“What’s dangerous is not to evolve, not invent, not improve the customer experience,” Jeff Bezos once said in an interview. This declaration pretty much sums up why the CEO and founder of Amazon is a powerhouse of a leader and innovator.
But, let’s not gloss over the fact that alongside his phenomenal rise, Bezos, who also owns a private rocket ship company Blue Origins and The Washington Post, has acquired a reputation for being ruthless, competitive and having “ice water in his veins,” according to a less-than-flattering article describing a punishing work culture that ran in The New York Times last August,
“The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR,” he states, adding, “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”
Face it, there’s likely some degree of truth to what’s been written. Bezos is notoriously intense and during his days as a hedge fund wunderkind, he kept a sleeping bag in his office. But you can’t deny that while the 52-year-old Princeton graduate may have some tough qualities to swallow, he undeniably embodies courage, innovation and big-picture thinking -- all of which forged Amazon into the massive global online one-stop-shop it is today, reportedly worth $250 billion as of 2015.
And evolve with courage he does.
First, in his business model: The computer science and electrical engineering graduate has been relentless in his obsession with improving the customer experience and transforming Amazon from its early days when he launched it in 1995 as an online books marketplace. According to Biography, the startup sold $20,000 worth of books a week across 45 countries in two months and without marketing.
The company went public in 1997. Along with raising the Amazon customer experience, so that they could access customer service representatives at any time of the day, Bezos was also instrumental in adding an extremely profitable web hosting arm of Amazon, which brought in $7.8 billion in sales in 2015. He lead the push to establish ebooks as the market norm. Amazon has added producing original film and television content to its instant streaming options -- watch your back, Netflix -- and rolled out a monthly subscription model in April, according to CNN Money.
To boot, he’s been funding Blue Origins at a reported $500 million annually, which recently had a successful launch of a reusable rocket booster this June.
However, it’s with his ownership of the flailing Washington Post, which he purchased for $250 million in 2013, which has contributed to another evolution: His image.
With the purchase, the somewhat private Bezos begun to show another side. It’s not exactly warm and fuzzy but definitely more human. When one of the newspaper’s reporters Jason Rezaian was released after being imprisoned in Iran for 18 months on charges of espionage, Bezos flew in his private jet to greet him. He then flew both Rezaian and his family to the Florida Keys at the freed reporter’s behest.
Bezos hasn’t been afraid of employing his consistent business model of new ideas and expansion with the Post. Since his acquisition of the publication, it surpassed The New York Times in unique traffic last year for the first time and traffic has tripled since his takeover -- a fact largely attributed to his aggressive approach using technology and social media along with Bezos’s mandate to experiment, says The Wall Street Journal.
One of those experiments is a plan to publish all articles using Facebook’s Instant Articles, part of Bezos’s focus on improvements on the distribution strategies, tech upgrades and new digital products.
Even the newspaper’s executive editor, Marty Baron, an old-school curmudgeon, said to Fortune that Bezos has breathed new life into the publication and his “chief editorial contribution has been to ‘push us into the recognition that living in the world of the Internet is different from living in a print world.’”
Entrepreneurs can learn so much about how to lead a business -- without forsaking humanity -- from Bezos.
Here are four more great lessons in courage we can take away from this tech titan.
1. Dont be afraid to hard pivot.Brent Lewis | Getty Images
Bezos is a data-driven guy and a risk taker -- a powerful combination for decision making.
He did a hard pivot when he left his cushy job in 1994 as senior vice president of D.E. Shaw & Co., a successful hedge fund, to take a gamble and get into the space of e-commerce and books.
He first got the idea to start an internet enterprise in 1994, “after surfing the internet in search of new ventures for D.E. Shaw & Co. to invest in, he came across the statistic that World Wide Web usage was growing by 2,300 percent a month,” according to Entrepreneur,
Not one to shy away from opportunity, he recognized the opportunities of online sales and compiled a list of 20 possible products that might sell well on the internet -- books was on the list, along with CDs and software.
Suffice it to say, he ran with books. It was so successful that at one point the growth of sales was outpacing his book supplies. Bezos had to purchase books from Barnes & Noble to keep up with orders.
Another hard pivot?
He’d thought of naming Amazon Relentless.com or Cadabra.com. We’re ever so pleased he didn’t.
2. Invest in the long term -- not quarter to quarter.Win McNamee | Getty Images
Bezos is a big picture guy. You have to be to invest in private space exploration -- a high-risk sector.
He’s been an investor in Blue Origins for 16 years -- before space-exploration rival Elon Musk got into the mix -- and he funds it out of his own pocket to the cool tune of $500 million a year.
In June, Blue Origins successfully sent a reusable rocket booster to space and according to the company’s president, there are plans to begin taking reservations for passengers to travel into the earth’s orbit (something Elon Musk’s SpaceX had already done).
“We think we’ll start flying passengers in 2017,” says Rob Meyerson, the president of his space exploration company Blue Origins. “These will be test engineers. Then we’ll sell tickets. I imagine Jeff and I will fly in the 2018-ish time frame.”
Related: Jeff Bezos
3. Dont paint-by-numbers.The India Today Group | Getty Images
Bezos does not do PowerPoint. Instead, he has a more unconventional approach of how to pitch ideas at meetings and present them.
He requests that his employees write a four-to-six-page narrative before the meeting and distribute it to everyone who is attending for them to read for the first 20 minutes of the meeting, according to Business Insider. Afterwards, whoever is presenting fields questions. While it’s definitely a unique method of presenting ideas, Bezos believes it forces careful consideration of an idea before bringing it to his attention -- something a PowerPoint presentation just doesn’t accomplish.
“‘PowerPoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas,’” he wrote in a 2004 memo explaining his decision to purge PowerPoint from Amazon.
At his company Blue Origins, its president Meyerson was reluctant to engage in this practice. However, he relented. And now he admits to being a “ complete convert.”
4. Evolve, evolve, evolve.Emmanuel Dunand | Getty Images
Bezos took his mantra, “What’s dangerous is not to evolve” and applied it to his leadership when he bought The Washington Post in 2013. The publication, while old-school and respected, had long been failing in terms of readership and expansion.
Two points of evolution for this endeavor? He’s already increased web traffic growth and brought new ideas.
The first is in part due to him integrating aggregation content into the site. Bezos did so after seeing that aggregator sites were getting more traffic by summing up articles from the Post than the publication got writing them.
As for ideas, Bezos gave funding to PostEverything, a millennial-focused site for experts to publish their opinions. He is also trying an experiment where in lieu of running costly global news bureaus, he’s instituted an automated web hub that connects The Post to hundreds of freelancers in the U.S. who can be assigned articles.
Will it work? Who knows. Let’s be like Bezos and see.