A new book details Amazon's lightning-speed rise over the last few years and how the company upended industries in every corner of the economy.
"Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire” isn’t Brad Stone’s first book about Amazon. When the senior executive editor for technology at Bloomberg News published “The Everything Store” in 2013, he thought he’d written "the comprehensive book on Amazon's rise."
But that book came out before Amazon launched technologies such as Amazon Echo and expanded into new countries like India.
“When I published the first book, the market capitalization of Amazon was about $80 billion. It is today close to $1.7 trillion dollars,” Stone says. “That kind of growth is unheard of.”
The biggest thing that’s changed about the company since 2013 is the realization “that this was not just an innovative story of entrepreneurship and internet magic,” he says, “but a kind of story about monopoly and a company that's gotten so big that people are really starting to worry about it.”
“Amazon Unbound” is about the company but also its CEO, Jeff Bezos, and his very particular management style. Stone writes that Bezos takes a very hands-on approach to things like product management.
During the development of Amazon Web Services, Stone writes that Bezos would ask executives in other parts of the company, "What are you doing for AWS?” And Bezos did the same thing later for Amazon Echo, asking "What are you doing for Alexa?"
Bezos’ level of involvement in project management varies, Stone says. The billionaire takes an active role in creating new businesses and products, sometimes meeting with teams multiple times per week, but also employs a hands-off approach for the larger parts of the company such as AWS and the retail business.
“On July 5, he's going to really step back formally and no longer be CEO,” Stone says. “He says he'll continue to do what he's been doing these past few years, which is really micromanage the newer things that he can get excited about.”
Bezos is also a demanding CEO with a habit of forwarding emails from customers to other executives and adding a single question mark, which meant he expected an answer within 24 hours. Sometimes Bezos would forward those question mark emails in the middle of the night.
His management style has evolved over the years, but Stone says the question mark emails have remained consistent. In the book, Stone flashes back to early meetings at the company where Bezos would find a mathematical error in a memo, rip up the document, throw it across the table and walk out of the room.
“I think over the years, he sort of realized that with his, you know, the increase of his stature, the growth of the company, that he could no longer do that,” Stone says. “And so he sort of bottled that up. But he really does wield this potent mixture of inspiration and intimidation.”
Bezos' ambitions go far beyond retail. Amazon is now a cloud computing giant, a physical retailer, and a major player in Hollywood through Prime Video and now MGM. And there's also Bezos' personal acquisitions of The Washington Post and his space exploration company, Blue Origin.
Back when Amazon was exclusively a bookseller, Bezos realized the value of the company is “change and transformation,” Stone says. Internet companies need to constantly evolve to stay relevant, he says, and reinvention lies beneath many of Amazon’s big moves.
Amazon is embroiled in multiple antitrust investigations. But Stone writes that to make a credible case for breaking up Amazon, the trustbusters "will have to answer questions the company goes to remarkable lengths to obscure."
Stone struggles to picture Amazon being broken up. The Department of Justice’s multi-year investigation into Microsoft in the 1990s didn’t result in the company being dismantled — despite that it had more than a 95% share of the desktop operating system market, he says.
Amazon competes in large markets like retail but only has a single-digit percentage of the market, he says.
“I don't think Amazon will be broken up. I think that's a difficult case to make,” he says. “But I do think Amazon is going to get a lot of attention and might have to change the way it conducts business.”
Amazon is coming out of the pandemic stronger than ever thanks to record sales during quarantine. During the pandemic, Amazon released numbers of how many frontline employees tested positive for COVID-19 and spent billions on protections. But the company also fired several workers who mounted prominent campaigns agitating for stronger safety protocols.
The pandemic shut down Amazon’s competitors, giving the company a boost, Stone says. But he also thinks the company’s public image took a hit during the pandemic.
“In terms of the safety precautions and advertising some of their moves, a lot of it was in response to criticism,” he says. “The way in which they acted to dismiss whistleblowers, I just think it left a lot of people inside and outside the company with a little bit of distaste. So there are more questions than ever about the character of this company.”
Stone sees Amazon vans delivering packages around his neighborhood, trucks driving on highways, and stores taking up space on Main Street. The company has “changed the fabric of our communities,” he says, and it’s unclear whether the shift is good or bad for society.
“I write in the book that I don't think there's a company or a person who's done more to change our economic reality,” he says.
Book Excerpt: 'Amazon Unbound'
By Brad Stone
This segment aired on June 1, 2021.