Book Review – Amazon Unbound

Brad Stone followed his first book on Amazon “The Everything Store” with “Amazon Unbound” ten years apart. Similar to its predecessor, this book is the result of extensive research and journalism on the company that captures the imagination and admiration of the public and millions around the world. How much you like this book depends on how familiar you are with the company and its enigmatic and iconic founder, Jeff Bezos. Personally, having read quite a bit on both, I didn’t find some chapters very useful or interesting because I didn’t think it was necessary for me to know in details what happened internally. With that being said, I did find the book worth the time. If you are fond of business and Amazon, give it a try! Below are a few things that stood out for me

Bezos’ ability to think big and delegate

The chapters on the development of Alexa, Amazon Go, Indian market as well as the acquisition of Whole Foods is interesting. In these chapters, readers can see how Jeff’s ability to think big and push his team to think big resulted in unfathomable success. His vision and boldness led the team to enduring long working hours for years and challenges, both technically and from the market, to introduce services and products that have proven to be strategic assets to Amazon. His genius also lies in his willingness to delegate big & important projects to his team. His previous Technical Advisors led the charge on Alexa, AWS and India. In addition to opportunity and resources, Bezos also provides oversight and counsel, and often the push that his team needs to think big.

“By then, Amazon’s China bet was souring, so Bezos did not want to relinquish his shot at what seemed like the world’s next largest prize. In most OP1 sessions, he usually spoke last, not to sway the group with his formidable opinion. But this time, he interjected while Agarwal was still giving his presentation. “You guys are going to fail,” he bluntly told the Indian crew. “I don’t need computer scientists in India. I need cowboys.

“Don’t come to me with a plan that assumes I will only make a certain level of investment,” Bezos continued, according to the recollection of two executives who were there. “Tell me how to win. Then tell me how much it costs.” Another Indian executive at the meeting, Amit Deshpande, says the message was: “Go big and take risks. Make it happen. We have your backs.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“Bezos and his employees riffed on the idea over email for a few days, but no further action was taken, and it could have ended there. Then a few weeks later, Hart met with Bezos in a sixth-floor conference room in Amazon’s headquarters, Day 1 North, to discuss his career options. His tenure as TA was wrapping up, so they discussed several possible opportunities to lead new initiatives at the company, including positions in Amazon’s video streaming and advertising groups. Bezos jotted their ideas down on a whiteboard, adding a few of his own, and then started to apply his usual criteria to assess their merit: If they work, will they grow to become big businesses? If the company didn’t pursue them aggressively now, would it miss an opportunity? Eventually Bezos and Hart crossed off all the items on the list except one—pursuing Bezos’s idea for a voice-activated cloud computer.

“Jeff, I don’t have any experience in hardware, and the largest software team I’ve led is only about forty people,” Hart recalled saying. “You’ll do fine,” Bezos replied.

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

Even heroes aren’t perfect

Jeff Bezos is known for making his employees put their ideas into a PR FAQ, which is a single pager that summarizes key points on a new product/service, or a 6-page memo that includes analysis and rationale for an idea or a big initiative. I love this approach. I think it makes a lot of sense to ask folks to put thoughts to paper and strengthen their ideas. However, when it comes to Jeff’s own ideas, he sometimes didn’t meet the high standard. Furthermore, Jeff instills the philosophy of “single-threaded leaders” into Amazon. The thinking here is that when somebody is responsible for an initiative, they shouldn’t be distracted by anything else. Jeff’s focus was initially only on Amazon. Over the years, he became distracted by his new girlfriend and his investments in Blue Origin & Washington Post. The book detailed how he missed meetings and went for days without a visit to the office. He was still involved at Amazon, but that’s not the standard of focus that he demands from his employees.

What I took away from this is the reinforcement of the belief that even your heroes are far from perfect. They don’t always practice what they preach. It doesn’t mean they don’t have good ideas, but it also doesn’t mean that they are perfect either. We should look at people, or at least try to, with some grain of salt, instead of blind loyalty or admiration.

“The first, which Bezos proposed in a free-flowing brainstorm session in 2014, started as a notion he called “the steak truck.” Imagined as “an ice cream truck for adults,” the original suggestion was to stock a van or truck with steaks, drive into neighborhoods with lights flashing and horn blaring, and sell them to residents, as Doug Herrington remembered it. It would be convenient and a great deal for customers, since the meat was being sold in bulk. Eventually, the company might even predict demand and eliminate the inefficiencies and wasted food of supermarkets.”

