Magazine article Foreign Affairs

The Man Who Sells Everything: A Conversation with Jeff Bezos

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

The Man Who Sells Everything: A Conversation with Jeff Bezos

Article excerpt

JeffBezos has always been a tinkerer. As a toddler, he tried to dismantle his crib, and in high school, he started his first business-an educational summer camp for middle schoolers. After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton in 1986 with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science, he went to work on Wall Street, but he quit finance in 1994 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. Bezos spoke to Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose in November.

What are the crucial qualities that make for a successful entrepreneur?

There are a few qualities that entrepreneurs benefit from. One is that view of divine discontent: How can you make something better? I think entrepreneurship and invention are pretty closely coupled. And inventors are always walking around the world thinking, "I'm kind of inured to this, but just because I'm used to it doesn't mean it can't be improved." REUTERS / RICHARD BRIAN That ability to look at things with a fresh mind, a beginner's mind, is very useful for entrepreneurs.

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. They're persistent on what they're trying to accomplish, but they are willing to rewrite the details as needed as they learn and as things fail.

Another quality I would mention is passion for the mission, whatever it is. The very best products and services are always built by missionaries. They're people who are genuinely passionate about the arena and happy to be in it. Such people wake up in the morning thinking about that idea, thinking about that particular set of customer experiences or that service or product. They're doing that when they're in the shower, and they're doing that as they close their eyes at night. That's pretty different from the mentality of somebody just trying to get in on the Internet gold rush.

Most entrepreneurs and most start-ups fail; only a few become truly giant successes. Are there predictable things you can see in advance that separate the winners from the losers, or is success just a matter of luck and timing?

Certainly, good luck and good timing are huge components of outsized success in entrepreneurial endeavors. Lots of things have to go right, and the planets have to align; that certainly happened in Amazon's case. Our timing turned out to be very good. And so you can't sit down to write a business plan and say you're going to build a multibillion-dollar corporation; that's unrealistic. A good entrepreneur has a business idea that they believe they can make work at a much more reasonable scale and then proceeds adaptively from there, depending on what happens.

When did you realize that Amazon would become the behemoth it is today?

One step at a time. There were early indications that we were onto something, even from the very beginning. The original business plan contemplated only books, and it contemplated growing a relatively small company. But shortly after launching, we had already sold books in all 50 states and 45 different countries. We were way ahead of our business plan.

And then, a couple of years after that, when we were still a very small company, we sent an e-mail message to about a thousand randomly selected customers and asked, "Besides the things we sell today, what would you like to see us sell?" The answers came back to that so long-tailed-people said, "Windshield wiper blades for my car," and so on and so on. It was very surprising. It was at that point-this is probably 1998-that we started to realize that perhaps we could sell a very wide selection of things using the methods that we had pioneered. …

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