Q&A AUGUST 5, 2013
Businessweek senior writer Brad Stone has written a book about Amazon—titled The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon—that will be released by Little, Brown in October. Stone spent several years reporting the book; he interviewed Bezos, members of his family, and hundreds of former and current Amazon employees. But the first he heard of Bezos’s decision to buy The Washington Post, he told me, was an instant message yesterday afternoon from his editor at Businessweek. I talked to Brad shortly after the Post news broke to get his thoughts on the bottomless ambition of Bezos.
Laura Bennett: One of the first Bezos-buys-the-Post dispatches I saw was your tweet: “Jeff Bezos buys the Washington Post. Have to admit - I have a little bit of updating to do on my October Bezos book.”
Brad Stone: Hah, oh yes. I was so surprised. My reaction was sincere shock.
LB: Why, exactly?
BS: Jeff has said Amazon has placed a big bet on disrupting what he calls the old gatekeepers, the institutions forged in an analog age that stand between creators of content and consumers. Now here he has gone and personally acquired what is one of the biggest and most well-known gatekeepers out there. It is just a bit outside of the framework that he’s operated under. He’s building a space company. He is funding a ten-thousand-year-old clock. He invested in Twitter and Uber. So this is really an incredibly unique initiative for him. And it’s also surprising, frankly, because he’s already oversubscribed. But one of his key strengths is being able to apportion his time, almost innovating against his own calendar.
I’ll give you a funny little historical anomaly here: I realized that Bezos is now, I believe, handling my pension obligations since I worked at Newsweek magazine for 15 years. So suddenly I’m conflicted, I guess.
LB: During your reporting, did you see any signs that Bezos was considering buying the Post?
BS: Well, again, it was quite a surprise. But it’s slightly consistent with the fact that Bezos believes that a big reset button is being hit on the media ecosystem. And the old models don’t work. So there’s plenty of room and opportunity for new models to be created. We’re so dominated in our world by our media organizations getting smaller and losing money, and yet to him it’s always been clear that this is an opportunity for more experimentation. So this does fit within that framework.
Also, he has always invested in not just new technologies and business models but in teams and people that he likes. He was one of the first investors in Google; he invested $250,000 because he thought Larry and Sergey had this healthy stubbornness around not wanting to put ads on the search engine homepage. And so in the letter to Post employees he talks about how he’s known Don Graham for over ten years. So clearly there’s a personal relationship at work there too. I would say that the strength of that relationship probably had a lot to do with it.
LB: But strategically speaking, why else do you think Bezos wanted the Post?
BS: This is maybe going out on a little bit of a limb: but look, he’s buying a lot of political influence. And we can’t discard the fact that Amazon hasn’t been an enormous player, at least up until the dispute over sales taxes, and in buying The Washington Post, he has a seat at the table. And I think particularly legislators and anti-trust regulators are gonna be weighing the dominance of Amazon a lot in the years ahead.
LB: One of our first impulses at TNR was to track down galleys of your book and try to hunt for clues that Bezos might have been contemplating this purchase.
BS: Well, I will tantalizingly tell you that there are no galleys of the book—
LB: So your publisher informed me: that it’s embargoed.
BS: Which I am taking as a sign that it’s packed with so much good stuff that they want to save if for publication.
LB: Spending time with him, what was the sense you got of Bezos as a human being?
BS: Just someone who is enormously driven, who has far-reaching ambition and who believes that his life’s work isn’t even near accomplished. Someone who is constantly looking at the long term. I’ve interviewed him perhaps a dozen times over the past ten years. And when I told him I was doing the book, the first thing he said, and it was revealing, was: “It’s too early.” Which is frankly astonishing, because it’s been twenty years, and the Amazon story is incredible. But this is why he plows all those revenues back into the business and barely shows a profit or even loses money.
LB: His wife has said, “If Jeff is unhappy, wait five minutes.”
BS: Hah, well that’s a sort of funny way of acknowledging that he has a temper, that he is incredibly demanding and very difficult to work for and expects more from people than they sometimes think they can deliver. And yet when he gets angry, you can see him ten minutes later and he’s laughing.
LB: Do you believe him when he says he won’t be involved in the daily operations of the Post?
BS: I do, because he has plenty of other obligations. Not only is he running an $80 billion business four days a week but that fifth day a week he is in Washington or Texas working on his space camp. He’s got four kids. He’s got investments in lots of other companies. And the Post management team is staying in place. With that said, I think he will definitely bring Amazon practices and philosophy to the Post.
LB: In what way?
BS: He clearly thinks that Amazon’s style and operating philosophy are broadly applicable: experimenting a lot, paying attention to what data tells you. Look at what he said in his letter about starting from the reader and working backwards. He believes that this philosophy can be successful in all corners of business.
LB: How much does Bezos, with all his anti-gatekeeper talk, seem invested in journalism as an industry?
BS: One thing about Bezos is that he is a voracious reader, almost unlike any other CEO I’ve covered. The big insights at Amazon all come from reading: plenty of business books, some fiction. He’s also a careful reader of Amazon’s own press.
LB: On that note, part of what surprised me most about the Post news is that Bezos has long had a fairly complicated relationship to the press. The Amazon publicity machine is notoriously tight-lipped with journalists.
BS: I think Bezos believes that his perspective is a strategic tool. Whether it’s Amazon’s strategy, or how he views the tablet market. That’s why when he does do stories he often retreats to the same talking points that he’s used for fifteen years. Amazon has a willingness to be misunderstood. Amazon is customer-obsessed and focused on innovation. These are tried and true talking points. But Bezos’s up-and-down relationship with the media does make [the purchase of the Post] somewhat surprising. Up until this point he has really just invested in new media models.
LB: Have you been in touch with your publisher yet about this recent development?
BS: Ohh yes.
LB: How did that conversation go?
BS: Basically: “You’re going to get something from me tonight.”
LB: And what’s the updating process going to look like?
BS: It’ll mean acknowledging somehow that Bezos bought a historic asset. Maybe at the beginning of the book or at the end of the book. It’s really a biography of Amazon. But Jeff is the central figure, and that company is him; it’s an expression of him.
LB: I’ve heard people in publishing call Bezos “Napoleon,” meaning that the push to insert Amazon’s tentacles into all corners of the publishing business and generally expand Amazon’s reach can seem like a kind of imperialism. Is there a limit to his ambition?
BS: “Imperialist” might not be the word I would use, but I do think he has that ambition for Amazon. The company is clearly not even a quarter of its way toward fulfilling what he views as its ultimate mission.
LB: What is that ultimate mission?
BS: Well, the title of my book is The Everything Store. Amazon is just expansive. It’s a company that puts no limits on what can be sold physically or virtually, over the internet. If Amazon can achieve a commanding position in all these markets, it’s gonna be under a lot of additional scrutiny. So there’s still a lot of runway to go.
And this is Jeff Bezos. You kind of have to expect anything. Over the summer he was lifting rockets off the seabed floor. He is building a space company on his own private land in Texas. This is not someone who has ever conformed to our expectations about what wealthy people are supposed to do. It’s $250 million for a man whose wealth is staggering. He clearly believes that his management philosophy is portable. So he’s willing to take bets, whether it’s on the Kindle or on Amazon’s cloud business or expanding beyond books. So nothing he does is ultimately very surprising. Except when, of course, it suddenly is.