Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos regarded Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as a rival, but the men had more in common than they might have believed. Like Jobs, Bezos had a vision of a tech company, started it on a small budget with a tight cluster of coworkers, and fought to grow it into an industry giant. And as detailed in “The Everything Store,” a new book about the rise of Amazon.com, Bezos also boasts a Jobs-like temper, riddling his subordinates with withering insults when he feels a project is imperfect or falling behind schedule.
Brad Stone spent years researching Amazon as a journalist, speaking to Bezos a handful of times in the process. His footwork clearly shows in the book, which is exhaustively detailed without ever feeling bogged down. The most surprising thing, perhaps, is that Bezos didn’t start Amazon.com out of an all-consuming love for books, although he reads voraciously; in the early 1990s, realizing that the Internet was the Next Big Thing, he drew up a list of potential products that best fit the nascent e-commerce model in his head, including computer software and music.
“The category that eventually jumped out at him as the best option was books,” Stone writes. “They were pure commodities; a copy of a book in one store was identical to the same book carried in another, so buyers always knew what they were getting.” At the time, only two major distributors actually handled shipping books, which would make it easier for Bezos to set up a supply chain; and in reasonably short order, his growing team figured out how to get each volume to the customer relatively intact.
Much of the book details Amazon’s rapid growth in the years preceding the dot-com bubble. In his quest to create an “everything store” capable of shipping a wide variety of products to nearly anywhere in the world with a mailing address, Bezos pushed his employees relentlessly; many couldn’t take the pace. Even as customers ordered books, movies, and other goods from a handsome and smoothly running Website, the underlying infrastructure strained to handle all that traffic; meanwhile, the warehouse and distribution operations (headed up by executives poached from WalMart) evolved into a lab of sorts, as the company did its best to figure out how to ship products in the quickest and most efficient ways. (Praise today’s startups all you want, but most of them never have to handle real-world logistics on a massive scale.)
The book paints a nuanced portrait of the hard-driving Bezos, who comes off as a spectacularly unsentimental individual more than willing to fight to the bitter end with pretty much anyone to get what he wants. Stone offers up a bit about Bezos’ childhood—even as a youngster he was ambitious, and technically inclined—and tracks down his biological father, who was unaware that his son had grown up to become a billionaire businessman. (When they finally communicate, it’s by email; Bezos writes a quick message that he bears the old man no ill will for leaving him as a baby, and wishes him “the very best.”) But the overall focus here is on Bezos the Businessman, plunging into the details of everything from the Kindle to free shipping, and determined above all else to conquer the world’s marketplaces.
This is one of those biographies that will probably end up on the shelf of every self-styled “entrepreneur” and Internet CEO looking for a role model. For those who’re merely interested in Amazon, e-commerce, or stories about people who bulldoze their way to success, “The Everything Store” is a highly entertaining read.
“The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon”
Little, Brown and Company
0316219266 (ISBN-10); 978-0316219266 (ISBN-13)