Amazon was no longer just an inspiring story but a referendum on society and on the responsibilities that large companies have toward their employees, their communities and the sanctify of our fragile planet.
The first company-wide moto was Get Big Fast. Day 1 phrase inside Amazon would represent the need for constant invention, fast-decision making and the eager embrace of broader technology trends.
Amazon was also on the ropes when dot.com bubble burst. But they survived. And the turnaround happened when Amazon open platform for third-party sellers.
Bezos hired executive Jeff Wilke to redesign warehouses and renamed them into fulfillment centers.
With AWS the goal was to scale it to infinity with no planned downtime.
They also introduced Kindle.
All those three initiatives persuade Wall Street to like Amazon again.
In 2014 with Eco they moved from customers’ doorsteps to living rooms. With Alexa, cloud computing and Hollywood glamour Amazon moved into total new business areas.
With all these development, Jeff Bezos moved himself into another sphere. But the critical question remains of whether Amazon and Jeff Bezos were good for business competition, for modern society and even our planet.
Invention – The Uber Product Manager
In 2010 Bezos wrote: “Invention is in our DNA and technology is the fundamental tool we wield to evolve and improve every aspect of the experience we provide to our customer.” They started four projects – from A to D. A was Kindle, D was Alexa and in between they had Fire phone and Shimmer lamp for holograms.
Alexa project was run by George Hart but supervised by Bezos. It was in the line of his idea of voice activated cloud computing. During the process they bought Yap. Next was Polish startup Ivona – generating computer-synthesized speech. They introduced wake word – Alexa in homage to Alexandria. But due to some challenges in development, next acquisition followed – Evi – question and answer tool. Technology was based on knowledge graphs. But in the end deep learning approach won in the project. But they still need to make it smarter and they need data for it. The introduction of the Amazon Echo was on November 6, 2014.
Bezos’s wish list became the product plan – he wanted Alexa to be everywhere, doing everything, all at once.
Fire project was responsibility of Ian Freed.
Invention – A Name Too Boring to Notice
Will Amazon ever buy or open physical stores? That was a question everybody was asking. Bezos was playing with idea of entering physical retail with a self-service store. Steven Kessel was responsible for that idea. Bezos wanted disruptive store. Amazon Go was a model. And it was based on Just Walk Out Technology – system that didn’t exist yet. In 2013 Amazon Go engineers decided to go with cameras in the ceiling and algorithms.
When first prototype was developed, Bezos was not impressed. The experience was too complicated. Dilip Kumar joined team and with his hard-driving pushed project further. He was maniacal about the customer, IQ over EQ, raw force of will over innate leadership ability.
Like Bezos used to say Amazon was stubborn on vision, flexible on details.
Another group of engineers worked on embedding computer vision into carts.
Original Amazon Go store open to all employees in December 2016 and to public in January 2018. Amazon Go remained a money loser. But Bezos was still looking at it as a bet on computer vision and artificial intelligence.
Amazon believes in being bold, because big bets sometimes pay off highly. They started to license Just Walk Out Technology to other retailers and they also realize that if they want to do serious retail, they need to take it very seriously.
Cowboys and Killers
Bezos has missed an earlier opportunity to invest in India. Getting into India for the second time in 2012 they were careful due to experiences in China. Lesson from China, you need to invest and innovate boldly, you need to cultivate ties with local government and you need to leave enough independence to local team from Seattle.
In 2014 they formed joint-venture with owner of Infosys called Prione Business Services. This company then owned Cloudtail that sell electronics.
Success in India showed a way for Amazon to look at potential of e-commerce in other countries. One of the was Mexico. They choose local CEO – Juan Carlos Garcia from Walmart. They tried to launch without Google ads help and they failed. This was actually one of the decisions where Bezos allowed S-team management to take decision, since it was declared as two-way door decision, that can be reversed later. If it would be one door decision, non-reversable, only CEO can take it.
