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Reading the E-Leaves With Amazon's Bezos

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Reading the E-Leaves With Amazon's Bezos
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Who knew that Amazon C.E.O. Jeff Bezos chose his wife in part because he felt she could, if necessary, get him out of a third-world prison? Long after most other dotcom founders have moved on, Bezos, 44, remains one of the internet’s success stories. In 2007, his business pulled in revenue of nearly $15 billion, up 38 percent from the previous year. Amazon’s stock keeps rising, and Bezos becomes ever richer. His estimated worth is about $8 billion.
The 13-year-old company is the biggest online retailer in the world, but recently Bezos has taken Amazon beyond retailing; it now sells its computing, warehousing, and delivery services to other companies. Even tiny startups can rent just about anything Amazon does. And the company made news with its debut of the Kindle, a slim electronic book reader with iPhone-like cachet.
Yet Bezos is not without challenges. Slowing consumer spending could put the kibosh on Amazon's growth, even though it just hired 500 more employees and is building a new distribution center. The company is also pushing hard into the market for digital downloads of music and movies, taking on entrenched leader Apple. Most ominously, Google recently announced that it would launch a competing, and free, service for small businesses called Google Apps.
Condé Nast Portfolio contributing editor Kevin Maney interviewed Bezos before a packed auditorium at New York University's Stern School of Business. The following is an edited transcript. (Watch video.)
Portfolio: You're hiring 500 people and building a new distribution center. Aren't you worried about the economy?
Jeff Bezos: The fourth quarter of last year was tough for a lot of consumer companies, and we had a terrific Q4. We’re probably not a good leading indicator for the economy as a whole, just because we don’t have a lot of operating history.
Portfolio: Let's talk about the Kindle. What do you want it to be?
Bezos: Any book, in any language, ever in print should be available in less than 60 seconds. We worked on it for three years. It's been selling out since being released.
Portfolio: You sold how many?
Bezos: You asked that so innocently, but you know I'm not going to answer. We have a long-standing practice of being very shy about disclosure, and I'll stick to that practice. The Kindle has substantially exceeded our expectations.
Portfolio: Every effort at e-books has failed. Why should this one work?
Bezos: We decided we were going to improve upon the book. And the first thing we did was try to determine the essential features of a physical book that we needed to replicate. The No. 1 feature is that it disappears. When you're in the middle of reading, you don’t notice the ink or the glue or the stitching or the paper — all of that disappears, and you're in the author's world. Most electronic devices today do not disappear. Some of them are extraordinarily rude. Books get out of the way, and they leave you in that state of mental flow.
Portfolio: How do you improve on that?
Bezos: We looked at things that physical books could never do. One of them is that you can look up any word that you're reading. It used to be that if I came across a word that I didn't know, I guessed from context. I'm astonished at what a bad guesser I am. Now that I’m looking up the words, I'm like, "Huh. Really?"
Portfolio: When you founded Amazon, how did you decide to sell books?
Bezos: I went to a catalogers association and started looking at product categories that do well by mail order: No. 1 was apparel, and gourmet food was very high. Way down on the list, like No. 20, was books. But there are more items in the book category than any other. We thought we could build a store with a complete selection. Big book superstores have about 150,000 titles. When Amazon launched in 1995, it had a million. With that kind of founding idea, we drove across the country.
Portfolio: You and your wife.
Bezos: My wife and I. She drove while I wrote the business plan. I wanted to incorporate the company before I got to Seattle. With internet usage growing 2,300 percent a year, dillydallying would have been a bad idea. I called my friend in Seattle and said, "Can you recommend a Seattle lawyer who can incorporate the company?" And he recommended his divorce attorney. Amazon was incorporated by a divorce attorney.
Portfolio: Are you always extremely methodical about major decisions?
Bezos: With business decisions, yes. With personal decisions, I find that my methodical nature can confuse me, and so I think more about personal decisions, like what job you really want to take or whom you want to marry. Although I did have criteria for that.
Portfolio: You had a list for a spouse?
Bezos: I kind of did. It was a short list. I wanted a woman who could get me out of a third-world prison. It was really just a visualization for resourcefulness, because people who are not resourceful drive me bananas.
Portfolio: What's a gut call you made?
Bezos: Amazon Prime. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet, $79, that gives you free two-day shipping on everything you buy for a year. When you do the math on that, it always tells you not to do it.
Portfolio: One of your big initiatives, a search engine called A9, fell flat. What happened?
Bezos: If you decide that you’re going to do only the things you know are going to work, you're going to leave a lot of opportunity on the table. Companies are rarely criticized for the things that they failed to try. But they are, many times, criticized for things they tried and failed at.
Portfolio: Did you ever get criticized for some thing you tried that worked out?
Bezos: When we pioneered customer reviews, it was incredibly controversial. I got letters from publishers saying, "You don't understand your business. You make money when you sell things. Take down those negative customer reviews." We’ve never done anything of real value that wasn't at least a little bit controversial when we did it. But if you want to be a pioneer, you have to be comfortable being misunderstood.
Portfolio: In 2007, Amazon had a phenomenal year. Revenue grew 38 percent—is that the right number?
Bezos: Yeah, something like that.
Portfolio: Aren't you supposed to know?
Bezos: I'm thinking a few years out. I've already forgotten those numbers.
Portfolio: OK. Well, talk about the past year, if you can. Why is Amazon still growing at that pace?
Bezos: Not only is the business growing; those rates are accelerating. There are a couple of factors driving that, all related to the big drivers of our business, which are selection, convenience, fast delivery, and low prices. Our international business is doing well.
Portfolio: What is Amazon's revenue split internationally?

Bezos: It's 55 percent in the U.S., 45 outside the U.S. Portfolio: The music business is changing rapidly. What do you think is going to happen?
Bezos: Well, long term, it doesn't make sense for music to be distributed on physical media. That transition has been going on for seven years and probably will continue for a number of years.
Portfolio: Was Amazon late to the game in online music sales?
Bezos: Well, certainly, you know, there's a very big player in that space, and they’re doing very well.
Portfolio: And who would that be?
Bezos: I’m not sure. I forget. [Laughter] I have a list somewhere in my office. But we've worked for three years in ways that it's hard for outsiders to see. We didn’t want to launch a music service that wasn't based on the MP3 format. The iPod has such significant share. Otherwise, we would visualize the bullet points about our service, and we could have all these great points and then the last bullet point would have to be, "Oh, and it won't play on your iPod." So our patience has paid off in that regard. We now have a service that will play with any device.
Portfolio: Microsoft buying Yahoo—how would that impact Amazon?
Bezos: Oh, I have no idea.
Portfolio: How is the effort to lease your company's computing power and business capabilities to other companies going? We worked on our infrastructure Web services for four years. We launched our first one, the Simple Storage Service, two years ago, and I am astonished—I rarely hear about a startup company that isn't using our services. Now we're starting to get deployment inside corporate data centers. So it's very exciting.
Portfolio: Google recently announced that it's entering into that business and will give some of those same services away for free. What does that mean to you?
Bezos: We really do have a practice of not talking about other companies. But this, like our retail business, is not going to have one winner. There are going to be multiple winners pursuing different flavors or strategies, offering different kinds of products.
Portfolio: You’ve become a very wealthy man. What are you going to do with your money?
Bezos: Good question. I don't know. My parents are running the Bezos Family Foundation, and they're focused on education. I'm still focused on Amazon, but I have some ideas. I'll keep them to myself for now.
Portfolio:So you won't tell us?
Bezos: No.

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