There is much to admire about Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, but what awes me most about him is his perennial confidence to defy critics and his uncanny ability to know when to hold and when to fold.
No one is questioning Bezos’ business acumen these days, but in Amazon’s early years, particularly when it went public, prevailing Wall Street and media wisdom was the company would never turn a profit. Here’s some representative turn-of-the-century insight from Fortune magazine.
“There is a chance that someday Amazon will grow up to be a company with real profits. But it will never be the high-growth, wildly profitable, super-efficient company of Internet lore. The only place that company lives is in the history books, and in the powerful imagination of Jeff Bezos.”
Bezos was confident in his vision and was undeterred by all the negative chatter. Entrepreneurs see the world differently, and the ones who succeed are those that tune out noise and focus unrelentingly on achieving their vision. If I passed a newsstand and repeatedly saw magazine cover stories questioning my business judgment, I’d relocate to Hawaii and learn from my brilliant cousin Lorn how to make designer chop sticks.
Alas, I don’t need analysts and the media to foster self-doubt. My myriad insecurities are more than adequate to perform that function. While my entrepreneurial talents and abilities don’t remotely approximate Bezos’, I could have achieved considerably more financial success if I had the courage to act on my ideas.
One example was my Boston real estate plan. In January 1990 I was standing on Boston’s harborfront admiring a nearly deserted luxury condo building with breathtaking city and water views. New England was in the midst of a depression – major banks were failing – and developers couldn’t give away their units. I thought to myself it would be wise to beg, borrow, and steal to buy one of those units on the rationale that a city with so much beauty, history, and more than 100 universities would invariably rebound. I didn’t act because I thought to myself that if I was so smart I wouldn’t be working at American Banker editing stories about bankers that weren’t particularly bright themselves. I can only imagine what those condos fetch today.
Then there was my fitness idea. In 1981 I wrote an article for Canada’s Maclean’s magazine about how the introduction of Nautilus equipment was going to revolutionize the fitness industry because it would make weight training more accessible to women. In those days, one saw few, if any, women in weight rooms. I envisioned opening a high-end co-ed gym featuring Nautilus equipment and other fitness activities. I didn’t have the courage or confidence to act, but if you want to see what I had in mind visit an Equinox club. My club wouldn’t have tolerated Equinox’s selfie culture, which is why it likely would have failed.
Another remarkable Bezos talent that I’d be afraid to act on is his refinement of the insight, often attributed to P.T. Barnum, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” Bezos appreciates that suckers often find their calling is getting elected to public office. Taxpayers funded Amazon’s expansion; Bezos built his extensive warehouse network across the country promising state and local governments jobs creation in exchange for massive tax breaks. The warehouses didn’t create broad-based employment growth, and in a few years will be staffed mostly by robots. If I was Bezos I’d be living in fear of studies like this exposing his duplicity, and stories like this that show how he exploited economically-distressed regions, many with overwhelmingly black communities.
Bezos learned from his early Amazon days about the growing irrelevance of corporate media. That’s why he doesn’t care if his Washington Post writes critical stories about Amazon, but his ownership of the publication was apparent in the publication’s coverage of his “dick pic” embarrassment, indicating that Bezos does care about how the public perceives him on a personal level.
The Post alleged from the get-go that the National Enquirer was in cahoots with Saudi Arabia and possibly the Trump Administration in publishing the embarrassing photos. Most of the media parroted the Saudi narrative, and when doubts began to rise, Bezos’ people produced a “United Nations Report” supporting the claim. The report was actually written by a private outfit and mysteriously endorsed by two U.N. human rights officials. I share Bezos’ low regard for the intelligence of the U.S. media, but I’d never have the courage to test it so brazenly. Bezos knew what he was doing. Only the Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins was wise to the con.
I was skeptical from the get-go that Amazon’s 2018 municipal beauty pageant for a second headquarters was anything more than a PR stunt, and my view was reaffirmed when the company ultimately settled on “two” new headquarters, one in New York City and one in suburban Washington. Amazingly, the media never got wise they were played. The avalanche of fawning media coverage Amazon received was unprecedented, making the stunt possibly the greatest campaign in PR history. Playing the media for fools is definitely one of Bezos’ strong suits.
Bezos isn’t infallible. The New York City headquarters selection was handled badly, as Amazon thought getting Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to kiss its corporate ring was all that was needed to ride roughshod over an ethnic neighborhood in Queens. The media credits (or blames, depending on your perspective on the sweetheart tax breaks New York was prepared to shower on Amazon) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for nixing the deal, but it was actually state senator Michael Gianaris who Amazon feared and caused the company to abandon its Big Apple plans.
Bezos became bigger than life with me for his handling of the recent union vote at a giant Alabama warehouse. I would have surrendered to the woke mob faster than Delta CEO Ed Bastian if I was subtly being accused of racism for only paying double the minimum wage at a warehouse I owned. And I’d have a coronary if I received this letter from Michigan Rep. Andy Levin and signed by 50 U.S. Democratic Congressional members warning me that “we will be paying close attention to the way Amazon conducts itself during this vote and call on Amazon to ensure an election for its workers in Alabama that honors dignity and work.”
Bezos is a data guy, and someone obviously briefed him that while Levin talks tough, he was just posturing for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which endorsed Joe Biden’s candidacy and whose president Sam Appelbaum serves on the DNC’s executive committee and co-chairs the DNC’s resolutions committee. Bezos wasn’t fooled or intimidated by Levin’s political bluster. Amazon continued full steam with its union busting activities and thwarted the organizing drive by a decisive margin.
I wouldn’t want Bezos’ wealth but I’m in grudging awe of how achieved it, even though I wouldn’t feel good about myself utilizing many of his tactics. It would cause me great insomnia, something I suffer from regardless. That’s another trait I imagine distinguishes Bezos from myself. My guess is he sleeps like a baby.