In India Amazon wanted to acquire Flipkart. Flipkart wanted 4 billion USD as breakup fee, Amazon was not impressed. And in May 2018 Walmart would pay 16 billion USD for 77% of Flipkart. Amazon executives believed at that point that Walmart didn’t have an experience in local market needed to run successful business.
Amazon had made remarkable progress in India, but remained grossly unprofitable in India.
A Year for Eating Crow
Amazon was still investing majority of earnings back into retail business, but in 2015 Amazon revealed the financial health of their Amazon Web Services.
In June they introduced the first Prime Day.
AWS generated 45.4 billion USD sales in 2020. First cloud products were designed and introduced between 2004 and 2006. Amazon started this business due to their extensive use of technology. They even build their own database DynamoDB, to handle the massive volumes of traffic because of internet.
Executives responsible for that line of business were Andy Jassy and Raju Gulabani. They also brought in Anurag Gupta. In 2012 they introduced Redshift – DWH and in 2015 Aurora DB.
AWS’s culture was a microcosm of Amazon’s: though, unrelenting and focused on meeting impossibly high standards.
After AWS results in 2015 Amazon valuation jumped 15 %.
The Prime Day was under control of Meghan Wulff. It was hard to start it, since partners and retailers were the ones giving up their margins. Wulff said she felt like running a Ponzi scheme. She left the company in 2019.
Bezos was student of organization, culture and innovation. He was a fan of Topgrading concept by Bradford Smart – who helped set up GE Jack Welch model of A, B, C players. He believed that stack ranking would force managers to upgrade the talent on their teams. He worked closely with HR manager Niekerk. Under hard pressure from Times article, those practices were abandoned.
Democracy Dies in Darkness
Buying a Post was a private decision for Bezos. It brought him reputation outside tech community. He wanted to modernize Post. The death knell for any enterprise is to glorify the past, no matter how good it was.
He told reports, that they suffered the pain of internet, that they should think about influence of free distribution and a massive audience. He looked at technology, forged a partnership with CIO of Indian Institute of technology Shailesh Prakash.
From 2015 and 2018 revenue jumped from 40 to 140 million USD. Digital subscribers grow to 1.5 million.
Bezos used his Hollywood company to really build Prime as “the main” services. They started raising the price of Prime: to 99 USD in 2014 and to 119 USD in 2018.
Prime Video received big budget and going into content development was the name of the game.
During all this incident of Roy Price, main force behind Amazon film division, was another challenge.
Bezos wanted more, he wanted more aggressive content development, they acquire rights to Tolkien Lord of the Rings – undeveloped materials. He wanted a scientific approach to creative decision-making. That was one point where they didn’t align with Price.
Price was gone. He didn’t expect to hear from Bezos. This was Amazon, where employees were there to produce results, not create personal bonds.
Leverage – The Selection Machine
»Hands off the wheel« was a system of automatic ordering. Bezos believed algorithms could do a better job. They also introduce algorithms to negotiate agreements, initiate promotions and in the final phase it is about turning Amazon business into a largely self-service technology platform that could generate cash with minimum human intervention.
FBA – Fulfillment by Amazon was a cost minimizing activity. Bezos was saying that averages are bad measures. He was looking for actuals, highs, lows and why. An average was just lazy.
Marketplace was something Amazon developed before 2007. In 2009 Peter Faircz took over. What also helped Amazon was behavior of eBay – raising fees and giving better deals to large retailers. In 2015 revenue from marketplace outgrew Amazon revenue.
Amazon Marketplace and Fulfillment by Amazon grew and they were looking at their competitors. Wish.com and in AliExpress are two of them.
That push to grow with help of third-party had some influence on quality of sellers, with a lot of Chinese products coming to Marketplace. On the other hand, brands were suffering, when products with similar quality were available to consumers for few times lower price.
In 2017, Amazon introduced an initiative called Brand Registry, which allowed brands to claim their logos and designs and to report potential violations to Amazon.
In 2019, Amazon spent 500 million USD on fraud prevention. That also introduced a new anti-counterfit tool, called Project Zero.
