The following is part two of a five part excerpt from Jason Merkoski's Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading (click here to read Part One). Merkoski was an early innovator on Amazon's Kindle team, and his new book discusses how ebooks came to be, as well as where they're going. This excerpt is about the inside story of the Kindle:
As I mentioned in the previous installment, we needed both the ebooks and the hardware for the Kindle flywheel.
Many people at dot-com and tech companies think in terms of “flywheels,” but often nontechnical people don’t know what that means. It probably sounds like lots of flies strung up to a mill wheel, slowly turning it to crush wheat into flour.
In tech terms, a flywheel is something that builds up energy as it spins. The goal is to get it spinning faster and faster, however you can. The faster it spins, the more energy you have (or in business terms, the more money you have). The Kindle flywheel, for example, might start with launching an e-reader into the marketplace with a small number of ebooks. People buy the device, and then they use it to buy ebooks. The profit from both can be used to build an improved e-reader, which can be sold more cheaply, which then means more people will buy it and consequently buy more ebooks, the profits of which can then go back into building even better, even cheaper Kindles. With every push the flywheel gets, the faster it spins and the more powerful it becomes.
The Kindle flywheel started spinning fast as the Kindle business grew. And in true Amazon tradition, the business was run with metrics, with meetings called “deep dives” where the team would dive into spreadsheets. Amazon is a highly numerate culture. The numerically literate seemed to do well there, because they could mentally pivot rows and columns of spreadsheets and crunch numbers on the fly.
During a deep dive, you let go of preconceived notions and think logically. You look at data—instead of doing a technical hand-wave, you speak to the specifics. In Amazon’s deep-dive culture, facts are preferred to opinions. Deep dives are like science experiments, and you approach them with a hypothesis you want to prove. If your hypothesis is disproven, then you come up with a new hypothesis, run tests to gather data, and analyze data to prove or disprove the new hypothesis.
Most of the engineers at Amazon dreaded these deep dives because they had to put on something formal, like a button-up shirt and a pair of jeans with a belt. Amazon isn’t a formal place: a J. Crew shirt and Dockers are as formal as it gets. But still, for engineers, even wearing these is an affront against nature, a blasphemous abomination out of a Dungeons & Dragons game or an accursed H. P. Lovecraft story.
In one of my first meetings with Jeff Bezos, we were doing a deep dive on ebook content and what it looked like on the Kindle. We sat and used our Kindles as customers might. In some ways this was like the first digital book club; we were mostly silent, just reading on our Kindles. Sometimes we would annotate content or buy a new book—anything to test all the features.
At one point, Jeff’s Kindle must have crashed, because it became unresponsive. The room had been silent for a while because we were all absorbed in our books. Then out of nowhere, Jeff exclaimed: “I’m hung! I’m hung!” I looked up with a surprised grin on my face, but Jeff was unaware of his double entendre.
All the others in the room were actively trying to stifle their laughs. There was a little bit of hero worship at Amazon. Now, I admire anyone who runs a bookstore, so I can’t help but admire Jeff Bezos. Not only does he run the world’s biggest bookstore, but heck, he has his own rocketship company too. But some of my colleagues took admiration to a whole new level.
I don’t think anyone at Amazon deliberately shaved their heads bald to look like him, but people would be in a Jeff meeting and come out afterward and rave about Jeff’s stories, how he laughed, or a savage insight he had. People would find out about the books he was reading and read them too. (During the Kindle years, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable was popular among the Jeffnosanti, although a book he read on the history of tungsten was slightly less popular.) People routinely lionized Jeff for how much money he had and his high IQ. So they certainly did not want to look like they were laughing at him or criticizing his ideas.
Let’s face it: we all contributed to Kindle, but Jeff was the visionary, and digital books will be his legacy. True, there were other digital book pioneers. Heck, I was one of them. I made one of the first modern ebooks in 1999, and I helped invent my fair share of Kindle features. And I wasn’t alone; we all invented Kindle in our own ways. None of us who toiled in the Kindle workshops were flunkies. We were all colorful characters, innovators, and pioneers.
But only Jeff had the vision and the millions of dollars in seed capital to start Kindle. And trust me, it took a lot of capital, as technological innovations often do, especially ones on this scale. Jeff not only saw the dream; he also made sure the dream happened, at great financial risk.
So as difficult as our challenges could be, life at Amazon felt like we were creating something revolutionary, and thankfully we had the financial means to do it.
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