What marketers can learn from Jeff Bezos
A longi-sh review of Invent and Wander, a collection of the Amazon founder's writing
The technology leader most idolised by the world is probably Steve Jobs. Bill Gates is always somewhere near this conversation. Zuckerberg is not necessarily the first person people think of, but he’s there too. For a while Travis Kalanick’s abrasive, push-hard kind of leadership was also being looked up to.
Jeff Bezos, for a long time, flew relatively under the radar. This statement doesn’t mean people weren’t watching him. They were. The markets certainly were. But Amazon was for a long time, and I mean before AWS and Blue Origin, not seen as a pure technology company by the tech press. It was hugely successful, of course, but it was e-commerce, wasn’t it? Where was the innovation, apart from putting up things for sale on the internet?
But in the last decade, that view slowly changed. One, because Amazon just kept growing and growing. And two, its offerings - hardware and software - became integral to modern life.
As Walter Isaacson writes in his introduction to Invent and Wander:
I am often asked who, of the people living today, I would consider to be in the same league as those I have written about as a biographer: Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Ada Lovelace, Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein. All were very smart. But that’s not what made them special. Smart people are dime a dozen and don’t amount to much. What counts is bring creative and imaginative. That’s what makes someone a true innovator. And that’s why my answer to the question is Jeff Bezos.
When I read the book, which brings together his shareholder letters from 1997 to 2019, and his talks and writings from elsewhere, I understood why. I also understood why Vijay Rayapati, my boss, lent the book to me.
First, there is relentless focus on a core tenet from the beginning. He writes of this customer obsession repeatedly in the letters, "In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that's going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. That’s not to going to change 10 years from now." This is it, this is all Bezos wants to focus on. Innovating constantly so there are always low prices, vast selections, and quick delivery. He writes of this in 2007, and he writes of this in 2018, and then he talks about this everywhere he can. His focus is absolute, and therefore so is Amazon’s.
Second, Amazon’s acceptance of failure is unique. So much of what they rolled out failed completely, including the predecessors to Marketplace: Auctions and zShops. The Kindle Fire didn’t do well, and the Fire Phone bombed. But the larger Kindle line and their smart speakers are runaway successes. But Amazon understood that none of this could have happened if they weren’t making the duds as well. This is a big lesson, especially for marketers of our kind. We need to do a lot for a few things to work, and as Bezos puts it, the big winners will pay for many experiments.
Third and finally, I was struck by how a company of the size and scale of Amazon basically has had only three or four big ideas. Bezos draws attention to them in his 2014 shareholder letter. One is their marketplace, which onboarded third-party sellers to use Amazon as a sales and distribution engine. Prime then brought free shipping, plus music plus movies, arguably the greatest deal on the planet, and overnight became a huge brand on its own. And then there’s AWS, which basically is the foundation on which a whole lot of the software we use (and build) runs. This is an insight marketers can use too. We may do a lot of things, but we have to identify our most important levers and make sure we always have resources there.
The entire book is incredible, and you should read it. These are just immediate takeaways from my scribbles and margin notes.