When I have read biographies and auto-biographies of leaders, I’ve almost always admired –and mostly liked—the leaders; but when I recently read Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of the Amazon I tried, to no avail, to like the story’s protagonist: Jeff Bezos. Yet while it is easy to dislike Bezos, it is not as easy to dismiss him. He comes across as a get-it-by-all-means control freak, but he’s also a focussed visionary who like his contemporaries Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, will stop at nothing when pursuing goals that the average mind deems impossible. In less than three decades, he has built a business empire worth close to a trillion dollars spanning industries such as retail, music, publishing, web services, entertainment and space exploration and a personal net-worth of 112 billion dollars, making him the richest man in the world today according to Forbes (a cool $22 billion more than second-placed Bill Gates). For the most part, Bezos strikes you as a villain yet when you peel the layers and look at the values and obsessions that drive him, you come to respect him. You see his obsession for customer service, his drive to achieve the impossible and his fixation with the long-run: rare qualities in modern business where the quick buck and value grabbing are the de facto rules.
At its core, The Everything Store chronicles a rare but deliberate success story in the era of the information age that thrived through the dot-com bubble at the turn of the millennium and the 2008/09 global financial crisis. Brad Stone, a consummate journalist who has followed the rise of Amazon since the early 90’s traces Amazon’s history from its conception in the New York offices of Wall Street’s private capital firm, D.E. Shaw & Co. (DESCO) to an underdog waging war against established booksellers such as Borders and Barnes & Nobles to a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that aims at selling everything at the lowest prices, threatening the existence of “Main Street” moms-and-pops businesses. Simultaneously, Stone traces the history of Jeff Bezos: the gifted son of Jackie and Mike Bezos whose words and actions affect the lives of hundreds of millions of lives today.
I am impressed by the depth and honesty of Stone’s work; while at certain points you can sense his admiration for Bezos, he keeps his distance and will often shed light on anecdotes that do not show Amazon and Bezos in good light such as the stories of the acquisition of Diapers.com and Zappos. You can also tell Stone is aspiring towards the work of a fellow biographer, Walter Isaacson (the author of Steve Jobs), which coincidentally happens to be the model that he took to Bezos when he told him he wanted to author his biography. But while we get plenty of Jobs’ voice in Isaacson’s work, we go through swathes of Stone’s prose before we get a Bezos comment. Bezos character is mostly created through what others say about him—which in itself says something about his character and that of his company. Unlike Jobs, the showman, Bezos is, at least to the public, the secretive yet abrasive genius who will go to the extent of suing his former employees for joining rival companies to keep trade secrets.
Stone does a brilliant job telling Bezos’ backstory, both professional and personal, and its effect on him. On the professional part, we see how much Bezos’ and Amazon’s philosophies are influenced by his stint at DESCO. For instance, Amazon’s inclination to hire top-GPA graduates and cut down on expenses by, say, building tables out of doors are traced back Bezos’ days at DESCO. As things change for Amazon, Bezos stay the same in many respects. He’s still the over-analytical mastermind who’ll take a red pen to every press release and zero in on the content of the emails that the marketing team sends out to clients. He’s still the student, reading constantly to boost his leadership. He applies concepts from both fiction and non-fiction to his business (in fact, Stone provides the Bezos reading list at the end of the book); he’s likely to take lessons from Kazuo Ishiguro just as he is likely to take lessons from Jim Collins. Amazon has widely been cited as the definitive case study of a disruptive start-up guzzling up business from traditional market leaders. This is deliberate: Bezos’ read and applied many of the lessons in Clay Christensen’s The Innovators Dilemma, the book in which the notion of disruption in business was coined, at least in the contemporary sense. When he realized that Apple and Google would cannibalize Amazon’s digital business, Bezos built secretive teams within Amazon to find ways to self-disrupt the company. The outcomes of these teams: Amazon Web Services, Amazon Prime and the Kindle, some of the major revenue earners for Amazon today.
On the personal front, Stone takes us on the quest for Bezos’ family background. He goes looking for Bezos’ biological father, Ted Jorgensen, a professional clown turned bicycle-repairman who was separated from Bezos as a child and hadn’t been in touch with Bezos over the next five decades. Apart from that narrative, we barely scratch the surface of Bezos’ personal life—again underlining Bezos’ penchant for privacy.
There are plenty of lessons to be gleaned from this book. With their fixation on the long term, Jeff Bezos and Amazon will continue to be important shapers of commerce (and life, really) for a long long time. Bezos forays into space travel, philanthropy and media ownership might not be documented in thorough detail in this book, but they’re worth watching too. Of course, lots has changed for Amazon and the world between the book’s publication and my reading of it –which makes one wonder if it was written too soon, or maybe a sequel might be forthcoming. Still, it remains a worthy monument to the values of customer-centricity, innovation, long-term vision and determination. Jeff Bezos might be a flawed hero (or villain) but this book is another reminder that you can simply never write him off.