To infinity, and beyond

Brad Stone’s  is a rattling good read, and it should be on everybody’s reading list. The raw material is a gift to a storyteller of course. Jeff Bezos is clearly an extraordinary character, Amazon an extraordinary company, and the period since the dawn of the internet an extraordinary era. Stone has covered the company for many years and the account here is authoritative.

[amazon_image id=”059307047X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon[/amazon_image]

The book is particularly good on the distinctive dynamics of online businesses, and the consequences for the various strategic calls Amazon has had to make. For example, when a solitary analyst at Lehmans, Ravi Suria, started to write negative reports in 2000 about Amazon’s then-low or negative margins, it risked becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy because financial viability depended on suppliers not demanding faster payment, and on customers having the confidence to continue flocking to the website. I hadn’t really appreciated before Amazon’s negative working capital requirement as customers pay for goods faster than suppliers need to be paid for them.

There are descriptions of moves straight out of the playbook of  by Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian (although this book, one of my all-time favourites, isn’t referenced), such as super saver delivery – free for people who don’t mind waiting longer – and also Clay Christensen’s  Amazon has set up some new areas of business as skunkworks, but in other cases Jeff Bezos simply drove through new activities that would cannibalize existing sales. One example is the introduction of Marketplace, putting other retailers on the same page as Amazon itself.

[amazon_image id=”087584863X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy[/amazon_image]

The corporate culture sounds awful; I’d never work there. Amazon has become a nasty competitor as it has grown – and the book has an interesting section on its entanglements with competition authorities over e-books. It raises some questions too about the company’s business methods in dealing with both suppliers and smaller competitors – undercutting pricing in nappies, apparently to induce an online diaper supplier to sell out to Amazon; the use of grey markets in high quality goods to get a better price, thereby undermining the viability of the supplier. All, though, in the interests of delivering Amazon customers “everyday low pricing”, a desirable aim but one that simply conflicts with some other desirable aims such as sustaining craft production. This is an unfinished story, as the long term will one day catch up with the short term.

The other big question, not explicitly raised but obvious, is what a post-Jeff Bezos Amazon will be like. That’s no doubt many years away but his driven personality and vision have shaped the company. Succession in these digital giants is clearly a big issue.

All in all, a terrific book for thinking through some of the dilemmas the online world presents, and for thinking about the digital challenge to existing business models. The Jeff Bezos story is amazing too, and by the way he wants to colonise space. That’s not a joke.

Highly recommended book, whether for pleasure or for business students.

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2 thoughts on “To infinity, and beyond

  1. “I hadn’t really appreciated before Amazon’s negative working capital requirement as customers pay for goods faster than suppliers need to be paid for them.”

    That’s really interesting! Amazon – and I presume other similarly large companies – must have some nice algorithms keeping this stuff ticking over for them. Do you know of any similar examples?

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