The Everything Store

I read The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon on the way home from San Jose, and really enjoyed it.

I was a bit skeptical about this book, as there have been accusations from MacKenzie Bezos (Jeff’s wife) and others that the book contains numerous factual inaccuracies. The edition I read appears to have corrected some of these inaccuracies (e.g., MacKenzie objected to the assertion that Bezos read Remains of the Day before deciding to leave D.E. Shaw to start Amazon in order to minimize regret because Bezos didn’t actually read the novel until a year after starting Amazon; in the edition I read, this assertion was deleted), though I suspect that such changes were minimal.

I can’t say if the book is factually accurate — like most works of nonfiction and journalism, there are no doubt numerous points of fact on which the participants disagree and which the writer might have gotten wrong. It is also true that Stone is trying to tell a story about Amazon, and the narrative fallacy is something all readers must keep in mind. To Stone’s credit, he explicitly notes that Bezos highlighted the narrative fallacy, and Stone acknowledges the danger and suggests that writers must nonetheless do the best they can to tell a story. Our species is wired for narratives, readers and writers and subjects alike, and I don’t know if we can ever be free from their distorting effects.

On the whole, I came away with the impression that the book is sympathetic to Amazon and Bezos and tells a story that feels true in light of the evidence. Bezos is driven, smart, and like some hero out of an Ayn Rand novel, holds an abiding faith in creating value for customers, eliminating inefficiencies, and rewriting established rules to accomplish worthy goals. The story of the rise of Amazon is a good one: the dream of a retailer that sells everything the customer might want survived the dot com crash, the exodus of engineers and executive for “cooler” companies, the financial crisis, and Amazon emerged as one of the most powerful technology platform companies in the world (think AWS and all the companies that rely on it) as well as one of the greatest retailers in the world. Brad Stone argues that Amazon is an extension of Bezos the way Apple was/is an extension of Jobs, and Bezos is a missionary as well as a mercenary. When he talks about being customer-focused, he is 100% sincere. This assessment seems fair.

There were many things that I found fascinating about the Amazon Way as explained by Stone. One of the key factors in Amazon’s success is Bezos’s belief in the “flywheel” — drawn from Jim Collins’s Good to Great — in which a virtuous cycle allows growth to beget more growth: lower prices led to more customer visits; more customers led to higher sales volume and more commission-paying third-party vendors selling on the site; Amazon then got more leverage out of its infrastructure and fixed costs (fulfillment centers, AWS) and could apply more pressure on suppliers to lower prices, so that it could lower prices further.

Amazon’s self-interest and missionary zeal are aligned in offering the customer a bigger selection and lower prices — these are the inputs to accelerate the flywheel. Keeping this principle in mind explains practically everything the company does. It is ruthless in its dealings with partners and suppliers and employees because only by squeezing them can Amazon offer lower prices to its customers and a better customer experience. In at least this sense, Amazon really is customer-centric: it believes that customers always want lower prices and greater selection, and whoever gets in the way of Amazon accomplishing these goals for its customers should be rightfully crushed.

In one key passage, Stone notes that the idea that in a business negotiation both sides should emerge happy is deeply “un-Amazon.” Amazon does not care about its business partners and suppliers and it must emerge as the winner in any negotiation because only by winning can it pass on the savings to customers in the form of lower prices. Amazon is not interested in helping its suppliers and partners succeed but in squeezing them and eliminating their inefficiencies so that customers can pay less. If this means Amazon must hide key deal terms from the suppliers (e.g., Amazon’s intent to lose money on ebooks by pricing them low so as to drive down customer expectations and apply pressure on the publishers) or break the ethical norms of business negotiations (e.g., reopening negotiations after key terms have been completed to extract more concessions), then so be it.

The book publishers — a group I’m sympathetic to, not the least because I’m publishing through a traditional publisher and I like the people I work with, who really are in business because they love books — were blindsided by Amazon because that is just not how they think. You can view publishers as inefficient or naïve — plenty of ink and pixels have been spilled on the subject of how the book business does not serve the reading public or authors well — but it is certainly true that Amazon plays by a different set of rules.

Amazon’s belief that it is acting in the best interest of the customer is sincere but disputed. Disruption is always going to create some new winners and losers. Take the book business: does the customer only want lower prices and greater selection? The publishers, in exercising their gatekeeping function and editorial role, keep prices high and the selection limited, which benefit some authors (authors who don’t earn out their advance) at the expense of others (bestselling authors and authors who don’t get published), help some individuals and businesses survive (especially employees of publishers and bookstores) at the expense of others, and make some customers happy (customers who like the editorial taste of the publisher, especially less popular books) at the expense of others (customers who can’t find what they like to read).

Amazon’s relentless push to lower ebook prices and to bypass the publishers so that authors can directly reach readers through Amazon will not benefit every customer (and will certainly not benefit every author), but it will certainly benefit Amazon and some authors and some (perhaps most?) customers. People do vote with their dollars, and if Amazon wins, ultimately it’s because the customers — as a whole — have spoken.