The Everything Store, review: The rise and rise of Amazon's Jeff Bezos

The Everything Store, review: The rise and rise of Amazon's Jeff Bezos

Summary: How did Jeff Bezos build a company that began selling mail-order books and today handles myriad products, while also being the dominant player in cloud computing? Brad Stone seeks the answers in this insightful book.

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Reading through The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone, we learn a lot about Jeff Bezos — where he came from, and what motivated him to become one of the world's leading entrepreneurs. The fact that he now runs one of the world's largest companies came about partly by accident, but mainly through the sheer, driving focus of this extraordinary man.

everything-store-book-left
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company • 576 pages • ISBN 13: 9780316239905 • $30 US

Brad Stone is a senior writer on Bloomberg Businessweek and has covered Amazon for several years. After interviewing Bezos for just one hour, he emerged with a reserved 'OK' for the book and an agreement not to interfere before publication.

After publication, however, came an interjection from an unexpected source: Bezos's wife, MacKenzie. And what does she have to say about the book? Her review gives it one star out of five (the minimum allowed on Amazon's site) on the basis that it contains "numerous factual errors" and is "full of techniques which stretch the boundaries of non-fiction". According to MacKenzie Bezos, Stone's book is "a lopsided and misleading portrait of the people and culture at Amazon".

If you're a publisher, you can't ask for better publicity than that: the wife of the biographer's subject trashes the book in a review written on the subject's website. Bear in mind, though, that a reviewer is ideally (a) knowledgeable (we can't fault you there MacKenzie) and (b) impartial (sorry MacKenzie, but we have to fail you on that one).

From books to everything

This is a very readable story of how Amazon grew from being a bookseller to becoming The Everything Store. And as with all really good stories, we learn things along the way. Some of these things are simple, like the vital importance of keeping the customer first.

Many retailers, and other companies, pay lip-service to the customer-first principle, but the ones that remain successful are those that live and breathe it. As Bezos puts it: "We are genuinely customer-centric, we are genuinely long-term oriented and we genuinely like to invent."

That is Bezos the pragmatic businessman. However, there is also another side to Bezos — a philosophical one. This is the Bezos who believes in 'the narrative fallacy' — something raised by Bezos during his first meeting with Stone: "How are you going to handle the narrative fallacy?"

The narrative fallacy is a theory first put proposed in 2007 by epistemologist Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan. That was just six years ago, well after Amazon was founded, but the book is required reading for every new executive hire at the company and does go some way to explaining how Amazon has become the company it is today.

Amazon's culture of growth is unique, uniquely successful and, apparently, unstoppable. Bezos, it seems, will not rest until we all become Amazon customers.

The book looks at the extreme impact that certain kinds of rare and unpredictable events have on us, and the human tendency to find simplistic explanations for these events retrospectively. We feel more comfortable if we can see a rational explanation for something that appears inexplicable, rather than trying to accept that some things happen for an entirely random reason.

For Bezos, this is an explanation for how his company can grow and profit. The way forward, as he sees it, is for the company to keep looking for new ideas and new markets in a random way. While the rest of the world seeks comfort in familiarity and conformity, Bezos wants the opposite.

Bezos, Stone acknowledges, is building a company edifice unlike any other. Amazon's culture of growth is unique, uniquely successful and, apparently, unstoppable. Bezos, it seems, will not rest until we all become Amazon customers.

Is that an efficient way for the world to work? That remains to be seen, but after reading this book I can see how it could happen. It will be via Amazon's greatest creation, Amazon Web Services (AWS). I say 'greatest' because AWS combines the genius of Amazon's retail model with the power and accessibility of the web.

Brad Stone's account is a gripping story of spectacular growth and success, although there is a downside in that success is generally measured only in profit — not a notable feature of Amazon's business model to date. Bezos has no intention of turning his company into a profit engine just yet, but may well find himself forced to do so if his backers lose patience.

Last year I took the decision to spend more time at my local booksellers, only using Amazon for the odd professional purchase. After reading The Everything Store I see no reason to change that decision.