Amazon’s Future is CRaP
John Mackey and his Whole Foods were in trouble in 2017. He didn’t want to change his approach and Wall Street was looking only for growth. Mackey allowed Walter Robb to work as his co-CEO taking care of day-to-day operations.
Amazon Fresh launched in august 2017. In 2012 Bezos called S-team. Herrington had joined with a message Amazon’s Future is CRaP. CRaP stood for “can’t realize a profit”. He wanted to move Amazon from high margin low transaction articles into high-volume products. So, Amazon introduction into grocery services was on.
Two big competitors were fighting Amazon delivery ability. Instacart and Google. Usually Amazon bought their competitors, but this could not be the case with those two.
Amazon introduced Prime Now on December 18, 2014.
The grocers were all afraid of Amazon, indifferent to Prime Now and concerned about Amazon Fresh, even though it only operated in a few cities.
The failed discussion with hostile retailers had also been a revelation. With limited opportunities for partnerships, Amazon itself would have to push much deeper into supply chain of everyday household products and groceries if it was ever going to be successful in a brutally competitive business.
Amazon faced strong pressure on their behavior about private-label prioritization with use of data from other vendors on Amazon Marketplace. Even if Amazon denied it, brand managers responsible for private label, were true Amazon sellers, pushing everything to the limits.
COE report or “correction of error” is the top-secret document prepared inside Amazon when something goes awry.
On April 21, 2017, Matt Yale, the head of regulatory affairs at Tusk Ventures, one of the firms advising Whole Foods amid the assault from activist investors, called Jay Carney, an acquaintance from the Obama administration. Would Amazon be interested in meeting with the organic grocer to discuss a strategic transaction. Companies started negotiating.
In 2016, Walmart acquired the e-commerce startup Jet.com for 3.3 billion USD. This was another push and Amazon announced on June 16, 2017 that they bought Whole Foods for 13.7 billion USD.
Steve Kessel took over retail business and he also took over Prime Now and Amazon Fresh.
The Last Mile
Amazon came to operate one of the largest and most sophisticated logistic and transportation networks anywhere. Dave Clark joined Amazon in 1999. Mike Roth and Arthur Valdez were also important part in Amazon logistic.
Marc Onneto evangelist of Lean method was chosen together with HR guy Niekerk to ensure that FC (fulfilment centers) workers who weren’t advancing within Amazon stayed for a maximum of three years. He was not successful and was replace with Dave Clark as VP of all North America FC.
Dave Clark main goal was to find better use of technology. They acquire Kiva Systems for 775 million USD in 2012. Kiva Systems is a robotic startup.
For the shipping companies, the online retailer generated increasing revenues while eroding their margins. So, FedEx and UPS were keeping Amazon on ground during holidays and weekends. All these tensions led to Amazon started to build their own logistic network from suppliers to FC and then all the way to customers’ doorsteps. But instead of owning the planes they lease them from pair of Airlines – ATSG and Atlas Air.
Regarding last mile, they started with sub-contractors, but they had some challenges with safety and quality. They also tried with building their own fleet. They changed delivery industry.
In April 2019 they announced Prime one-day shipping. They also retire 15 USD delivery rate for Amazon grocery delivery adding free Amazon Fresh.
Clark had fulfilled Bezos’s vision of a liberated supply chain and established himself as the highest embodiment of an Amazon leader: a big thinker, who placed methodical, long-term bets that would be unpalatable to the impatient executives at more short-term oriented companies.
The Gold Mine in the Backyard
Bezos was letting go more and more of operational business in 2017. Jeff Wilke and Andy Jassy were taking care of retail and AWS part of business.
But checking performance of retail business Bezos wanted to know what was the real picture without advertising money. It was not that good. So, he pushes them to improve it. He showed that he is still in the driving seat.
For Bezos, during the first part of Amazon’s journey into advertising, the sanctity of the customer experience took absolute precedence over any business relationship or incremental boost to the balance sheet.
