Dec/Jan 2014

The Man Who Has Everything

A look at Jeff Bezos's relentless drive to master all phases of Web commerce

Astra Taylor


The Everything Store, Brad Stone's reverential biography of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, isn't a book you should feel obliged to read. It doesn't bristle with character development, narrative arc, or unexpected lessons. To be sure, Stone, a tech correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, gamely plays up minor dramas and speed bumps that studded Amazon's path: the stock price dipping and soaring; sagas of hiring and firing; battles over how to phrase direct-marketing e-mails or whether to offer free shipping. But we all know where that path is heading: world domination. Almost two decades after its fledgling, janky website went live, Amazon is now one of the most formidable corporations out there, clearing more than $60 billion in sales in 2012.

It is both depressing and unsettling to read a book about the absolute triumph of a man who cares about nothing but winning, and that's what The Everything Store is. Stone offers surprisingly few insights into his protagonist's personality beyond a relentless drive to crush all competition and the single-minded fulfillment of this aim once it's repurposed into a company-wide mission. (Relentless, it turns out, is one of Bezos's favorite words; go to www.relentless.com and you'll be redirected to Amazon's home- page.) By the end of Stone's code-to-riches story, Bezos has become the twelfth-richest man alive, worth an estimated $25 billion. In addition to properties in New York City, Beverly Hills, and Aspen, and a twenty-nine-thousand-square-foot lakefront mansion outside Seattle, Bezos owns a ranch in Texas more than one-third the size of Rhode Island. On this latter sprawling compound, Bezos—like other billionaires who have already conquered Earth and appear to have no interest in making life on this planet more sustainable—is investing in new rocket-travel technologies to bring to fruition his lifelong dream of going into space.

Click to enlarge

Jeff Bezos, 2010.

Though Bezos stands at the helm of a company whose name is reverently uttered alongside those of our age's other digital colossi—Google, Facebook, and Apple—he has modeled his retail-cum-technology empire on a more familiar American success story. From the outset, it's clear that Bezos is obsessed with Walmart. He pores over Sam Walton's autobiography, underlining and quoting key passages; doggedly poaches the superstore's executives; and emulates the founder's famously tightfisted ways, priding himself on making staff pay for their own parking, insisting that they fly coach, and forgoing office perks. (New hires are given a backpack containing a few basic items; should they ever quit, everything, including the backpack, must be returned.) In moves directly inspired by Walmart, Amazon has rebranded those who toil at the most menial jobs as "associates" instead of calling them what they actually are—workers—and warehouses formally go by the euphemism "fulfillment centers." That Bezos is a cheapskate by nature perhaps explains his fixation on Walmart's mantra of "everyday low prices." Like Walton before him, Bezos is singularly committed to providing goods at steep discounts in order to increase market share, even if that means grinding his suppliers and employees into dust.

In tracing Bezos's obsessive drive to provide consumers with irresistible bargains to boost his bottom line, Stone confirms all of the mounting criticisms of Amazon and its ruthless (or relentless) business practices. The Everything Store amply justifies any vaguely held anti-Amazon sentiments a reader may possess, though there are no big or startling revelations. Bezos comes across in these pages as a hothead whose self-regard verges on egomania, a man as stingy with praise as he is with compensation and benefits for mid- and low-level workers. Employees "live in perpetual fear," writes Stone, and end their careers at Amazon with "scars and occasional bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder."

Much the same ruthless bending of company cost curves drives Bezos's famous quest for retail market share. A shrewd and cold-blooded negotiator, Bezos extracts concessions from partners large and small and expertly exploits every possible advantage and technical and legal loophole. He has overseen the design of bot software that can instantly undercut competitors' prices, and has constructed elaborate tax shelters for Amazon's vast distribution network in far-flung states. "We're not actually benefiting from any services that those states provide locally, so it's not fair that we should be obligated to be their tax collection agent since we're not getting any of the services," Bezos recently told shareholders, willfully oblivious to things such as roads, electricity, and all the other critical public services and facilities that Amazon depends on to conduct business.

