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Further Reading: Amazon’s unbound innovation

Brad Stone’s second book offers a deep dive into Amazon's methods for success
Further Reading: Amazon’s unbound innovation
  • Brad Stone charts the indomitable rise of Amazon under Bezos
  • Offers a glimpse of what the company may look like under new chief executive Andy Jassy’s reign 

When Bloomberg tech editor Brad Stone sent his first tome on Amazon (US:AMZN) to press in late 2012, the company was worth almost $120bn (£87bn) and had fewer than 150,000 employees. Its dominance in e-commerce was starting to approach a fever-pitch – but its seemingly random other ventures were met with scepticism by analysts on Wall Street. 

“If you’re going to take bold bets, they’re going to be experiments,” founder and now ex-chief executive Jeff Bezos said at a conference in 2014. “And if they’re experiments, you don’t know ahead of time if they’re going to work. Experiments are by their very nature prone to failure. But a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.”

In the end, throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks has paid off for Amazon. Outside of the inevitable growth of its huge cloud computing business Amazon Web Services or ‘AWS’, a number of Bezos’ other bets have struck gold. We need look no further than the Alexa smartspeaker, Prime Video, or the number of Amazon Go grocery stores popping up in the UK following the group’s $14bn takeover of Whole Foods in 2017. Just a few months ago Amazon also announced the acquisition of Hollywood film studio MGM for $8.5bn – although the deal is now reportedly under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (‘FTC’). 

Herein lies another of Amazon’s growing list of responsibilities: testifying in front of antitrust regulators. And the company, which is now worth more than $1.65tn and employed 1.3m people at the end of last year, has catapulted Bezos’ personal net wealth to dizzying heights. He is now worth more than $200bn, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index. These do not make for great optics in front of a panel of regulators – and may well have factored into his decision to step down as chief executive earlier this month, to be replaced by former AWS head Andy Jassy. 

All this change makes it difficult to argue that Amazon Unbound has come too soon as a sequel to The Everything Store. In fact, as Bezos prepares to launch into space with his extra-terrestrial exploration company Blue Origin, interest in the man that has built one of the most successful businesses of the 21st century has arguably never been higher. 

This makes Stone’s richly sourced, detailed work a pleasure to read. Stone tours the reader through the ups and downs of Amazon’s recent history – including the expensive failure of its ‘Fire’ smartphone, and the rise of AWS – the company's cash generating machine. 

The cover of the book is a large, close-up portrait of Bezos (which means that readers should be careful that it does not leer out of the top of tote bags to unsuspecting passers-by), but Stone had limited access to the man himself, after angering the CEO by tracking down his biological father in his research for the Everything Store. MacKenzie Scott, Bezos’ wife at the time, gave the book a one-star review on Amazon. 

But Amazon Unbound’s fresh quotes and anecdotes means that it teems with Bezos’ personality – as does the wider business. Close to three decades after its creation, Amazon still appears to be fashioned in the shape of its founder. His ruthless drive for detail is mirrored in daily company practise – take, for example, the infamous ‘6 pager’ document that staff must present in press-release style when pitching a new idea or product. And an intense, occasionally explosive, management style is echoed in a company culture that places immense pressure on its employees. 

When Megan Wulff, a then 30 year-old product manager who was charged with orchestrating Amazon’s first ‘Prime Day’ – a shopping holiday akin to Black Friday sales – eventually took a sabbatical, she told Stone that she had used Amazon-style feedback on her mother – who responded quietly, “please stop using the leadership principles in our relationship”. 

These leadership principles form a corporate dogma that all Amazon employees follow, starting with ‘customer obsession’. But before Bezos’ departure, he added two more: to ‘strive to be Earth’s best employer’ and that ‘success and scale bring broad responsibility’, with a focus on the company’s social and environmental impact. 

The former is in particular contrast to Bezos’ previous stance on his company as a workplace. Amazon has been pushed to make changes after pressure from labour rights activists, and a close call with a unionisation effort in a warehouse in Alabama earlier this year – but Stone pulls the reader back a few years to elucidate the billionaire’s track record with his workers. Indeed, in 2015 Bezos told his HR executive: “if we ever appear in the ‘100 best places to work in America’, you’ve screwed this place up”. Granted, that was in relation to surveys that prioritised desirability based on lavish compensation, unlimited vacation time and free meals. Bezos believed that had little to do with the passion and purpose employees should find at their jobs.

Yet Amazon has since earned hundreds of workplace accolades, as it seems to dilute Bezos’ aggressive start-up culture that has driven much of its success. Stone’s book is essential reading for those interested in the next direction for a company whose capacity for innovation appears limitless under its new head’s reign.