For years, I've been fascinated by Jeff Bezos' ability to make big risky decisions for Amazon and stand up to intense investor pressure to go in a different direction. While everything may seem rosy at Amazon these days, for years, it was amazing to see just how much investor animosity there was towards some of Bezos' moves. For years -- quite by design -- the company focused on growth and expansion over profitability, earning complaints from investors. Then Amazon focused on expanding its free shipping program, which drew the ire of investors who thought it was costing the company too much. But Amazon stuck with these efforts and became the dominant player in the field. More recently, it's done things that left some investors scratching their heads, such as the whole Amazon Web Services effort, and even the early Kindle effort -- and yet both have proven to be quite successful.
Geekwire notes that at the latest Amazon shareholder meeting, Bezos got almost the exact opposite question from those he used to get concerning these sorts of things, from Evan Jacobs, questioning if Amazon wasn't taking enough risks. Bezos' answer is fantastic for anyone who thinks about innovation these days, and wants to make big bets, rather than go for the quick flip:
In a way, that is like the nicest compliment I’ve ever gotten. First of all, I think we have gotten pretty lucky recently. You should anticipate a certain amount of failure. Our two big initiatives, AWS and Kindle — two big, clean-sheet initiatives — have worked out very well. Ninety-plus percent of the innovation at Amazon is incremental and critical and much less risky. We know how to open new product categories. We know how to open new geographies. That doesn’t mean that these things are guaranteed to work, but we have a lot of expertise and a lot of knowledge. We know how to open new fulfillment centers, whether to open one, where to locate it, how big to make it. All of these things based on our operating history are things that we can analyze quantitatively rather than to have to make intuitive judgments.That idea of willing to be misunderstood for a long time really has been the key to Amazon's success, and Bezos' ability to stand up to investors who regularly called for changes in strategy and to focus on the long-term has really paid off. In this age when "pivot" has become a buzzword in the startup community (there's even a whole conference on the subject), where companies completely shift strategies on whims, perhaps there's something to be said for seeing the long term game plan better than others, and sticking to it. Obviously, this doesn't mean being totally pigheaded if an idea isn't working, but Bezos' point is to be flexible on the details, but stay true to the ultimate vision you believe in. That's really, really tough for a lot of entrepreneurs to do, but it's a really important lesson to learn.
When you look at something like, go back in time when we started working on Kindle almost seven years ago…. There you just have to place a bet. If you place enough of those bets, and if you place them early enough, none of them are ever betting the company. By the time you are betting the company, it means you haven’t invented for too long.
If you invent frequently and are willing to fail, then you never get to that point where you really need to bet the whole company. AWS also started about six or seven years ago. We are planting more seeds right now, and it is too early to talk about them, but we are going to continue to plant seeds. And I can guarantee you that everything we do will not work. And, I am never concerned about that…. We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details…. We don’t give up on things easily. Our third-party seller business is an example of that. It took us three tries to get the third-party seller business to work. We didn’t give up.
But. if you get to a point where you look at it and you say look, we are continuing invest a lot of money in this, and it’s not working and we have a bunch of other good businesses, and this is a hypothetical scenario, and we are going to give up on this. On the day you decide to give up on it, what happens? Your operating margins go up because you stopped investing in something that wasn’t working. Is that really such a bad day?
So, my mind never lets me get in a place where I think we can’t afford to take these bets, because the bad case never seems that bad to me. And, I think to have that point of view, requires a corporate culture that does a few things. I don’t think every company can do that, can take that point of view. A big piece of the story we tell ourselves about who we are, is that we are willing to invent. We are willing to think long-term. We start with the customer and work backwards. And, very importantly, we are willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.
I believe if you don’t have that set of things in your corporate culture, then you can’t do large-scale invention. You can do incremental invention, which is critically important for any company. But it is very difficult — if you are not willing to be misunderstood. People will misunderstand you.
Any time you do something big, that’s disruptive — Kindle, AWS — there will be critics. And there will be at least two kinds of critics. There will be well-meaning critics who genuinely misunderstand what you are doing or genuinely have a different opinion. And there will be the self-interested critics that have a vested interest in not liking what you are doing and they will have reason to misunderstand. And you have to be willing to ignore both types of critics. You listen to them, because you want to see, always testing, is it possible they are right?
But if you hold back and you say, ‘No, we believe in this vision,’ then you just stay heads down, stay focused and you build out your vision.