Disruptive. This is a recurrent adjective when talking about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who has revolutionised the most consolidated business models, from libraries and supermarkets through to space exploration. Aged 53 and worth 90 billion dollars, Jeff Bezos has been topping the Forbes list for several years now: he is among the five wealthiest people on the planet, and the most likely candidate to beat out Bill Gates as the world's richest man.
His life story is the typical American dream: the son of a single mother and adopted by his Cuban stepfather, he was brilliant at school and had a blazing career on Wall Street, which he left at the age of thirty to establish his start-up in 1994. “I had a stable job, a good salary and all the perks”, but he also had an idea: to set up the first online store selling books worldwide. “I spoke with my boss, whom I admired greatly. He took me for a long walk in Central Park. “It’s a great business idea, for someone who hasn’t already got a stable job,” he said”.
I tried to imagine myself looking back at my life at the age of eighty, and I knew that I would want the fewest regrets possible. And so I decided to give it a try.
As he often says, leaving a stable job was a tough decision to make. “I tried to imagine myself looking back at my life at the age of eighty, and I knew that I would want the fewest regrets possible. And so I decided to give it a try”.
He set up his first office in the garage of his house, with a handful of colleagues, and waited with bated breath as he launched his very first service. “We were breaking new ground, and had no frame of reference”. A leap of faith, therefore, for which he was very soon rewarded: within 30 days, his brand new website had received orders from 50 American states and 45 countries worldwide. Since then, Bezos just hasn’t stopped.
23 years on and with a workforce of 33,000 employees, Amazon is no longer merely an online library, but the most popular e-commerce website in the world, radically changing patterns of consumption and pioneering the almost magical delivery of any product in any part of the world (not surprisingly, the website’s first name was cadabra.com).
Drones and queue-less supermarkets
“The question I am asked most often is this: “What changes will the next 10 years bring?””. After all, who if not the visionary Mr. Amazon, could answer this question? It is to him - and to the magic of home delivery - that we owe that fact that we can now order books, gifts and even our weekly shopping from the comfort of our own home, thus opening the doors to e-commerce and transforming our day-to-day lives. However, Bezos believes that, when thinking about the future, this is not the right question to ask. “What I am almost never asked is this: “What will remain unchanged over the next 10 years?” And yet, this is the right question, because it is when things remain stable over time that you can hope to build a new business strategy”.
In short, real revolutions stem from static needs. This is precisely the model that Bezos follows: process innovations that make life easier when time is at a premium.
What will remain unchanged over the next 10 years? This is the right question, because it is when things remain stable over time that you can hope to build a new business strategy.
This philosophy led to the idea of using drones to deliver parcels. Amazon Prime Air is a delivery system designed to get packages to customers by air in under 30 minutes. “Just over twenty years ago, when I was driving the packages myself, one of my visualizations of success was that we might one day be big enough that we could afford a forklift,” he said when presenting the new service. “This is a monumental change, one that took place very quickly. I feel incredibly lucky for many reasons, and this is one of them”.
As Forbes says, “Ever since Amazon.com moved beyond just selling books, Jeff Bezos and his company have disrupted one industry after another. Now, they seem poised to do it again to the grocery business”. As we increasingly receive packages by drone, in-store purchases will also have to speed up.
“Four years ago we asked ourselves: what if we could create a shopping experience with no lines and no checkout?,” explained Bezos, describing the birth of Amazon Go. This is the first supermarket, opened in Seattle, that allows consumers to bypass checkouts and pay by app, relying on sensors to determine what products shoppers pick up off the shelves. “All customers need is an Amazon account and a smartphone”.
Bezos believes that, in the future, queuing with your shopping cart will become a thing of the past, and seems determined to make this new business model come true. To this end, he has purchased the chain of organic supermarkets, Whole Foods, which looks set to become the first chain of checkout free stores.
That’s progress, baby!
“As a company, our strength lies in accepting that new inventions will always be disruptive to the old way”. With these words, the founder of Amazon responds to those who criticise the e-commerce platform for threatening the livelihood of physical libraries and shops, thus putting at risk tens of thousands of jobs. “There will be well-meaning critics who are worried about this new way, and there will also be critics who have a vested interest in the traditional way. Whatever their reasons, they will make a lot of noise. What we need to continue to do is knuckle down and work hard”.
Our strength lies in accepting that new inventions will always be disruptive to the old way.
The long and short of it is, if market and consumer trends are heading in a particular direction, then companies just have to keep up. If people find it handier to buy online than in physical shops, then the strategy to follow is clear. We shouldn’t let ourselves be distracted by criticisms. This, according to Bezos, is the way of the future: that’s progress, baby!
The future beyond the Earth
Needless to say, Mr. Amazon is first and foremost a salesman, and wouldn’t want to be seen as anything else. And yet, although his is a far cry from Zuckerberg’s inspirational business style, deep down he too, like his colleague Elon Musk, has ambitions that go beyond merely selling products. Just like the founder of Tesla, Bezos has founded a company that deals with space travel. Conceived in the year 2000, after 18 years of experiments next year Blue Origin will finally sell its first tickets for private trips outside the earth’s orbit.
“Setting up Amazon was like winning the lottery. And now I am investing that “win” in Blue Origin. That money will go into space.” However, if anyone were to think that the American multi-millionaire’s greatest gamble has to do with space exploration, they would be wrong. The real challenge, to which nobody at Silicon Valley has yet risen, has to do with time.
The founder of Amazon is now developing a project that may seem surreal to most, but that in fact has a strong symbolic value: a high-tech millennium clock. Built inside a mountain, in one of his properties in Texas, not far from Blue Origin, the clock will operate for 10,000 years.
“It’s a symbol of long-term thinking. Just knowing such a clock exists could help humanity change its perspective on problems ranging from world hunger to interplanetary migration", he explained. “Ten thousand years ago, we really couldn’t do very much damage, however now times have changed,” and the impact of man on the planet cannot be underestimated. “I’m super optimistic. We’re going to have an amazing future in the solar system”. The future, according to Bezos, is there, beyond the Earth.
With this new and extended perception of time, Mr. Amazon believes that the things that will really go down in history will be few and far between. “Ten thousand years from now, no one will remember who were the richest people of our age, or who won which presidential election. I do know one thing they will remember, for sure, which is the Apollo landing. They are going to remember that that’s the time when humanity first left this planet. That’s going to be a big deal”. The future, in short, will remember him.