Richard Brandt pulls the curtain back to reveal the wizard of Amazon, the online company’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos in One Click. A journalist by trade, Brandt (Inside Larry and Sergey’s Brain, 2009, etc.), tracks the retailer’s meteoric rise and crafts a sketch of the company’s enigmatic leader to find out what makes him click.
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Can you talk about your process for writing this book?
Amazon is a very difficult company to work with, which is why there have not been many recent books on the company. They don't cooperate at all with giving interviews. Basically, Jeff Bezos does not give an interview unless it promotes his own agenda, primarily a new product to support.
So I had to rely on former employees, people that Bezos had worked for in the past, competitors, people that knew him in different walks of life, and just as much research I could come up with to get this book together. It's a difficult kind of story to write, but right now it’s the only way to get a book out about him.
Was that frustrating for you?
Yes, extremely frustrating. As a journalist I generally have a problem with people who decide they will determine when somebody writes about them and exactly what is said. There's too much of a tendency for executives who can get away with it, to say “I don't want anybody to write about me now.” These are public people, these are people who answer to shareholders, but they completely close down. But it's what you have to put up with as a journalist.
What do you think you've illuminated about his character that hasn’t been out there before?
I've tried to personalize him a little bit more. He really is brilliant. He's both extremely good as an engineer, a product designer himself, as someone who can do his own programing, create a website and a computer network. It's really surprising how good he is at that and how much that contributes to the success of Amazon.
That kind of executive knows what's possible to do. I would compare him to someone like Bill Gates, who knows what can be done and knows that it's possible to push for it. Some people have begun saying Bezos is the successor to Steve Jobs. In some ways that may be the case, but I don't think he's in that kind of class. He doesn't have that kind of instinct for incredible new products. He's not a hands-on kind of manager in that kind of way that really pulls Apple's kinds of products out of people.
Having said that, you can't take away how clever he is and how much he has done to push Amazon forward. As a businessman he absolutely incredible. He has incredible business instincts and really knows how to push his company in the right direction at the right time.
It’s a pretty rare combination to have that business acumen paired with technical expertise, isn't it?
That's where he's in the category of very few other executives. Gates, Michael Bell, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. there are very few entrepreneurs who are able to run the business side of a company like that. He's pretty unique in that aspect. One of a very select few.
If Bezos granted you the interview, what would have been the first question you would have asked?
I would really have liked to probe what his original intentions were when he started Amazon. His story has changed throughout the years to suit what he was doing at the time. It seems to me that what he saw was this incredible growth in the Internet and said this is an extraordinary opportunity. Somebody is going to make money off of this. This is just turning into a huge audience and there's got to be a good way exploit it, so I want to create an incredible online retailer.
And he didn't really set out to create a bookstore because he loves bookstores the way Gates creates software because he loves software. He just wanted to be the businessman. And I'd like to explore that aspect of his personality. What is his real passion? What was he looking to do when he started the company? How much of it is passion for books as he presented when he first started the company?
I'd like to see if I could tease out from him what his early interests really were. I got a fair amount of input on that from friends and people who know him. It does seem that one of his real passions since he was really younger are more aligned with what he's doing with his Blue Origins space company. It strikes me that it’s more than just a commercial venture for him.
Do you have a sense of admiration for him? Skepticism?
I have a fair amount of skepticism. It's very clear that he really likes to control the story. He's not just this benevolent, happy, goofy guy with a funny laugh that's lovable and cuddly. He can be a bit ruthless. Ruthless in business, very hard on his employees—he pushes them very hard. He can be very impatient with them.
I tried to get the feeling in the book that he's not quite the way he is often portrayed. Some people had real difficulty working for him. On the other hand, it does not detract from how brilliant he is as a businessman and how brilliantly he has managed Amazon and turned it into the company that it is.
The Ray Bradbury quote next to his picture in the 1987 Princeton yearbook—“The universe says no to us. We in answer fire a broadside of flesh at it and cry yes!”—why does that sum up Jeff Bezos?
It shows the spirit he has. This idea that he refuses to let anybody tell him he can't do something. I think that's a significant aspect of his personality. It also indicates the area where he really is inspired—his extreme fondness for science fiction and fantasy, this inspirational thing that says anything is possible and the world of the future is an incredible place.