We’ve all heard plenty about Amazon’s launch in Australia. I’ve been as guilty as anyone of writing about what some have called the potential “retail apocalypse” facing Australian retail. The launch was not really the fire and brimstone occasion so many have forecast, but it’s still early days. If there’s anything we know about Amazon, it’s that it looks to the long game. We might have to check back in five years or so to properly evaluate this week’s events.
As Peter Switzer wrote earlier this week, Amazon has received plenty of free publicity despite the fact the US giant is here to crush all before it: “But we seem to cheer a US ‘robber baron’ coming here and killing businesses, taking away retail jobs and eventually lowering wages.”
Maybe we shouldn’t be giving Amazon so much free PR, but the company and its founder Jeff Bezos, are hard to ignore. The story of Amazon is compelling partly because the man behind it is an amazing individual. As Peter Switzer put it, Amazon is “arguably run by the smartest retailer/entrepreneur of all time.” Bezos holds the same magnetic pull as the likes of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or Elon Musk. We want to know what makes him tick. How did he become who he is and how did he make Amazon into one of the great business stories of all time?
Brad Stone’s book The Everything Store gives plenty of insight into Bezos. Stone’s account presents us with a prodigiously brilliant man who does not suffer fools, is highly competitive, and methodical in his approach. “Bezos is a micromanager with a limitless spring of new ideas, and he reacts harshly to efforts that don’t meet his rigorous standards,” writes Stone.
Like Musk, running one mega business is not enough for Bezos. The 53-year-old has turned what was an online bookseller into not only a huge multi-category online retailer and marketplace, but also the world’s largest provider of cloud infrastructure services via Amazon Web Services (AWS).
To give you an idea of the size and significance of AWS, it signed a contract with the CIA in 2013 for US$600 million to provide cloud and data services. It has since gone on to sign major contracts with other US government agencies and plenty of big corporates as well. Bezos also owns aerospace company Blue Origin and purchased The Washington Post for spare change, US$250 million cash, in 2013.
It’s not an understatement to say he is a titan of our age.
Interestingly, Stone details some curious quirks of Bezos’s leadership style. One of these is a preference for his senior executive team — known as “the S team” — to write long, detailed memos that tell a story and force the writer of the memo to really think through what they are trying to say. It’s an unorthodox approach in this age of PowerPoint presentations and pithy elevator pitches, but then Bezos is no ordinary mega entrepreneur. He’s also a voracious reader, which might be why he prefers long memos to bullet points.
“Amazon’s internal customs are deeply idiosyncratic. PowerPoint decks or slide presentations are never used in meetings. Instead, employees are required to write six-page narratives laying out their points in prose, because Bezos believes doing so fosters critical thinking,” writes Stone. “For each new product, they craft their documents in the style of a press release. The goal is to frame a proposed initiative in the way a customer might hear about it for the first time.”
I have a feeling what we’ve seen play out so far with Amazon’s Australian launch is probably only the first paragraph of one of these six-page memos. The rest of that memo might still read very much like a horror story for some big Australian retailers.
Image source: CNBC