“Explosive.” That’s how the cover of
bills “The Everything Store” by journalist Brad Stone. That’s an overstatement — but the meticulously reported book has plenty of gems for anyone who cares about Amazon, Jeff Bezos, entrepreneurship, leadership or just the lunacy it took to build a company in less than two decades that now employs almost 90,000 people and sold $61 billion worth of, well, almost everything last year.
From moment one, Bezos, who named his company after the river that “blows all other rivers away,” had what Stone calls a “limitless spring of new ideas,”
and Amazon has already seen boom, bust and boom — as well as both fawning adulation and deep skepticism.
Stone recounts how he pitched Bezos on the idea of a book. Bezos — who eventually encouraged friends, family and executives to talk to Stone, but didn’t himself cooperate — asked the author how he was going to deal with the concept of “narrative fallacy.” He was talking about Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s contention in his book “The Black Swan,” which is required reading for all Amazon senior executives, that humans use narrative to turn “complex realities into soothing but oversimplified stories.”
It’s hard to accuse “The Everything Store” of being overly simplistic, perhaps because Bezos defies easy description. While he had an ordinary childhood with his mother and stepfather, his real father was a onetime circus performer whom his mother told to stay out of their lives when Bezos was just 4.
(Stone tracked down the lost father and discovered that the man had no idea who his son had become.)
At 3, Bezos took his crib apart with a screwdriver because he insisted on sleeping in a bed.
After graduating from Princeton in 1986, he found his way to the computer-driven hedge fund D.E. Shaw. He walked away before bonus time to found Amazon, helped by what he calls his “regret-minimization framework.” What will be unimportant when you’re 80? And what will you regret?
Bezos comes across as a polarizing figure who has inspired many people but traumatized others. Some of his ideas are so crazy that employees call them “fever dreams,” and his rants are so deranged that internally they are known as “nutters.” Stone describes Amazon’s culture as “notoriously confrontational, and it begins with Bezos, who believes that truth springs forth when ideas and perspectives are banged against each other, sometimes violently.” He can be kind, but is volatile and unsparing of those who make mistakes. Stone collected a list that he calls Bezos’s “greatest hits.” They range from: “Does it surprise you that you don’t know the answer to that question?” to: “Why are you ruining my life?”
He is also a man of many
contradictions. While his fans say he is distinguished by his relentless quest for truth, Stone calls the happy platitudes that Bezos generally uses to explain his company to outsiders “Jeffisms.” Internally, top executives who are selected to implement Bezos’s ideas are derisively known as “Jeff Bots,” which is not exactly a sign of a healthy, open corporate culture. Amazon has developed a reputation for incredible ruthlessness, stemming from its less-than-straightforward dealings with publishers along with programs such as “the Gazelle Project,” so named because Bezos once suggested that Amazon should approach small publishers the same way a cheetah approaches a sick gazelle. Stone quotes an observer as saying that Amazon executives “have an absolute willingness to torch the landscape around them to emerge the winner.”