A handful of authors have tried to write the Amazon.com story. But no one had put together a definitive account of the juggernaut's rise from a Bellevue, Wash., garage to a global power in less than two decades until Brad Stone wrote The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.
The book, which debuted last month, includes little-known details about meetings, deals that never materialized, CEO Bezos' interactions with other corporate giants, and roadblocks that almost derailed Amazon.
Amazon has become big news in Tampa Bay with its recently announced plans to build warehouses in Ruskin and Lakeland. Stone chatted with the Seattle Times about the book. Here's an edited version of that conversation:
One of the most dramatic parts of the book is your meeting Jeff Bezos' biological father, Ted Jorgensen. After the meeting, were you worried that some journalist might come along and find Jorgensen before the book came out?
Yes. Any piece of news that you uncover in the course of reporting a book has to remain quiet for a year or more.
In the book, you note that 45 years ago or so Jackie Bezos (Jeff Bezos' mother) asked Ted Jorgensen to stay out of her life and Jeff's. Did you have any reservations about bringing Jorgensen back into their lives?
I definitely did. But you know, Jeff has changed the world. Full stop. He has changed the way that we shop, the way that we read and the way that companies are built now.
I went to explore this untold aspect of his story. And I didn't anticipate that he (Jorgensen) wouldn't have any knowledge of Amazon, of the influence that his biological son had had on the world. These were unanticipated consequences, and it was uncomfortable all the way around.
Do you think Jeff Bezos knew that the Ted Jorgensen who ran a bike shop in Glendale, Ariz., was his biological father?
I have no idea.
You paint Bezos as a polarizing figure — a guy who is brilliant, driven, ruthless and sometimes even cruel. Setting aside judgments about whether that's good or bad, do you think that personality type was required to create the juggernaut that Amazon has become?
Absolutely. Amazon is a company that grew from two guys in a garage in 1994 to almost 100,000 employees today, in addition to 70,000 temporary employees (hired for holiday sales).
Amazon's biggest adversary has never been Walmart or Barnes & Noble. It's been chaos and the complexity that comes with a business that grows that fast. Bezos' insistence on excellence all around and high standards and the way he demands the best from his employees make Amazon an extremely challenging place to work. But it is also one of the biggest factors that contributes to its success.
We've seen other companies that have grown that fast whose outcomes are a lot different. Look at AOL. Look at Yahoo.
Bezos seems of a similar mold to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, super-smart guys that launched tech giants, but also polarizing figures. You even make the comparison in the book. Do you think that personality type is a causation or a correlation to building tech giants?
I think it's required. I think it's no accident that we find these leaders have oversized personalities and are extraordinarily driven and focused.
There are probably some disadvantages to being too nice. There are also some disadvantages to being too brutal. We've seen a lot of that, particularly on Wall Street. There's a middle ground. I'm not sure where it is.
Bezos often talks about a willingness to be misunderstood as he comes up with innovations at Amazon. But then, you came across a memo he wrote for the senior leadership about the need to make Amazon better loved. Are those two ideas in conflict?
In a way, both address how Amazon is looked at by the media and, to a certain extent, by shareholders. I've always viewed the willingness to be misunderstood as an impressive piece of rhetorical jujitsu.
In way, it's saying: "You don't understand. We've got a long-term vision here. We're going to stick to our principles and not engage in the criticisms."
In the "Amazon.love" memo, Jeff is being very analytical about a problem that all big retailers face, which is when you get to a certain size, you inevitably attract negative attention, particularly discount retailers, because you're not just putting the big guys out of business, but the small guys, too. Often, there's a reflexive negative response to big companies.
And in brainstorming, he derives one lesson, which is as long as people think you're inventing, and trying to improve yourself, and doing things for your customers, they'll give you a little bit of a pass.
You write that it's nearly inevitable that Amazon will introduce a mobile phone and a Web-connected television set-top box because the company wants to control the way its services are offered. Why do you think the company hasn't introduced those yet?
Because Jeff has an extremely high bar, and because they want to introduce something that's distinctive and inventive.
I think that the set-top box is imminent. With the mobile phone, it's a crowded market and they haven't quite figured it out exactly what Amazon's play is there.
I called the book The Everything Store for a reason: It's expanding its limits in every single direction, internationally, devices, enterprise. They want to be everywhere.
With both those markets, there would seem to be first-mover advantages. Amazon doesn't have that, and the longer it waits, the harder it becomes for them to produce something that could be truly meaningful for and desirable to consumers.