Amazon's Jeff Bezos on strategy & innovation (not Kindle-related!) ~ Sounds + Food 'n' Retail

jeff bezos kindle amazon.jpgI'm writing this post for two reasons. One is that I am incredibly interested in the subject of leadership and try to learn about it in whatever way I can. A second reason is that, even though my main focus on my blog is food and retail, what Matthias calls "old economy" (thanks Matthias!), I try to also be very aware of "the past, present, and future of this industry," and (internet-)technology plays very much a part in the future of retail.

In terms of leadership, Amazon's Jeff Bezos is a good person to study—a man who created perhaps the most iconic garage-based venture since Apple, and who managed to not only take his company, Amazon, public, but also stay on as CEO until now, something that is rare amongst founders. In terms of retail, Amazon is itself great company to study. It has transformed the book-industry, and is doing amazing work in terms of providing infrastructure for web-based infrastructure. And, even though they are not as yet selling any books in the Netherlands. I'm hoping that SEPA, to be introduced next year, will change that.

Before I continue, this is not really a Kindle-related post. While we're on the subject, however, let me say that I'm a big fan of ebook-readers. At the same time, there are certain advantages to paper-reading, which I'm especially experiencing since I started my own blog—namely that I can write on them. I know I can take notes on Kindle, but it's not the same. And I think the price-point of either the device ($400), or the books (a $10 intro-price), or both, is just too high for something that can be produced in mass and has no printing-, and hardly any distribution-costs attached to it.

Speaking of notes, I took some while reading a nice HBR-interview with Jeff Bezos, in which he discusses his take on strategy, innovation, customers, ... and not Kindle. I'll share these, and my thoughts on them, with you now.

Innovation at Amazon
There are generally two types of innovation, the radical kind and the incremental (or process) kind. My general belief is that, while retail on the internet radically transformed the way we shop, and will continue to do so, ultimately it is an evolution in process. Instead of giving our credit-card to the clerk, we type in a number behind a screen, etc. etc. And, since the internet has taken off, this kind of process-innovation has become much more prevalent. Now, instead of clicking 5 times to buy a product, I can click once: yay! Before you ask, "so what is 'radical' innovation to you?" I'll just say: "Space, flying car, people living under water, that kind of stuff. So get busy!"

Amazon has of course just announced the Kindle, which could be interpreted as an innovative move. But again, what will make this innovation shine, if it does, is Amazon's incredible process-strength, namely that they can deliver the device to nearly every household in the Western world at beautiful economies of scale. For now, these are paying of for Amazon, but knowing their business-model, it's pretty certain that this will pay off for consumer too… eventually.

What I like about Amazon (and got from the interview) are that they have an incredible experiment-based culture and generally take a long-term view—both rare with public companies. In terms of experiments, these are encouraged on a company-wide level, and due to the nature of experiments, are both had to predict and not unknown to fail. One example of an experiment which became an enormous, but unplanned, success, is the Amazon-associates program.

As far as time-frame is concerned, innovations at Amazon usually take 5-7 years before they make any meaningful impact on the company's economic situation. This is a big risk and is offset in a number of ways. One is to minimise the costs of experiments. Amazon has a web lab just for that purpose, which undertakes these experiments on a massive scale, collects real usage data on what works best, and is constantly trying to push the costs of these experiments down. Again, taking a long-term view, it helps when building innovation on things that won't change in the next 5-10 years. For Amazon, these are basic customer preferences, such as: choice, low prices, and fast delivery (hello Kindle?).

There are three more core-attitudes, which I think have a big impact on the way innovation takes shape at Amazon. One is, to always ask the question "why not?" According to Bezos, the biggest mistakes at Amazon come from not doing something, rather than taking the risk. And asking "why not?" instead of "why should we do it?" opens up a whole other universe of possibilities. Similarly, there are lot of difficult decisions that Amazon has had to make over the years, such as allowing reviews on their site. The vital question there was "what is better for the customer?" Last, but not least, I like this line in regards to making experiments a success: "Be stubborn on the vision, and flexible on the details."