In contrast to the intensely fashion-conscious Apple brand, Amazon aims for utility and ubiquity: to be bland yet irresistible. And while Bezos is undeniably geeky, he is by no means an intellectual. Unlike Google, which got its start on an academic campus and was infused with certain values as a result, Amazon begins its story on Wall Street, where Bezos worked as an analyst at D. E. Shaw, a quantitative hedge fund that "pioneered the use of computers and sophisticated mathematical formulas to exploit anomalous patterns in global financial markets." At Shaw, partners imagined themselves less as bankers and more as engineers applying computer science to the complex problem of making incredible sums of money. This experience proved invaluable to a young Bezos, who was tasked with investigating the financial potential of a new technology called the Internet and who also made crucial social connections, including future investors and programming talent. It was, indeed, during his tenure at Shaw that Bezos first began to hatch the idea for an online "everything store."

Many industries have been, and will continue to be, under threat from Amazon. In the near future, Stone confidently predicts, Amazon will move into groceries, delivery trucks, mobile phones, and much more, spreading its tentacles as widely as possible without triggering antitrust regulations. Given the Department of Justice's toothless record on this front, Amazon has a lot of room to grow.

It's already long since outgrown its original business model as a book retailer. Amazon was founded not out of sentimental bibliophilia but from a calculating drive for market advantage. Books initially appealed to the company as "pure commodities" (every copy of the same book identical to every other), and it was apparent that online offerings could easily surpass what even the largest brick-and-mortar establishment could stock. What's more, the migrations to electronic reading and automated and personalized recommendation systems are exactly the kind of paradigm shifts Amazon was conceived to capitalize on.

This means, among other things, that people who work in traditional publishing should be watching their backs. Stone leaves no doubt that Amazon's goal is complete domination of the field, to stand alone as an all-encompassing platform "publishing not just scrappy new writers but prominent brand-name authors as well," controlling "every square on the publishing-industry chessboard." Stone's chapter on Amazon's fraught relationship with publishers is the most provocative market case study here, tracking the company's complex evolution from potential savior in the struggle against big-box retailers to terrifying aggressor. Various executives who were vital to building Amazon's book business quit in disgust over their employer's take-no-prisoners approach to deal brokering. At one point the Amazon team renegotiating back-catalogue access with small publishers for digital use dubbed their mission the Gazelle Project—explicitly invoking the relationship between predator and prey.

No doubt there's an important book to be written about Amazon's bigfoot emergence as the largest retailer on earth—and its steady rise to high-tech dominance. In addition to Amazon's cloud-computing division, which furnishes the basic data infrastructure for everyone from Pinterest to Netflix to the CIA, the company has made troubling forays into crowdsourcing, through a division called Mechanical Turk, which provides clients with an on-demand distributed workforce. What are the political implications of Amazon's central role as a provider of Internet infrastructure? What about labor protections for those performing distributed tasks? These questions never arise in Stone's hagiographic approach to his subject. He is clearly aware of Amazon's "mercenary" qualities, but in proper business-book fashion, The Everything Store ultimately sidelines all qualms and searching criticism in favor of awe and admiration for Bezos's audacity. The company and its founder are "visionary," "disruptive," "innovative," in Stone's telling—and so this book, like many other uncritical celebrations of tech moguldom, reads at times like random search-engine results for technobabble cliché.

As I followed Stone's narrative, I initially wondered who the ideal reader here is meant to be. Isn't it enough that once in a while we break down and buy things from Amazon? Do we really need to read a book about how great the company is, too? But then it became clear, in the scene where Bezos is carting around his prized copy of Sam Walton: Made in America (a stunningly ironic name for a book about a man who made his fortune selling stuff manufactured in China). The Everything Store is written for all the wannabes who dream of starting a company and getting rich, and becoming that one lucky person who will win the entrepreneurial jackpot and become a real American tycoon. No doubt they will find this book useful and informative. The rest of us will have to look elsewhere if we want to understand Amazon's cultural and economic significance. For now we could do worse than take the words of one of Stone's anonymous sources to heart: "They have an absolute willingness to torch the landscape around them to emerge the winner."

Astra Taylor is a political organizer, filmmaker, and writer. Her The People's Platform: And Other Digital Delusions is forthcoming from Metropolitan Books.

docmartin

January 11, 2014
2:35 pm

A very interesting review... of a man who has somehow avoided the close analysis his cultural influence merits. Not to disagree, either, that this influence is surely ultimately malign.

I'm curious to know whether Bezos has in his past some actual hatred of book publishers - the review says he is just 'remorseless' - but things like CreateSpace seem to go beyond economic advantage to be a wholesale bid to destroy conventional publishing. I'm not entirely against radical change there, of course... but still - the Walmart model?

Bookworm567

January 30, 2014
8:06 pm

Amazing insight into an amzing personality!

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