Most Americans who use the web have probably purchased something from Amazon.com. It’s such a staple of e-commerce now that we don’t often stop to think about the days before it existed. Listening to this audio book gave me some interesting insights into the business, and also into the “dot com” boom which, truthfully, happened while I was still in middle school.
The author spends a good deal of time talking about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos himself, particularly his incredible intellect and competitive personality. I can’t say I find it surprising that such a man is behind such a successful company. Nor was it surprising that the website started out small and grew exponentially. But there were some facts that caught me almost completely off guard.
One interesting tidbit is that the choice to start out as an online book retailer was somewhat arbitrary. I don’t mean “arbitrary” in the sense that it was random, but that Bezos didn’t have a particular passion for books compared to other goods he could have sold. Instead, he used methods learned in business school to determine the best item to sell. It just so happened that books were easy to ship, easy to procure through distributors, and lacked a frontrunner when it came to online retail. By all accounts, his methods of determination were right on. Over time the site has grown to offer many categories of products, but it all began in a garage with a proprietary database of information about books.
This next part may show my lack of business prowess, but another surprising fact to me is that the company did not turn a quarterly profit until 2002. Since the company was founded in 1994, that means it endured eight years of operations funded solely by investments. It is mind-boggling to me that a company could keep its doors open while losing vast sums of money for nearly a decade, even if revenues were growing exponentially. The book goes into great detail about how many millions of dollars the company accrued in losses over the years before eventually making it into the black. The most interesting part is that this was the plan all along. Bezos decided to become the biggest, the only, name in online retailing, no matter the cost. At that point, and at behest of the markets, he essentially flipped a switch and turned the company profitable. It wasn’t that simple, of course, but revenues were so high and expenditures so wild that it was somewhat easy to find enough cuts to cause a net profit.
The sections detailing the culture of the company described a strange environment, in my opinion. Yes, it was very much a gritty, start-up feel from the beginning. The emphasis was always on making things as easy as possible for the customer, almost to the point of obsession. With the rise of the dot-com bubble, employee perks matched the lavish level of the rest of Silicon Valley, though austerity crept in as investors began demanding results. Some of these qualities persist even to the company’s colossal status today, though I can’t help but feel that Amazon may have lost some of its soul in its transition to multinational corporation. It’s still greatly innovative today, though perhaps a bit out of touch compared to the early days recounted in the book.
In the end, it was a very enjoyable and informative read, much of which documented happenings I was unaware of due to my age. But I am glad to have learned more about one of the largest successes of the dot-com boom since that era most certainly affects my life today as a technology professional. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in technology trends, business, or entrepreneurship. It is available via audio book on the Nashville Public Library site, and (of course) at Amazon.com.