“But the service was never as ubiquitous or as endearing as Jeff Bezos and Doug Herrington had hoped. Internet critics were baffled by the project and sneered at some of the more inexplicable deals (“bidet sprayers for $19.99, 33% off!”). One empty Treasure Truck burst into flames in a West Philadelphia parking lot at 1:30 a.m. Bezos briefly touted the initiative in his 2017 shareholder letter, but an executive on the finance team told me that it never performed particularly well or was close to profitable. If Amazon wanted to arouse excitement and loyalty for its fledgling grocery services, it needed something else entirely—like a unique product that customers were passionate about.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“Well, Bezos had an idea for that as well and it was just as bizarre. In August 2015, the Washington Post published an unappetizing article about how a single hamburger might contain the meat of up to a hundred cows. Sourcing a burger from just a single cow could theoretically produce a superior-tasting patty but that “would be hard and expensive,” a meat distributor told the paper. That caught Bezos’s attention. He seemed to have increasingly adventurous tastes, later sampling an iguana, for example, at a meeting of New York City’s Explorers Club. In another brainstorming meeting with Herrington, he suggested they find a ranch to produce a “single cow burger” and make it a unique item that customers could only buy from Amazon. “I really think you should try this,” Bezos told Herrington, who recalled thinking at first it was a joke. “How hard can it be?”

“The project once again represented a different style of innovation within Amazon. Employees didn’t “work backwards” from their idealized customers, who had never asked for such a creation. They worked backwards from Bezos’s intuition and were catering to his sometimes eclectic tastes (literally). Bezos was right a lot, particularly when it came to cutting-edge technology. But in the end, the single cow burger and other culinary innovations introduced within Amazon Fresh generated little buzz or increased business.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“Still, many Amazon execs and alums would have a hard time moving on so easily. Bezos had always demanded that Amazonians comport themselves with discretion and impeccable judgment. He ripped documents in half and walked out of rooms when employees fell short of expectations. By conducting an extramarital relationship so carelessly that it became fodder for a salacious spread in the National Enquirer and then a high-profile media free-for-all, he had failed to meet his own high standards. Dozens of current and former executives would later say that they were surprised and disappointed by Bezos’s affair. Their infallible and righteous leader was, after all, a flawed human.

The revelations also might have explained some of the more curious changes in his recent behavior. Bezos had been increasingly hard to find in the Seattle offices over the past year; OP1 meetings had been delayed or postponed, and longtime deputies were finding it difficult to get time on his calendar. He was spending more time traveling, colleagues had noticed, and that November had popped up with only a few hours’ notice in the Santa Monica offices of Ring, the connected doorbell startup Amazon had acquired in February 2018.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

Dark side of Amazon

Amazon is not an angel. There is a dark side that involves using the practice of leveraging data from 3rd parties for their own advantage and sacrificing smaller merchants for their own profit. Are those practices cringe-worthy and distasteful? Yes. Are they illegal? It’s clearly in the grey right now as the government is still conducting its investigation and no charge has been announced on Amazon yet. Nonetheless, given the threat from the likes of Shopify, these practices can cause concern and fear from 3rd parties, which can ultimately lead to sizable losses and damage for Amazon.

“Wendell Morris largely agreed with that sentiment. The founder of the Santa Monica–based YogaRat was one of the first sellers on Amazon to hawk yoga mats and yoga towels; he later expanded into beach towels and microfiber blankets, all sourced from China. In 2014, he became one of the few Amazon sellers that Jeff Bezos touted by name in his widely read annual letters to shareholders. “The beauty of Amazon is that someone can say, ‘I want to start a business,’ and they can go on Amazon and really start a business,” Bezos had quoted Morris as saying that year. “You don’t have to get a lease on a building or even have any employees at first. You can just do it on your own. And that’s what I did.”

But by the time I talked to him, Morris, like Saunders, had changed his opinion. In 2016, when YogaRat employed seven people, he found that his listings were inexplicably disappearing from Amazon’s search results. He spent hours on the phone with an Amazon customer support staffer in India and wrote pleading emails to Bezos’s public email address. His listings were finally restored, though they never returned to their previous positions at the top of search results. A year later, his seller account was suspended altogether because some of the images on his listings violated Amazon’s guidelines against depicting groups of people in product photos. Morris conceded the error while bitterly showing me how countless other sellers violated the same rules without penalty. Someone—probably a competitor—had singled him out to Amazon’s enforcement team.”

“While Morris scrambled to reinstate his account, other sellers of the same merchandise replaced him atop search results. YogaRat never recovered. He now runs what’s left of his firm alone with his wife, and the challenges are daunting. He is constantly fighting overseas knockoffs of his designs and reviews of his products that mysteriously show up on rival listings. When he calls Amazon customer service, he suspects the reps’ primary metric for success is how quickly they can get off the phone. Once a devoted yogi, Morris can barely stand to look at a yoga mat anymore.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“Aarstol tried to advertise on Amazon to boost his visibility but that gutted his profits. In the years after he was mentioned in Bezos’s letter, he went from employing ten people to three and from recording $4 million in annual sales to less than $1.5 million. “Amazon doesn’t give a shit about brands,” said Aarstol, who by 2020 was almost completely off Amazon and focusing on sales over his own website. “They don’t care whether you live or die.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“Speaking on the condition of anonymity, several private-label managers admitted to exploiting a resource that was even more precious than product reviews—prominence in Amazon’s search results. When they introduced a new brand, like Mama Bear diapers, a practice called “search seeding” allowed the brand managers to pin the initial relevancy score for the new product to the score of an established product, such as Pampers, at least for the first few days. The Amazon product would then appear at the top of search results, rather than starting on the unseen last page with other new brands.

