Books: What’s in Your Cart, Jeff?

The new Bezos book admires Amazon’s founder, but never gets close to him.

When Bay Area journalist Brad Stone came to Seattle recently to discuss The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (Little Brown, $28), he visited everyplace but Amazon. There were stops at Microsoft and Zillow, plus a public event at Town Hall; and his book tour subsequently took him to LinkedIn and Google down in Silicon Valley. Everyone in corporate America wants to learn about one of its fastest-growing and increasingly feared companies. Everyone shops there—200 million customers and counting. Shareholders are happy (the stock is up 32 percent this year). The company earned more than $60 billion in revenue last year. Yet it has a poor reputation as a place to work—whether in South Lake Union or one of those sweltering warehouses. And people blame its “confrontational culture” (per Stone) on its supposedly bullying, parsimonious, Ayn Rand–worshipping founder. Is any of that a fair assessment?

Based on the roughly one month I worked at Amazon, circa 1996 or ’97, I have no idea. I know what I read, and I know what gossip I hear from current and former Amazonians. Fresh out of grad school and broke, I did e-mail customer service when the company sold only books and had one office/warehouse by the Pecos Pit in SoDo. I also trained by picking and packing books in the warehouse. I made my own parking sign with an Amazon.com-emblazoned bit of cardboard; everything was improvised and done on the fly. The warehouse workers were happy and the office staff seemed nice. I even interviewed with Bezos himself, which means there couldn’t have been many employees at the time. He was perfectly pleasant, and I think he asked my SAT scores (of course), which were hardly great. Being a fellow Ivy Leaguer probably got me hired, yet I soon left—more on that below—for a penurious career in journalism. So that was a huge missed opportunity, right?

Stone has interviewed plenty of ex-Amazon employees—some bitter, some rich from their early stock options—to report this fairly straightforward and favorable business history of the 19-year-old enterprise. It’s more about the company than the man, though the two can’t be separated just now. Stone didn’t have direct access to Bezos, but the entrepreneur definitely authorized many interviews, which made the book possible. Since Stone has covered Amazon for many years, and presumably will in years to come, there’s an implied trust: Fair coverage in the past meant no hatchet job now, which keeps keyhole access open in the future. The Everything Store isn’t the kind of CEO testament that Walter Isaacson landed with Steve Jobs two years ago. Jobs was then near the end of his life; he’d reached the top of Mount Apple and was willing to breach his privacy somewhat in order to deliver oracular pronouncements.

Bezos isn’t ready for that just yet. Not quite 50, running a company with some 97,000 employees, he’s busy expanding Amazon abroad, trying to surpass Walmart. “Get big fast” goes the corporate mantra. There’s content, streaming, and web services. Bezos has his $25 billion fortune, the spaceship venture, The Washington Post, that giant underground Texas clock, and rumored plans for TV set-top boxes and smartphones. Yet given that The Everything Store documents much employee burnout, one wonders how long Bezos can sustain his mighty pace. Paul Allen and Bill Gates eventually stepped back from the day-to-day demands of Microsoft to become admired local billionaires.

But here’s the catch: Bezos is still too busy to be loved. Allen left Microsoft in 1983, then let his geek flag wave high—buying sports teams, saving the Cinerama, building the EMP and a library at the UW, and doling out money through his foundation. Today he basks in the glow of the Seahawks, your dorky bachelor uncle finally made good. Since relinquishing his CEO position in 2000, Gates has embraced international philanthropy. His reputation has also improved since retirement; and no matter how much we complain about its products, Microsoft is today seen as a more grown-up place to work than Amazon, with better home/life balance. We all love to shop on Amazon, but would you really want to work there?

There’s a reason the daytime population of SLU appears to be entirely smart single men in their 20s and 30s: They can work the hours; they don’t have anyone waiting at home. The Medina-dwelling Bezos and his elite managers (“the S Team”) are well past that point. Stone touches upon this in The Everything Store, but he’s more concerned with the growth than the cost. Although he quotes some treasured Jeffisms—“I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”—and cites “the ruthlessness of [Amazon’s] corporate character,” he also praises Bezos’ “competitive personality and boundless intellect.”

Yet as Stone discovers in the leaked “Amazon.love” memo authored by Bezos, the guy is quite aware of how perceptions matter. “Some big companies develop ardent fan bases, are widely loved by their customers, and are even perceived as cool,” Bezos writes. He cites Apple, Nike, Google, and Costco among others. At the other end of the spectrum are Walmart, Microsoft, and Goldman Sachs. Then there are more Jeffisms aimed at pleasing the end-user. Among them: “Defeating tiny guys is not cool,” “Conquerors are not cool,” and “Mercenaries are not cool.”

I wish Stone had dwelled more on the paradox here: Ask Barnes & Noble or Zappos or Diapers.com if Amazon was cool in its dealings with them; ask the corner booksellers if Amazon is cool; ask any supplier or subcontractor or employee whose job has been outsourced abroad.

What I want even more, though, is to know more about the man, our neighbor. There are kernels—that he has no taste or interest in music, that he’s still a reader, that he was once a sci-fi fan fond of Star Trek, etc. Yet he remains a figure more global than local, aloof from his adopted home. I think his image problem also comes down to this: What we don’t like about Bezos is a projection about what we don’t like about the relentless pace of modern business. And for all his talk about focusing on the customer, we’re numbers to him, data points on the graph of consumer desire, our shopping patterns being constantly combed and harvested.

And I’m no quant. I have no head for business, and that’s why I left the company so quickly. Also, while I appreciate good customer service, I’m incapable of giving it. Thus I quit Amazon before the IPO, before the stock options, before anyone saw how big the company might become. Do I regret that decision? After reading Stone’s book, not one bit.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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