Jeffrey Preston Bezos knew he had made a mistake. He had named his newly-founded e-commerce company Cadabra, Inc. to show the world how magical online shopping would be.But after realizing that people tended to hear the name as the more morbid‘Cadaver’ over the phone rather than the hint of magic he was aiming for, Bezosset about rectifying it. Pretty soon, he fell in love with a name that most people today, and certainly most of his competitors, would agree to be the closest word to describing Bezos himself – Relentless.com. However, he was soon talked out of it by friends, who found the name a bit too sinister and unwelcoming, and he finally decided to name his venture Amazon.com. The rest,as they say, is history.
With the advent of the shopping season in the US, Bezos, the newly-minted $100 billion dollar man, is seemingly on everyone’s mind these days. And even that might be an understatement. According to an analysis of Factset data by Recode, Amazon was mentioned 2,090 times in 2017 on other companies’ corporate conference calls – and this is just from publicly available data. Amazon’s interests have expanded rapidly – from being a pure-play retailer of books in North America to a multi-headed hydra spreading its product offerings ranging from “The Everything Store” as Amazon likes to be called, to being the world’s largest provider of cloud infrastructure services through Amazon Web Services, and from being a full-fledged internet video and audio streaming service through Amazon Prime Video to design and sale of hardware devices like the wildly successful Amazon Echo line.
In this, Amazon seems to mirror the varied interests and laser-like focus of its boss, Bezos. Bezos, the one-time Wall Street investment banker, took the long route towards building an internet behemoth. Bezos’ mother, Jacklyn Gise, divorced his biological father when he was 17 months old and married a Cuban immigrant, Miguel Bezos, who adopted Jeff when he was four years old. In his childhood, he spent his summers at his maternal grandfathers’ ranch in southern Texas, where, as he puts it, he “learnt to work with my hands”. Bezos was always a gifted student, graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1986. For the next eight years, Bezos moved from one job to another, all the while yearning for the opportunity to begin his own business. His entrepreneurial instincts led him to reject job offers from several established companies; he began his career at a start-up called Fitel, before a brief stint as the product manager at Bankers Trust and then to the newly-established hedge fund D.E. Shaw. At D.E. Shaw, Bezos was a rising star, quickly working his way up to senior vice president, one of only four in the firm, and that too within four years.
It was while researching for new business opportunities for D.E. Shaw that Bezos came across the now-famous “2,300 percent annual growth” number for the internet, which pretty much cemented his decision to establish his own internet business. In Bezos’ own words, “I didn’t think I’d regret trying and failing. And I suspected I would always be haunted by a decision to not try at all. After much consideration, I took the less safe path to follow my passion, and I’m proud of that choice.” And thus, Amazon.com was born.
Bezos’, and indeed Amazon’s, focus on two key points serve to highlight how inevitable their success has been in hindsight and why it is so tough for others to copy them. One, a near-fanatical focus on customers. Or as Bezos likes to put it, “We’re not competitor obsessed, we’re customer obsessed.” Bezos’s greatest achievement might indeed be his creation of a completely customer-focused company, with most departments of the company dependent on data directly related to customer experience to measure their performance objectives. Amazonian culture demands that employees and leaders “start with the customer’s needs and work backwards”. And second, an ability to take an incredibly long view of things. Bezos routinely encourages leaders at his companies to take five-to-seven year views of issues, something which he admits does not come naturally to most people. And not caring about quarterly earnings expectations gives the company the freedom to invest more money in innovations and tweaks that add to customer delight, feeding a virtuous circle.
Nowhere is his commitment to the long-term more visible than Bezos’ other grand design – Blue Origin. Born out of Bezos long-standing fascination with Space – a fascination born when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first stepped on the Moon in 1969, when Bezos was 5 years old – Blue Origin aims to open up space travel to willing (and paying) customers. Remarkably, in Bezos’ graduation speech at Miami’s Palmetto Senior High School in 1982, he had laid out an idea of millions of people living in space. Given Bezos’ track record, and his publicly-stated plans to sell around $1 billion worth of stock in Amazon every year to help fund his spaceflight dreams, it would not be a surprise if we were to actually see these dreams culminating in another couple of decades.
So where does Bezos go from here? One area that he seems to be starting to take an interest is in philanthropy, something that both Bezos and his corporate alter-ego Amazon are not particularly well-known for. In June 2017, Bezos sent out a tweet asking for ideas seeking to help people “at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact”. Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post in 2013 could also possibly be a hint at taking a more civic role in society. However, what direction this desire to help others or to take a more active role in society will take, is anybody’s guess.
One last thing – if you go online right now, and go to Relentless.com, you’ll be redirected to Amazon.com – Amazon has owned that web address for nearly 25 years now. Bezos has always played a long game, and it doesn’t seem like getting over anytime soon.