Do you love Amazon? I have to admit that I do, and that I buy books from it far more often than I buy them anywhere else — or bought them in the pre-internet era — and sometimes music, and occasionally kitchen items, and even bedding. I particularly like the ‘1-Click’ payment system, and the choice of price offers down to as little as a penny plus the postage. I’m not offended by emails telling me what else I might like to buy, and the software’s so smart that they’re quite often right.
And yet as an author, and a shareholder in a publishing venture, I can see what a monster Amazon has become since it fulfilled its first order (for a copy of Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies by Douglas Hofstadter) in Seattle on 3 April 1995. Not only has it undermined the high-street book trade and brutalised the publishing industry, but in its urge to be the ‘everything store’ of the title of Brad Stone’s history, it has meted out the same treatment and worse on the supply chain of every other sector it has touched.
Here, for example, is the tale of a company called Quidsi, whose website Diapers.com was a ‘stubbornly independent’ retailer of all the products new parents need. Amazon’s smart software ‘lasered in’, undercutting by 30 per cent — until the founders flew to Seattle to discuss selling the business to Amazon. Even as they were sitting in the meeting, ‘Amazon Mom’ started offering a $45 pack of Pampers for around $30. So the deal was swiftly done: Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos had neutralised a competitor and ‘filled another set of shelves in his everything store’ while Quidsi could ‘taste its own blood’.
If that makes Bezos sound like a ruthless man to do business with, he certainly is by this account. Having started his working life with a New York hedge fund, he has always been more of a venture capitalist than a techie like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs — who were young on the hippyish West Coast of the 1970s, whereas Bezos is more a product of the money-minded 1980s.
At Amazon’s helm for almost 20 years, he’s a driven man: harsh on subordinates who underperform, not noticably generous to those who are loyal and effective, he positively encourages internal conflict rather than complacent ‘social cohesion’. He’s prone to temper tantrums known in the company as ‘nutters’ — and when he’s in a good mood his most distinctive characteristic is a huge, honking laugh which everyone else finds deeply disconcerting.
But at least he genuinely likes books — mostly science fiction and management stuff, though his favourite novel is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day — and is obsessed with perfecting the customer experience. He wants you and me to love Amazon as a ‘missionary company, not a mercenary one’, not least because ‘it’s usually the missionaries who end up making more money’. In an internal memo, he lists what makes companies ‘cool’: being young, polite, authentic, inventive and empowering of others; and what’s not cool, including ‘defeating tiny guys’, and ‘capturing all the value only for the company’ (that is, leaving nothing for the rest of the supply chain).
On the evidence of this book, Bezos is well up the uncool end of his own defined spectrum. The way in which the founder’s personality shapes the company — and how that personality was itself shaped in childhood — is diligently explored by Stone, who even tracks down Bezos’s long-lost natural father running a bike shop in Arizona. But there are no other big characters in The Everything Store, and as an extended exercise of business journalism the book is indigestibly laden with detail of one management initiative after another, as in:
The company had improved its pick-to-light system in the Fulfilment Centers, and its infrastructure had been successfully recast into component services, but the provisioning of computer resources remained a bottleneck.
This combination of narrative longueurs around an unsympathetic central portrait probably means that The Everything Store won’t find a place on ‘Jeff’s Reading List’ of titles most read by Amazon executives, which is helpfully included as an appendix. But at least they can buy it from their own website for a third off the RRP.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £14.99, Tel: 08430 600033