The best business book of the year is Brad Stone's The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. If nothing else, it's a fantastic relief to read a book about a massive technology company that took the world by storm and was created by someone other than Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Larry Ellison.
The book tells the story of Jeff Bezos conquering chaos, competitors, the economy and the publishing industry on his way to fulfilling a 20-year dream: to create the ultimate retail store on the web.
Nothing came easily. No one shared his view that people would buy books, or much of anything else, online. It wasn't that long ago, of course, when people were reticent about typing their credit card number onto a website, lest it somehow be stolen. Investors didn't get it. Customers didn't get it. The media didn't get it.
But once people started to recognize the value of being able to buy online books and then pretty much everything else under the sun, Amazon found itself in a never-ending battle. That battle boiled down to growth versus insanity. Pretty much every Christmas selling season, Amazon employees from Bezos on down would have to spend weeks in warehouses, packing boxes, because no matter how quickly the company grew, the methods of managing the warehouse could never keep up.
Brad Stone, who covered Amazon for 15 years, takes us through the multitude of twists and turns, successes and flameouts that marked Amazon's path. There really was no model for Amazon other than Walmart, so Bezos pretty much had to invent his virtual store from the virtual ground up.
Bezos actually pilfered a number of Walmart executives because he figured they knew how to sell a lot and ship a lot. The problem is that Walmart is good at sending 5,000 rolls of toilet paper across the country. When it comes to sending one book, one yoga mat and one box of diapers in one package to a single address, Walmart was clueless. So Amazon had to invent not only one-click shopping, but also algorithms that would keep their warehouses humming smoothly to a tune that no retailer had ever hummed before.
An undercurrent of comic relief throughout the book comes in the form of the Riggio brothers, who run Barnes & Noble, consistently missing the boat on the future of book publishing. First, the Riggios patiently explain to Bezos that people will always want to buy books in bookstores and never online. Then they patiently explain to Bezos that no one will want to buy e-books. They will always want to hold a physical book in their hands. Then they patiently explain to Bezos that no one will want to read a book on a device and that Kindle will be an expensive flop.
Um, Barnes & Noble should be filing for bankruptcy protection any day now.
Bezos comes across as a prickly boss, prone to explosions of temper with his subordinates. The book speaks of Amazon as a fear-driven culture; no one knew what would incur Bezos' wrath next or even if they would keep their job beyond the end of the month. And yet, as pretty much everyone in America with a pulse and a credit card will attest, Amazon works, and it works extremely well.
The website is not just the go-to place for books; it has indeed lived up to Bezos' dream of creating an everything store. Success came at a price -- Bezos' main weapon in his battle against chaos and competitors was bullying. He bullied suppliers, book publishers, underlings, tax collectors, and pretty much everyone else Amazon's path crossed. Stone posits that Bezos, who was adopted, was a bright young man in a hurry with something to prove, not unlike Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, both of whom were also adopted.
There's something in the American psyche that wants to imagine our business moguls as kind and loving people who created a delightful workplace while at the same time building their fortunes. Bezos isn't that guy. Perhaps for this reason, Amazon never gets the same love that Apple gets, even though more people probably use Amazon than operate Apple devices.
Nevertheless, The Everything Store provides extraordinary access to one of the great business stories of this or any other time. The book has all the twists and turns of a top-notch action-adventure movie. You'll come away from it grateful for two things: One, that Amazon exists; and two, that you don't work there.
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