Further reading

Topics: Amazon, Reviews, After Hours

About

Colin Barker is based in London and is Senior Reporter for ZDNet. He has been writing about the IT business for some 30-plus years. He still enjoys it.

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12 comments
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  • I'd like to read books on those that don't,

    because many who don't often do the same things.

    And how we intertwine a random, variable economy with basic living - "produce or perish". Shouldn't society look at all within?

    This is not to criticize anyone anywhere, but books always say "do this and do that", which people have done before someone else "makes it" and after someone makes it as well and they do not "make it". So the biggest story is something else.

    Next week, will we get tech articles saying how Amazon's cloud went down again, along with Microsoft's, Apple's, and/or Google's? Make the cloud mandatory and even 1 second of downtime could cause major problems, so these companies have major responsibilities.
    HypnoToad72
  • Amazon may be growing, but we're still waiting for them

    to profit. I've always been amazed at how a company that, at the very best, breaks even, continues to garner so much investment. That bubble has to burst at some point.
    baggins_z
  • In a word...

    Slavery.

    Go read one of the many exposes about people who work in an Amazon warehouse.
    Alan Smithie
    • Three words ... Open Source Slavery

      Amazon is built upon open source software. Two very recent examples:
      o Amazon uses AOSP Android to create the Kindle Fire HD tablets and compete against Google as well as the Open Handset Alliance.
      o Amazon uses RHEL open source code to create Amazon Linux AMI used in Amazon EC2 and compete against Red Hat. Amazon EC2 users get Amazon Linux AMI for no additional charge.

      Amazon is every bit as predatory as Oracle (remember Oracle Linux?).
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Did The Ancient Egyptians...... @RHM

        Use open or closed source whips to builds the pyramids ? I think it hardly mattered to those getting whipped.
        Alan Smithie
        • Amazon uses open source code to undercut the organizations that create it

          Both Google and Red Hat have expended significant resources to create and maintain Android and RHEL, respectively.

          And, as you stated above, Amazon treats an important sub-population of its employees poorly. Pity that Amazon can't see fit to price its products at a level that allows for improved treatment of employees.

          IMO, such behavior tarnishes open source software. Even if a company can do the same without open source software (and we know that companies do). Also, please note that I am not blaming open source software for Amazon's behavior. Instead, I am merely calling Amazon out. Far too often, companies that use open source software are glorified by FOSS fanatics.
          Rabid Howler Monkey
    • They holding people at gunpoint?

      If so, then how come the local govt hasnt stepped in to rescue these workers?
      otaddy
    • While you're at it, you should get a dictionary

      so you actually understand what slavery is. Hint: if you can quit the work, you aren't a slave. Now, if you want to talk about real slavery, talk about welfare. You see, I don't have an option. I MUST work for a period of time for the state for the monetary benefit of other people who are given the products of my labor. If I try to opt out of that system, I get put in jail. That, sir, is slavery.
      baggins_z
      • Social Contract

        I don't have kids but I pay taxes so that your kids can go to public schools for free. I don't have a car but I pay taxes so that your SUV can go from place to place. I don't mind about that. But I do mind paying for your emergency room bills because you don't want to buy your own insurance. Your egotism can only go so far.
        Eleutherios
    • Slavery.........

      Shabby treatment of the workforce is just the way business is done at many companies large and small. If Amazon stays within the law, they are likely no better or worse than most other large distribution warehouses
      tietchen
    • Here is that expose from an Amazon Worker

      I work as a Process Guide, night shift, at the newer San Bernardino Warehouse and let me tell you. I have no problem with the work there. Its a positive enviroPnment, and we drive each other to do well. Pay is adequate and the benefits packages are comparible and in some cases even better than some union based jobs. So before you judge, go work Christmas Peak.
      EVHGameOvR
  • The conclusion

    Could the author explain how the last paragraph flows from the preceding narrative- I don't get other than it may be a Walmart-hate tantrum?

    Art S
    aschwarzt12