The legal fictions we call corporations are nothing more than machines built from humans, so understanding them depends on understanding people. Fortunately, the foundation of The Everything Store by Brad Stone is over 300 interviews with people who have played a part in the Amazon story and the depth of this research has paid off.
Seasoned Amazon watchers will find themselves revisiting many familiar themes in this book, as they work their way through the historical accounts and illustrative anecdotes, but it’s the unexpected details that really stand out. Amongst these gems we find revealing quotes from former employees, a leaked memo on Bezos’ quest for Amazon to become a “loved” company and the extraordinary tale of his long lost biological father, who was a former unicycling champion in the Albuquerque circus.
This is a story of a corporation that functions as what SVP Jeff Wilke describes as “scaffolding” around the mind of a single man. The fact that Bezos has succeeded in extending his own thinking in this way, through what has grown over two decades to become a 90,000 person organisation, is quite remarkable. As Tim O’Reilly has also noted in his review, one of the achievements underplayed in the book is how Amazon’s organizational structure mimics the service oriented architecture found in their software.
One of Amazons’ most impressive feats is maintaining rigorous PR discipline as the company grows, adopting the expressionless manner of a chess grand master, giving away nothing to the opponent. The corporate poker face comes at a cost, of course. Curbing deviation of individuals at scale is a major undertaking. There is a long list of top executives who have fallen by the wayside. Those who are granted a public facing role – known as “Jeff Bots” – are trusted staff who have perfected the act of communicating in a carefully measured style, repeating and amplifying the Bezos world view.
The scale and impact of Bezos’ creation cannot be denied. Appropriately, it turns out that the concept of longevity is one of Bezos’ top preoccupations – he has funded the 10,000 year ‘Clock of the Long Now’ to the tune of $42m. He can certainly be confident that Amazon will be studied by historians and management theorists as one of the most significant companies of the 21st century. It will be known for systematically dismantling the value chains of entire industries, for taking a realpolitik approach to markets and a dispassionate approach to human resources. It will be known for brutal, predatory behaviour towards challengers or when it chooses to eat its own ecosystem.
But of course the most interesting question is not what Amazon is, or how it was built, but why it exists. Has Stone managed to uncover the underlying human motivations of this global corporation? The answer, as explained by high school girlfriend Ursula Werner, is a notion romantic enough for a future Hollywood biopic. It can be found deep in Texas, hidden in the aircraft hangers and launch site of the secretive startup Blue Origin. It seems that every book you download, every product you order, or web services API call you make is simply a tiny contribution to fulfilling the dreams of a 5 year old boy:
“The reason he’s earning so much money,” Werner told journalists who contacted her in the 1990s, “is to get to outer space”