When I asked Doug Herrington whether Amazon changed search results for its private-label products, he flatly denied the practice occurred. “We don’t manipulate search results at all,” he said. He added that Amazon brands were sometimes given prominent advertising slots in search results when they were a “great deal for the customer,” and if customers didn’t respond, the Amazon products quickly vanished. He also compared Amazon’s tactics to those of competing physical retailers, who put generic products like painkillers right next to Tylenol and Advil, taking up limited shelf space. Amazon, on the other hand, had “infinite aisles,”

One who worked on a new lifestyle brand called Solimo said she originally assumed third-party data was off limits when she joined the company in 2016. A year into her job, her boss showed her how to access the sales data and told her to ask Amazon’s data analysts if she needed help. The employee, who asked that her name not be used, subsequently examined third-party sales to determine the fastest-selling vitamin supplements, how many units were sold, and the average selling price and profitability of each.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

Other interesting anecdotes

“Logistics employees who worked on the California service said this hub-and-spoke model ended up being inefficient and unreliable; one said that Amazon was “basically stapling a $10 or $20 bill to every order.” The Fresh team also tracked a metric called “perfect deliveries”—when an order was promptly delivered and included every item. They found they were hitting that target less than 70 percent of the time. Grocery industry veterans belittled the effort from afar. “Amazon Fresh is their Waterloo,” John Mackey told me during our chat in 2014. “What’s the one thing people want? Convenience. You can’t do that with distribution centers and trucks.”

“Success in delivering online groceries relied on getting the logistics exactly right and amassing enough demand to make it profitable to send drivers into residential neighborhoods. Amazon had set up warehouses too far from customers, made it too expensive for them to sign up, and saddled them with bulky tote bags and sacks of dry ice after each delivery. Bezos had finally agreed with Doug Herrington that Amazon needed to reinvent its retail business, but they were going to have to find a different way to do it.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“For the next few quarters, Amazon avoided buying Google ads in Mexico and tried to compensate with billboards, radio, and TV ads, and shipping discounts. As Garcia had feared, it hobbled the site. The offline ads were more expensive and less effective. Google brought in $70 billion in annual advertising revenues because search ads worked and were a relatively inexpensive way for websites to attract visitors. “I wanted to see if we could get traction in a country launch without using Google,” Wilke later said, “and it turned out, the answer was no…. We weren’t reaching enough customers.”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.

“Internally the program was called AMPED. Amazon contracted with an Australian data collection firm, Appen, and went on the road with Alexa, in disguise. Appen rented homes and apartments, initially in Boston, and then Amazon littered several rooms with all kinds of “decoy” devices: pedestal microphones, Xbox gaming consoles, televisions, and tablets. There were also some twenty Alexa devices planted around the rooms at different heights, each shrouded in an acoustic fabric that hid them from view but allowed sound to pass through. Appen then contracted with a temp agency, and a stream of contract workers filtered through the properties, eight hours a day, six days a week, reading scripts from an iPad with canned lines and open-ended requests like “ask to play your favorite tune” and “ask anything you’d like an assistant to do.”

The speakers were turned off, so the Alexas didn’t make a peep, but the seven microphones on each device captured everything and streamed the audio to Amazon’s servers. Then another army of workers manually reviewed the recordings and annotated the transcripts, classifying queries that might stump a machine, like “turn on Hunger Games,” as a request to play the Jennifer Lawrence film, so that the next time, Alexa would know.

The Boston test showed promise, so Amazon expanded the program, renting more homes and apartments in Seattle and ten other cities over the next six months to capture the voices and speech patterns of thousands more paid volunteers. It was a mushroom-cloud explosion of data about device placement, acoustic environments, background noise, regional accents, and all the gloriously random ways a human being might phrase a simple request to hear the weather, for example, or play a Justin Timberlake hit.

The daylong flood of random people into homes and apartments repeatedly provoked suspicious neighbors to call the police. In one instance, a resident of a Boston condo complex suspected a drug-dealing or prostitution ring was next door and called the cops, who asked to enter the apartment. The nervous staff gave them an elusive explanation and a tour and afterward hastily shut down the site. Occasionally, temp workers would show up, consider the bizarre script and vagueness of the entire affair, and simply refuse to participate. One Amazon employee who was annotating transcripts later recalled hearing a temp worker interrupt a session and whisper to whoever he suspected was listening: “This is so dumb. The company behind this should be embarrassed!

But Amazon was anything but embarrassed. By 2014, it had increased its store of speech data by a factor of ten thousand and largely closed the data gap with rivals like Apple and Google. ”

Excerpt From: Brad Stone. “Amazon Unbound.” Apple Books.


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