The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
- Brad Stone
- Little, Brown and Company
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by
- November 12, 2013
How Amazon's founder grew his tiny startup into an online behemoth.
Pity the Amazon employee who crosses Jeff Bezos, the e-commerce giant’s founder and longtime CEO. When angered, a vein in his forehead throbs, and he begins to scream at whoever’s ruining his day. When it comes to the creativity of his insults, he’s no Marine drill instructor, but he does know how to cut a target down to size with a few well-aimed words.
“Amazon’s culture is notoriously confrontational, and it begins with Bezos, who believes that truth springs forth when ideas and perspectives are banged against each other, sometimes violently,” Brad Stone writes near the end of The Everything Store, his account of how Bezos grew Amazon from a tiny startup into an online behemoth.
Among technology companies, of course, Bezos is no outlier. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had a notoriously violent temper, despite his very public embrace of New Age philosophy, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates could unleash epic tantrums. Amazon employees, speaking without attribution, told Stone that Bezos’ explosive temper allows him to treat workers “like expendable resources,” which is potentially bad for morale but good for the company as a whole: “That in turn allows him to coldly allocate capital and manpower and make hyper-rational business decisions while another executive might let emotion and personal relationships intrude.”
Regardless of whether you agree with that idea, it’s clear that Bezos has executed in spectacular fashion on his vision of an e-commerce company, which he first conceived in the early 1990s while working for a Wall Street hedge fund. Bezos didn’t decide to sell books because he loved and consumed them voraciously; rather, in his cool calculus, books were the commodities easiest to procure and market online. Bezos’ true ambition was to start an “everything store” capable of delivering anything posthaste to anybody with a mailing address.
Possessed by his vision, Bezos quit the hedge fund and started Amazon in Seattle. As the tech bubble of the ‘90s rapidly inflated, Bezos remained full speed ahead, relentlessly launching new product lines and improving Amazon’s distribution and supply chains. While that growth allowed Amazon to survive the inevitable stock-market crash that took out many a dot-com, it left untold numbers of burned-out employees in its wake, along with an infrastructure groaning to keep up with demand. In the first decade of the new century, determined to make his baby more than just an online retailer, Bezos and his core executives improved Amazon’s systems and launched initiatives into everything from e-readers to streaming-music services, transforming it into a full-fledged technology company. Although it faces determined competitors in a number of industries, Amazon — which teetered on the edge of destruction at crucial points in its history — can point to its increasing sales as evidence of its once and future hardiness.
Stone had access to Bezos and his associates, and covered Amazon for years as a journalist, which makes his account extraordinarily thorough. Unlike some biographers who lionize or damn their subjects, Stone also paints an even-handed portrait of his temperamental-yet-brilliant subject. The detailed descriptions of how Bezos grew Amazon (which are nicely paced; no getting bogged down in minutiae here) will doubtless serve as case studies for business students and entrepreneurs. As for the rest of us, anyone in the market for a bracing story about a visionary determined to remake part of the world in his image might find The Everything Store suiting quite nicely.
Nick Kolakowski is an editor atSlashdot. His work has appeared inThe Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, Carrier Pigeon and Washington City Paper. His first book, a work of comedic nonfiction titledHow to Become an Intellectual,was published in 2012.