Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos a
Steve Levy had a really interesting interview with Jeff Bezos earlier this week.
He talks in detail about how he thinks about Amazon (AMZN) and how he runs this business. In my opinion, with Jobs now gone, Bezos is the best CEO in the world. How he’s built the company into an e-commerce juggernaut over the last 15 years is utterly amazing — especially when you consider he was in his early 30s and an ex-quant from D.E. Shaw when he moved out to Seattle and started the company.
One thing I learned a long time ago about really smart people: study, read, or listen to the things that they think are great. It’s a shortcut to greatness. If you can grab a few insights here and there from Bezos or Jobs or whoever, it’s no guarantee you’re going to be great yourself — but you’re certainly going to be further ahead than if you just keep fumbling around in the dark on your own.
One thing jumped out of the Bezos intereview:
Levy: You’ve also given $42 million to the Long Now Foundation for the development of a giant clock designed to last for 10,000 years. Does that project relate at all to what you’re doing at Amazon?
Bezos: It does fit into my view. Our first shareholder letter, in 1997, was entitled, “It’s all about the long term.” If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that. Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue. At Amazon we like things to work in five to seven years. We’re willing to plant seeds, let them grow—and we’re very stubborn. We say we’re stubborn on vision and flexible on details.
In some cases, things are inevitable. The hard part is that you don’t know how long it might take, but you know it will happen if you’re patient enough. Ebooks had to happen. Infrastructure web services had to happen. So you can do these things with conviction if you are long-term-oriented and patient.
So, after emailing the kind people at Amazon Investor Relations, I located this 1997 letter.
Let me summarize: it’s a manifesto for how Amazon has been run. If you bought in at the first price Amazon started trading at in 1997 and held your shares, you’re up 12,397% (vs. 100% for the Nasdaq).
It boils down to 6 key things that have been critical to the company’s success (and they ring true with many of the values of Steve Jobs at Apple (AAPL) and many other successful companies):
1. When you have a window of opportunity, go for the jugular – even if you have to exhaust a huge number of resources. Critics saw a bottomless pit but Bezos knew he had a time-limited chance to make Amazon an e-commerce leader.
We have a window of opportunity as larger players marshal the resources to pursue the online opportunity and as customers, new to purchasing online, are receptive to forming new relationships. The competitive landscape has continued to evolve at a fastpace. Many large players have moved online with credible offerings and have devoted substantial energy and resources to building awareness, traffic, and sales. Our goal is to move quickly to solidify and extend our current position while we begin to pursue the online commerce opportunities in other areas. We see substantial opportunity in the large markets we are targeting. This strategy is not without risk: it requires serious investmentand crisp execution against established franchise leaders.
2. Think long-term meaning 5 – 7 years, not 5 – 7 months. Jack Ma recently said the same thing at a talk in Hong Kong. It’s smart.
We believe that a fundamental measure of our success will be the shareholder value we create over the long term. This value will be a direct result of our ability to extend and solidify our current market leadership position. The stronger our market leadership, the more powerful our economic model. Market leadership can translate directly to higher revenue, higher profitability, greater capital velocity, and correspondingly stronger returns on invested capital.
Our decisions have consistently reflected this focus. We first measure ourselves interms of the metrics most indicative of our market leadership: customer and revenue growth, the degree to which our customers continue to purchase from us on a repeat basis, and the strength of our brand. We have invested and will continue to invest aggressively to expand and leverage our customer base, brand, and infrastructure as wemove to establish an enduring franchise.
3. Long-term market share is more important than short-term profits because without long-term market share there will be no long-term profits.
We will continue to make investment decisions in light of long-term market leadership considerations rather than short-term profitability considerations orshort-term Wall Street reactions.
4. It’s ok to make mistakes but it’s not ok to be timid.
We will make bold rather than timid investment decisions where we see asufficient probability of gaining market leadership advantages. Some of these investments will pay off, others will not, and we will have learned another valuable lesson in either case.
5. Obsess over Customers. As Bezos said in his Wired interview, the best customer service experience is when they never have to contact you.
From the beginning, our focus has been on offering our customers compelling value. We realized that the Web was, and still is, the World Wide Wait. Therefore, we set out to offer customers something they simply could not get any other way, and began serving them with books. We brought them much more selection than was possible in a physical store (our store would now occupy 6 football fields), and presented it in a useful, easy-to-search, and easy-to-browse format in a store open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. We maintained a dogged focus on improving the shopping experience, and in 1997 substantially enhanced our store. We now offer customers gift certificates, 1-Click(SM) shopping, and vastly more reviews, content, browsing options, and recommendation features. We dramatically lowered prices, further increasing customer value. Word of mouth remains the most powerful customer acquisition tool we have, and we are grateful for the trust our customers have placed in us. Repeat purchases and word of mouth have combined to make Amazon.com the market leader in online bookselling.
6. Be first in a big market. It’s easy to think now that Amazon was first in a big market, but people assumed at the time they were in a niche market facing established players. But Bezos always had grand ambitions for his company and saw the opportunity. It’s partly why he pushed for a land-grab of market share.
[A]s we’ve long said, online bookselling, and online commerce in general, should prove to be a very large market, and it’s likely that anumber of companies will see significant benefit. We feel good about what we’ve done, and even more excited about what we want to do.
It’s been an amazing run.