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Summary:

“Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?” An upcoming book reveals what it’s like to work for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, privately referred to by some competitors as “sensei.”

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Jeff Bezos
photo: Amazon

“If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.” This, according to Brad Stone’s upcoming book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, is one of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s favorite motivational lines, along with “Why are you wasting my life?”

For the book, excerpted in Bloomberg Businessweek this week and set to be released October 15 by Little, Brown, Stone interviewed hundreds of Bezos’s friends and family members and Amazon senior executives. Bezos himself, however, declined to be interviewed, “saying that it’s ‘too early’ for a reflective look at Amazon’s history.”

According to the excerpt, here’s what it’s like to work for Jeff Bezos:

  • Watch out for “nutters.” That’s what employees call Bezos’s responses when “an employee does not have the right answers or tries to bluff, or takes credit for someone else’s work, or exhibits a whiff of internal politics, uncertainty, or frailty in the heat of battle.” These situations lead to lines like the ones above, or my personal favorite: “Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”
  • He may know more about your job than you do. A former supply chain executive recalled the time that his team delivered a presentation, nine months in the making, to Bezos. “Bezos read the paper, said, ‘You’re all wrong,’ stood up, and started writing on the whiteboard.” According to the executive, “He had no background in control theory, no background in operating systems… [but] every stinking thing he put down was correct and true. It would be easier to stomach if we could prove he was wrong, but we couldn’t… He had this unbelievable ability to be incredibly intelligent about things he had nothing to do with, and he was totally ruthless about communicating it.”
  • There’s no such thing as a free backpack. “New hires get a backpack with a power adapter, a laptop dock, and orientation materials. When they resign, they’re asked to hand in all that equipment — including the backpack.” (P.S. Haha. An Amazon employee tells me no one ever actually returns the backpacks.)
  • Bezos likes bloggers! Stone writes that Bezos “is a fan of email newsletters such as veryshortlist.com, a daily assortment of cultural tidbits from the Web, and Cool Tools, a compendium of technology tips and product reviews written by Kevin Kelly, a co-founder of Wired.” In 2011, Bezos decided that “Amazon should be sending a single well-crafted e-mail every week — a short digital magazine — instead of a succession of bland, algorithm-generated marketing pitches.” But the idea never progressed beyond planning and testing stages. “Some of this is just bad writing,” Bezos told the team working on the newsletter. “If you were doing this as a blogger, you would starve.”
  • Working for Jeff Bezos is tough, but being his competitor is worse. Stone tells the story of Quidsi, the company behind Diapers.com, which Amazon acquired in 2010. Quidsi’s cofounders originally didn’t want to sell to Amazon, but months of intense competition from the company — including the launch of Amazon Mom and deep discounts on diapers and baby products — wore them down. The Quidsi cofounders rejected a higher bid from Walmart after Amazon executives told them “that ‘sensei’ was such a furious competitor that he would drive diaper prices to zero if they sold to Bentonville.” Oh, also, Quidsi execs privately referred to Bezos as “sensei.”
  1. Quote: “He may know more about your job than you do.”

    Yeah, reporters once claimed that about Obama and look at how badly things have turned out.

    And yes, I know Jeff Bezos is a success as an executive, a big one, while Obama’s resume contains no success stories. But I’ve worked for giant corporations and seen how quickly underlings tilt to support what the Big Boss seems to want. That may be what is happening here.

    While he was President, the press often faulted Eisenhower for seeming to change his mind during meetings. What they didn’t understand was that Eisenhower knew that those who came to the meetings often held back their opinions when they conflicted with Eisenhower’s. So he deliberately gave the appearance of taking the POV he disagreed with. That prompted its supporters to speak up. If he found their arguments were unconvincing, he went with his original opinion. Eisenhower, who commanded the largest multi-national force in human history, was an extremely good administrator.

    If this Whiz Kid image of Bezos what happens at Amazon, it spells trouble over the long run for the company. People who think they’re really smart, rarely are, and as a result make really big mistakes.

    After all, it was the know-it-all Robert McNamara and his whiz kids who got us into Vietnam. He too, thought he knew everyone’s job better than they did.

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  2. Bezos’s jejeune commentary and cutthroat tactics at running his “competitive edge” like a kamikaze pilot will net him the enmity of everyone in the long run. The way he treats his employees is due to the high turnover everywhere in his company, and I for one do not respect a boss who fails to explain himself. If his chief marketing ploy is to run everything down to “zero”, it means he has failed to find a better way to sell his products. I would prefer he concentrate on marketing his company as a family outfit and partnership with his employees instead of a training dojo with a high attrition rate. He’s not as smart as everyone thinks he is, and sooner or later he is going to slip up. Once again, power corrupts.

    By the way, POTUS knows exactly what he is doing. It’s Congress which needs to get its act together.

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  3. I worked at Amazon for three years, and this looks a bit snarky to me. In my experience, Jeff is a no-bullshit guy, and these comments get delivered to the bullshitters (and maybe ass kissers too). My personal interaction was for a review session on my team’s strategy for a nextcouple of years. The meeting was scheduled for 4 months out (not kidding) and the “presentation” was to be a standard “6-pager”. This means 6 pages of narrative – get your points across, say everything you need to say, and be done in 6 pages (unlimited appendices allowed – by likely not looked at). The meeting format is that with all the right folks in the room, everyone gets a copy of the material and spends about 20 minutes reading it. Then it’s open-season for questions and discussions about any detail of it. No presentation, just clarifying or defending yourself.

    In my case, the meeting got pushed out a month, then Jeff was 40 minutes late. So we’re going to reschedule, but Jeff decides we should all read the doc for 15 minutes. After this, he says he likes the general direction, but we need to go read a specific book (don’t remember the title at present) and reschedule for a month later. So I read the book and the basic message is (I do remember this) – to improve throughput of your system, identify and work on the bottlenecks. So I get Jeff’s point – review the proposed strategy in the context of system throughput – and update the paper.

    We come back in a month, do the typical meeting and Jeff gave the green light for our proposed strategy. No snarkiness or “I’m right and you’re wrong” stuff mentioned. I think this is reserved for those that deserve it.

    The thing I didn’t mention was that in the months between scheduling the meeting and having it, I met weekly for an hour with my second level manager and his staff. Each week, I’d bring in a new draft and it would get reviewed and torn apart. Every week. By the time we presented to Jeff, our proposed strategy was well defined and crisply described. And my boss, his peers, and their boss all understood it, had influenced it, and bought into it. In hindsight, the meeting with Jeff was important for closure – but the process of getting ready was the value of the effort.

    And I think that Jeff understands this.

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  4. I just read an article in Bloomburg Businessweek about Bezos. Your article looks like a summary/plagerism of the Bloomburg article without the credit.

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  5. I am an ex-amazon employee and my backpack sits 18 inches to my left as I type this.

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