Amazon’s search results had evolved from a straightforward, algorithmically ordered taxonomy of products into an over-merchandised display of sponsored ads. By 2017 advertising revenue hit 4.65 billion USD.
In 2016 Bezos was looking at Blue Origin business – company he owned and operated independently from Amazon. Bezos founded company in 2000. In 2003 he changed strategy, instead of trying to reinvent rockets, he decided to build them in a more cost-effective way.
In this area he clashed with Elon Musk and his SpaceX. That happened after 2013.
In 2016 Blue Origin was not a good place to be. Morale was low and Bezos was showing his lack of temper. But they did win a big contract and it would fall to new CEO Bob Smith to digest all this growth and professionalize the company.
In July 2018, Blue Origin conducted the ninth test of New Sheppard. For this event Bezos engage company Black Ops Aviation – the founder Lauren Sanchez was at Bezos side for the event.
Invincibility – License to operate
AWS remained the company’s primary engine of cash flow and profit, but Amazon had also developed a secondary source: a lucrative online advertising business.
But things started to complicate at home. In Seattle Kshama Sawant (a self-styled Marxist socialist) cosponsored a bill proposing a 2.25 percent increase of income tax for individuals making more than 225.000 USD a year.
Amazon responded with search for second HQ. The announcement of Amazon’s HQ2 initiative sparked a media frenzy.
HQ2 committee recommended short list: Chicago, Dallas, New York City, Northern Virginia, Philadelphia and Raleigh.
Seattle first announced the proposed bill, but then repeal it.
At the end HQ2 decision was no decision. They simply decide to grow people in different environments then Seattle. But the real story of HQ2 search was, that Amazon was becoming close to invincible.
Bezos was a master compartmentalizer; his ability to keep the intricate threads of his personal and professional lives separate was unrivaled. But now those threads had gotten tangled up. He needed to address the elephant in the room.
Amazon’s legal and finance department started to ask largest shareholders about possibility of creating second class shares. This was just a little bit before public announcement of Jeff and MacKenzie splitting up.
In 2018 Bezos started to publicly show his relationship with Sanchez. National Enquirer started to look into Bezos personal life. In January 2019 they have sent mails to both Sanchez and Bezos for an interview on their romance. Sanchez brother actually played on both sides of the game, he was the one selling a story to Enquirer and he was also engaged to help Bezos and Sanchez controlling that story.
This was the first time Bezos was getting attentions for wrong things and some of the Amazon people was starting to ask some questions.
Amazon business was growing. Bezos fight his battles in private. But public opinion about Amazon was not that high. Its power and potential push on smaller retailers on its marketplace was under revision by politics. And idea about splitting it up was being more and more loudly spoken by more and more people.
This was the new reality for Amazon as it inched ever closer to 1 trillion USD in market value. An unceasing assault from both sides of the political aisle.
Trump was also after Bezos. The true cost of Washington Post was revealed when Amazon lost JEDI contract after Trump intervention. 10 billion USD.
Somebody explain Amazon practice as being analogous to being invited over for Thanksgiving dinner, then finding out as you sit down to dine that you’re the turkey.
The power of Amazon business model is the combination of the sum of its self-reinforcing businesses and services, enabled by world-class technology, operational excellence and rigorous review and measurement process.
Amazon bumps didn’t have any effect on their business and its growth. But something new was coming. On February 27 DR. Ian Lipkin, epidemiologist spoke to S-team. Amazon stopped non-essential travels. By early March a subgroup of the S-team was gathering virtually every afternoon at 4 p.m.
They introduced measuring temperature, Lipkin was pushing for rapid testing all the time. In France there was an outbreak in Paris FC. It was a fight between operating only for essentials or stop the FC.
By the end of the year, Amazon boasted a 1.6 trillion USD market cap and Jeff Bezos was worth more than 190 billion USD. His wealth had increased by more than 70 percent during the pandemic. On 2. February 2021, he named Andy Jassy as new CEO. And he also started to put substantial money contributions to charity.
Is the World better off with Amazon in it?
 In the book on page 22