Bezos is “the most remarkable business person of our age”, famed US investor Warren Buffett announced in May. The Amazon CEO was championed as a hero for building globally dominant businesses that are so divergent in terms of customers and operations almost simultaneously. Specifically, the world-leading ecommerce retailer is also the world’s leading cloud-computing provider, powering much of the internet.
Was Buffett selling Bezos short? After all, he’s also on the bleeding edge of artificial intelligence with the Amazon Echo and its voice assistant Alexa, a trailblazer in machine learning and data wrangling, the financial saviour of one of the world’s top newspapers, The Washington Post, and he’s on a mission to launch space tourism, maybe sometime next year… and that’s just the top line for Bezos.
Renowned as the mathematics whiz and computer scientist who in 1994 quit his job as a Wall Street hedge fund analyst to deploy his “regret minimisation strategy” to participate “in this thing called the internet”, today Bezos is the world’s third richest man thanks to the success of the Amazon empire.
Bloomberg calculated Bezos’s net worth at US$76.7 billion in April 2017, and Amazon itself is the world’s fifth-largest company by value, worth over US$400 billion. Chances are Bezos is not counting. The relentless entrepreneur’s sights are set on the long term. Analysts and often shareholders are agog as Bezos unerringly puts the phenomenal growth of his business interests ahead of profits.
Today amazon.com, the online bookseller Bezos launched from the garage of his then new Seattle home, sells almost everything worldwide. Made-to-measure fashion is the latest on a rampantly expanding stock list that includes furniture, beauty products, fine wine and art – and a proprietary range of consumer electronics and mobile devices. Amazon’s retail sales alone are now worth US$100 billion and rising. Morgan Stanley predicts its sales will rise 16% annually to 2025.
Today Bezos is the world’s second-richest man thanks to the success of the Amazon empire.
Yet Amazon’s basic retail business model is disarmingly simple. Low prices lure customers and merchants, boosting volumes that lead to even lower prices. Beneath this is Bezos’s grit to eradicate every pain point from the buying process, from within-the-hour delivery to patented one-click shopping and wi-fi enabled ‘dash buttons’ that can be stuck on the wall and pressed to reorder favourite products. Growth will continue, provided the company stays customer- rather than competitor-obsessed. Bezos repeats: “Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient.”
The smartest guy in the room
Like other mega-cap technology companies Facebook, Netflix and Google, Amazon knows no boundaries in both scope and reach, observes Jeff Cole, founder of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California. Cole, who’s long studied Amazon and often checks in with the company, says Bezos is “incredibly smart” and “unbelievably competitive”.
How does he keep the vitality of Day One inside a huge organisation? Bezos admits he doesn’t have all the answers, and predictably puts customer obsession first.
“Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf,” he says.
Amazon Prime is a standout example – it’s estimated 50% of US households now subscribe.
Take a skeptical view of proxies, Bezos suggests. Don’t get distracted by process over serving customers: “You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right.”
Eager adoption of external trends also keeps the company on Day One, while high-velocity decision-making means escalating any “misalignment” in the business, according to Bezos. Hence the imperative to “disagree and commit” because “wearing people down is slow and de-energising”, he insists.
Who will win the corporate space race?
While contemplating the future of the internet back in 2000, when the dotcom
bust sent share prices plummeting, Bezos’s ambitions went through the stratosphere. He secretly started making rocket ships.
Through the endeavours of his Texas-based Blue Origin aerospace company, which is currently building a rocket manufacturing centre in Cape Canaveral, he’s taking on billionaire innovative rivals Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson and is intent on winning the corporate space race. Bezos has just powered up his efforts after cashing in almost US$1 billion worth of Amazon shares in early 2017, according to filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
"While contemplating the future of the internet back in 2000, Bezos’s ambitions went through the stratosphere. He secretly started making rocket ships."
Space continues to be a private obsession, one that springs from a childhood devotion to the Star Trek television series and from the encouragement of his maternal grandfather, a one-time director of the US Atomic Energy Commission. A wall at Amazon HQ features a transcript of the communications between the moon-landing astronauts of Apollo 11 and mission control in 1969.
Today Bezos works one day a week as head of Blue Origin, which has a familiar ethos as it aims to lower the cost of space travel with reusable rockets and get in first with a commercial astro-tourism voyage in 2018. “If we can make access to space low-cost, then entrepreneurs will be unleashed,” Bezos told the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado in April. “You will see creativity, you will see dynamism, you will see the same thing in space that I’ve witnessed on the internet in the last 20 years.” People, it’s time to prepare for lift off.