information Age startup.
The company was started in a garage, although it stayed in the garage only for about three months. And it was not fresh, just-out-of-school whiz kids who started the company but a Wall Street veteran who decided that he, rather than the hedge fund company he worked for, should control his dream: to sell books over the Internet.
Bezos’ New York employer, a technology-driven hedge fund firm called D. E. Shaw, had already invested in several Internet ventures, and it would have been ready to finance an online retailer. But Stone describes how Bezos’ growing desire to strike out on his own was confirmed by his reading of the bestseller Remains of the Day — a brilliantly subtle but ultimately devastating novel of regret.
Much of the outline of the Amazon story is well-known, from its first focus on books and then a few other categories (e.g., movies and toys) to its current status as the behemoth of online retailing for just about any product, a giant in the e-reader space, and more recently, a major player in cloud computing with Amazon Web Services. Today, the company is headquartered in a campus of a dozen buildings and reached $61 billion in sales in 2012. Most people watched as new initiatives came online — Search Inside This Book, Super Saver Shipping and, more recently, Amazon Prime are three examples — and quickly became expected features. In fact, it is almost surprising to learn that Amazon is only 18 years old. The first book ordered on Amazon was Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies by Douglas Hofstadter; the date was April 3, 1995. The buyer was a former colleague of Shel Kaphan, a founding employee of Amazon.
The Stories Behind the Story
Although the overall plot of the story might be well known, The Everything Store is filled with the unknown stories and the vital but often anonymous people who made the Amazon success possible. Kaphan is an example. A veteran programmer when he was hired, Kaphan, who Stone calls Amazon’s “primary technical steward,” was responsible for turning the dream into a functional reality. Promised that he could stay with the company for as long as he wanted, Kaphan lasted five years before, as described by Stone, he was made less than welcome by Bezos.
Bezos, of course, is the star of the story. The portrait offered by Stone is of a complex, driven, hands-on, creative entrepreneur, which is no less than expected. It seems that there is an archetype for the successful entrepreneur and one that seems to run counter to the generally accepted view that respectful, team-oriented leadership works best.
According to Stone, one mention of work-life balance in a job interview at Amazon during the early growth years would kill your chances. Bezos, however, has had some formidable sparring partners, including Barnes & Noble and the New York publishers, not to mention the challenge of a dot-com bust, all of which would have conquered a less confident — and visionary — opponent.
The Everything Store is a fascinating exploration of a unique company and its equally unique founder.
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