Strategy at Amazon
The other part of innovation is execution, some of which was already discussed above. Much of decision-making comes out of the way a corporate culture is shaped. Some cultures are hierarchical, some are flat, some are individualistic, some are collective. From my understanding of things, Amazon has both a departmental structure (which would suggest some hierarchy) and takes decisions collectively. Both senior management and departmental management have mechanisms through which this collectivity manifests itself. Seniors meet once a week for four hours and once-twice a year for a two-day meeting. Homework is assigned before and the latter type of meeting deals mostly with long-term issues. Department-management has a similar system.

Some more general characteristics of corporate culture were mentioned in the interview, namely that they can be incredibly stable over time, and are self-perpetuating in the sense that they attract people who like that culture (and repel those that don't). While a company's corporate culture is probably the hardest to replicate, and can thus be a tremendous competitive advantage, the rigidity of the culture can both mean that there are limits to what it can do (and should do), and it can sometimes hamper innovation during turbulent times. At the same time, a culture can by nature be open to change, which should overcome some rigidity.

A few weeks ago, on my blog, I wrote a post on Porter's five forces in which I outlined what I think matters in strategy, but also that it pays off to stay close to customers. Jeff Bezos shares a similar view-point, for a number of reasons. One, customer-needs change more slowly than a lot of other things, e.g. tech; and two, following the competition doesn't work well in fast-changing environments, e.g. tech. A third point is that being too competitor-focussed can result in a passive attitude once a certain dominance has been reached in an industry. You can argue about this either way, but when you look at certain large companies (no names), this "hey, we won, so why innovate?"-attitude, is definitely one that is recognisable.

One way that Amazon tries to stay close to customer-needs is by enforcing rotation. Every new employee has to spend time in their fulfilment-centres with the first year, every two years, employees have to do two days of customer service, and everyone has to be able to work in a call-centre. That includes Jeff Bezos.

Finally, he also had some advice as how to survive the transition from the founder of a start-up, to the CEO of a multinational, public company. It's simple (yeah right!). When you start, the main question is "How?"; as you grow, the question is "What?"; and when you're huge, the question becomes "Who?" There you go, the secret to being the leader of a big company.

Final thoughts
One of the weaknesses of secondary information, such as what came from this interview, is that I (and you) have to trust everything that is in the article. I can't ask follow-up questions and can't tell, by body-language, tone, or otherwise, whether some points are more important than others, or more true than others. Therefore I try to be careful to treat each piece of information as part of a greater whole. In other words, I may come across information that conflicts with what Bezos said in the interview. If it's noteworthy, I'll write a new post about it. One piece of important data, released perhaps a month after the interview, is the release of Kindle, which, as mentioned, I am sceptical of.

Two things I learned from the interview is that innovation takes time, especially to make it economically viable, for both the business and the consumer. In my opinion Kindle, in order to fit the philosophy of Amazon (which is not Apple after-all), has to drop in price, as do the books. It's a matter of ethics, of being customer-focussed, and of being a process-innovator. I can only assume, that over the next years, this is exactly what will happen.

The other thing I learned is to constantly be open to innovation that can benefit the customer. This point has been made many times in the words above, yet it bears repeating. A company can be incredibly rigid, the bigger it becomes. Competition can become incredibly threatening. Technology can change from one day to the next. But what doesn't change is that customers will pay you for products that make them happy. And I fear that a lot, a lot of businesses have forgotten that as they became big, arrogant, and focussed on anything but what customers want.

Finally, while I may be focussed on "old economy" topics, I think Amazon teaches some interesting lessons on how to remain high-touch in a high-tech environment. As such, this certainly won't be the last time I touch upon the topic of technology in retail.

Further reading
If you're interested in the topic of leadership, you mean also want to check out a list of free podcast-interviews with a number of CEOs, ranging from Google's Eric Schmidt to, indeed, Jeff Bezos, which I posted on Tech IT Easy a few months ago. Worth a listen. Oh, and don't forget to check out the original article on HBR.

This article is mirror-posted on Tech IT Easy.


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