After graduating from Princeton University in 1986 with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science, Jeff Bezos went to work on Wall Street. In 1994, he quit finance to try his hand as an entrepreneur. Amazon.com started as an online bookseller, selling its first copies in July 1995. In the years since, it has grown into a diversified retail giant, as well as a producer of consumer electronics, such as the Kindle, and a major provider of cloud-computing services. Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Bezos.
When did you realise that Amazon would become the behemoth it is?
There were indications that we were on to something from the very beginning. The original business plan contemplated only books and growing a relatively small company. But shortly after launching, we had already sold books in all 50 US states and 45 countries.
A couple of years after that, we sent an email message to about 1000 customers and asked, “Besides the things we sell today, what would you like to see us sell?” The answers came back so long-tailed [distant to the core business] – people said, “Windshield wiper blades for my car,” and so on. At that point we started to realise that perhaps we could sell a very wide selection of things using the methods that we had pioneered.
What are the crucial qualities that make for a successful entrepreneur?
One is that view of divine discontent: how can you make something better? Entrepreneurship and invention are pretty closely coupled. Inventors are always thinking, “I’m kind of inured to this, but just because I’m used to it doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.”
Entrepreneurs also benefit greatly from being willing to fail, willing to experiment. Good entrepreneurs tend to be stubborn on the vision but flexible on the details. Another quality is passion for the mission. The very best products and services are always built by missionaries. Such people wake up in the morning thinking about that idea, and they’re doing that as they close their eyes at night.
You’ve not only created Amazon but periodically reinvented it. What are the keys to running a large business in an entrepreneurial way?
A pioneering culture that rewards experimentation even as it embraces the fact that it is going to lead to failure – that is very important for larger companies. And a long-term orientation is a key part of that.
Some argue that Amazon does well by its customers but not so well for small businesses.
We are very empowering to certain small businesses. We have millions of small sellers who get access to our prime retail real estate and sell right alongside us. Kindle Direct Publishing is another self-service platform that has been incredibly empowering to authors who have never been able to get distribution before. Amazon Web Services, the cloud-computing division, has been a tremendous enabler of small businesses that use it to lower their data-centre costs and increase their nimbleness.
Do you think technology and innovation are moving forward to ever-greater heights?
The rates of change and innovation are not equal in all segments or sectors of the economy, but we are seeing a lot of innovation in certain sectors, and I expect that to continue. The great thing about ideas is that every new idea leads to two more. It’s the opposite of a gold rush, where the more people who show up, the faster the gold runs out. Ideas are not like that; ideas breed.
FOREIGN AFFAIRS (JANUARY 4, 2015) © 2015 BY COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS.WWW.FOREIGNAFFAIRS.COM