Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The next Walmart and the life of its genius creator in The Everything Store

From The Week of January 13th, 2014

Genius is a fascinating and complex virtue. From physics to literature, from mathematics to philosophy, it has allowed the gifted among us to make quantum leaps of understanding that have changed our world and benefited us all. But while such gifts are to be admired, and perhaps even envied, by us mere mortals, they do not come without a price. For to be so far beyond one's peers in a particular area is to understand what it means to be alone, to see the world the way few others do. It's only natural for this to encourage arrogance at the expense of empathy, to foster autocracy at the expense of collaboration. Many geniuses will be socially connected enough to avoid this fate, but others, particularly those who find themselves at the pinnacle of powerful organizations shaped by their particular talents? Perhaps not. The ups and downs of just such an adventure are chronicled by Brad Stone's engrossing history of Amazon.com.

One of the earliest successes of the internet age, Amazon.com, known now as simply amazon, began in 1995 as a small bookstore operated out of a Seattle garage and has, in the years since, grown into one of the world's largest retailers. Shaped by an unwavering devotion to the customer, it is the Walmart of the Internet, luring in many of the world's best and most ubiquitous brands with the promise of its 200-million users and deploying that market power to relentlessly drive down costs for the benefit of the consumer. From books to toys, from music to jewellery, it has extended its tentacles into virtually every aspect of modern commercialism while investing its profits into 21st-century industries like cloud computing and digital streaming, ventures that promise to position amazon as one of the most vital companies of the next 20 years.

But how did a tiny internet startup grow to rival Walmart? The dreamchild of Jeff Bezos, amazon's gifted founder, it was conceived in the halls of a new-York-City hedge fund as an "everything store," a a customer-first retailer that would leverage the advantages of the internet to put products in the hands of customers swiftly and smartly. Without much backing from external sources, however, Mr. Bezos began more modestly with a bookstore that would use its vast warehouses to collect every book in print, giving consumers access to literature that rarely, if ever, made it onto shelves of brick-and-mortar booksellers. Early success with this model made the company one of the internet's dot com success stories, opening a geyser of investment that Mr. Bezos would use to make his dream of an efficient, universal marketplace a startling reality.

The controversial history of this legendary company, The Everything Store is an arresting work of non-fiction. Mr. Stone, a journalist for Bloomberg Business Week, takes the life of Jeff Bezos and the rise of amazon and interweaves their narrative histories into a united tale that is much about the complexities of business as it is the personal characteristics of amazon's brilliant and driven founder and CEO. Despite having little access to Mr. Bezos himself, or his immediate family, the author constructs a detailed portrait of amazon's ascendance on the back of dozens of interviews with men and women who played key roles in its rise. Though many of these accounts are critical of Mr. Bezos and his managerial style which seems, at times, abrasive and obsessive, their admiration for his gifts and respect for his devotion is nearly universal. Their anecdotes coalesce into a portrait of a man who is both brilliant and uncompromising, insightful and reckless, but who is nonetheless seized by an entrepreneurial will so potent that it suffuses this work with its passion.

The Everything Store is more than an assemblage of legendary meetings and dramatic near-misses, celebrated acquisitions and quiet grudges. It is, at its core, a work about the unique strain of corporate philosophy imposed upon amazon by its fixated founder. Since launching the company in the 1990s, he has refused to let himself, or his company, slow down to catch a breath. Believing that consumerism on the Internet is a landgrab that the old stalwarts of commerce are ill-equipped to capitalize on, he has relentlessly pushed for amazon to grow, often, far beyond its capacity to handle the demands placed upon it by customers who expect satisfaction, who have no sympathy for its eccentricities, and who have no idea of the mad scramble to both keep the website running and their orders fulfilled. On the surface, this strategy seems insane. Shouldn't one consolidate one's gains before thrusting one's pride and joy into new frontiers? And yet, Mr. Bezos' frenetic pace, though costly in terms of personnel and failed ventures, has not destroyed amazon. It has, instead, shaped it into a rival to Walmart which was already the world's largest retailer before Amazon was even being conceived. Reckless, perhaps, but successful? No question...

A review of this work would be incomplete if it failed to address the controversies that have swirled around it. Many of amazon's luminaries, both those who granted Mr. Stone interviews and those who did not, have gone public with their complaints which have ranged from accusing the author of mishandling their quotes to making profound factual errors that might undermine the confidence of some in its authenticity. As there's no way to verify these claims, it is pointless to even contemplate siding with either party. However, some of the accusations do have some corroborating evidence. Mr. Stone does take liberty with his characterization of Mr. Bezos, occasionally straying into his mind during certain key moments to guess at his feelings, his thoughts. Mr. Stone also meddles in the personal history of Mr. Bezos in a manner that is, at best, presumptuous and, at worst, ethically questionable. However, the former is but a relatively small crime in the world of narrative fiction and the latter is a matter between the principals and not us. For the rest, one will have to decide for oneself who is more believable, the journalist attempting to thoroughly tell the story of a tech titan, or those inside trying to protect their friends and the brand they've all worked so determinedly to build. Given the balanced tone of the work which, to my mind, has few if any hints of a deeper agenda, I side with the journalist.

An inspirational and transformative work about an exceptional company and the even more exceptional minds and spirits that shaped it... A must-read for 2014... (4/5 Stars)

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