Full disclosure: Brad Stone, author of the definitive books on Jeff Bezos’ company (The Everything Store, 2013, and its just-published sequel Amazon Unbound), is an old friend. When Bezos was just a smart, driven business nerd who sold books online, Brad and I would interview him for Newsweek and Time respectively. Fuller disclosure: I’m the guy who nominated the bookselling nerd for Time Person of the Year. Fullest disclosure: I own an anti-Amazon T-shirt made by the HQ2 protestors in Queens (“resist,” it says above a smile logo), and also own an Amazon Echo, Kindle, and Prime account.
Our relationship with Amazon is as complicated as the company itself. On the one hand, Bezos is an innovator, a genius, a customer-focused obsessive; on the other, anti-union, proto-monopolist, pitiless kingpin who had to be dragged into philanthropy. But in the last four years, the hero side has receded and the villain come to the fore. So it’s a comfort to read Amazon Unbound and know I’m not the only one wondering what the hell happened? Apparently, many of his friends and employees feel the same. “This was clearly not the same old Jeff,” Brad writes of the need to follow a book on the first 18 years of Amazon with a book on the last eight.
It isn’t just Bezos’ physical transformation into swole Lex Luthor; that was already well underway when The Everything Store hit shelves. It’s that as his fortune rose almost exponentially, so did the trappings of rich-person soap opera that flowed from his decisions. Even the Bezos of 2017, almost half as wealthy as he is now, might not recognize the Bezos of 2021. The scientific research suggesting that rich people become more like jerks the richer they get may just have found its ultimate data set.
Brad quotes more than one Amazon executive wondering “how does one of the most disciplined men in the world get himself into a situation like that?” It’s in reference to the National Enquirer mess of 2019, a “tawdry drama” involving Bezos’ sudden divorce, his new beau Lauren Sanchez, and unproven accusations of international conspiracy. But it could also apply to the spat over HQ2, which revealed Bezos’ tin ear for politics and his newfound love of helipads, or the multiple #MeToo moments at Amazon Studios, or the dysfunction at his space company Blue Origin, or the fact that the once-frugal owner of a Honda just bought a yacht so large it needs its own support yacht.
Bezos wasn’t a fan of The Everything Store — his then-wife MacKenzie left a famously scathing one-star review — so there’s no interview with the subject this time. (Given that he’s stepping back as Amazon’s CEO later this year, why even bother?) Therefore the answer to “what happened” remains somewhat elusive, as Brad isn’t the type to psychoanalyze. But the book, with which Amazon cooperated (and half of which it has denied), is still full of fascinating details that point us towards the beginning of answers. Let’s go through some of the most telling aspects of its founder.
1. The inventor who told his brainchild to ‘shoot yourself in the head’
Credit where it’s due: Bezos’ restless brain turns out to have been the prime mover behind the creation of Alexa, Amazon’s market-leading personal assistant. He was inspired by Star Trek and other science fiction where voice-activated computing is the norm, and by the need to boost his cloud platform Amazon Web Services (AWS). The result seems to be one of the few cases in modern innovation where a globally popular gadget sprung almost fully-formed from one head.
Bezos sent one email, did one sketch that looks remarkably like the Echo, and his “system of invention” at Amazon took care of the rest. This is the company’s secret sauce: It bans PowerPoint, relies entirely on six-page memos that everyone reads at the start of meetings, and writes the “PR FAQ” on any new product before it even gets built. Result: Focus, clarity, and a pole star to guide them through the choppy waters of invention.
Which is not to say that Alexa would have succeeded without a couple of key acquisitions, or that there wasn’t a dark side to the system. Bezos’ deal is he’s a hard-driving micro-manager. Mandating thousands of hours of beta-testing of the first Echo, most of it done in show houses by low-paid contractors who read scripts and couldn’t see the device, Bezos also tested one himself. Frustrated by its lack of comprehension, he made this odd request of Alexa: “Shoot yourself in the head.”
Engineers listening in thought the project was doomed. Luckily, Bezos is accepting of mistakes as part of the price of innovation, and Alexa became a runaway hit.
2. The honey badger who don’t care
There’s no secret to how Bezos became the wealthiest man in the world. Not his salary (a mere $82,000) but his massive founder’s stake in Amazon, which he covets so much he explored creating a second-class form of stock right before he and MacKenzie divorced. (Eventually she got 20 million shares, or 4 percent of Amazon, but he kept her voting rights.)
There’s no secret to Amazon becoming a trillion-dollar company, either. It nearly all comes down to three things: AWS, which had first-mover advantage in cloud computing and continues to mint money; advertising and sponsored results on Amazon, increasingly; and the massive Marketplace of third-party sellers, which long since overtook the volume of stuff Amazon sells directly.
But the Marketplace has become the Wild West, as many veteran sellers complain. Hordes of cheap knock-offs, largely made in China, overwhelm products to which they bear a suspicious similarity. One of Brad’s coups comes when he goes to the sellers that testified on behalf of Amazon in the past, or had been given glowing write-ups in Bezos’ shareholders’ letters. They’d later criticize the company for abandoning or ignoring them. “It’s like being invited to Thanksgiving dinner and finding out you’re the turkey,” one said. Ouch.
Retail execs have tried to raise this problem with Bezos. Brad recounts one meeting about clothing where the execs asked if known brands should be prioritized over the fly-by-night generic stuff. “I think we should target everybody who wears clothes,” Bezos replied with his signature bark-laugh. “I haven’t seen that many people naked the last few days.” This honey badger-like utter lack of caring was just one sign of a wider Marketplace trust issue that may yet bite Amazon in the ass.
3. The helipad parent
Bezos isn’t just a helicopter parent when it comes to teams working on what he sees as the important stuff, such as Alexa. He is also now, literally, a parent who helicopters. Since hooking up with Lauren Sanchez, a helicopter pilot, Bezos has reversed his former hatred of helicopters (he was once involved in a crash), taken lessons and bought a few of the whirligigs himself.
That zeal of the ‘copter convert seems to be the reason for the second yacht with the helipad, and the helipad built into the design for the ill-fated HQ2 in Queens. (There are many reasons why Amazon abandoned its plan to build a second headquarters in NYC, but blowback over the unnecessary helipad — when, as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noted, “our subways are crumbling” — is near the top of the list.)
“Several employees argued that the helipads were a terrible idea but were told the request came right from the top and wasn’t going to be rescinded,” Brad writes.
4. The bad optics merchant
It wasn’t just the helipad thing. The whole HQ2 beauty contest, not the best idea to start with, was cursed with an unusual amount of Bezos not listening. His search committee recommended three finalist cities: Chicago, Philadelphia, and Raleigh. Philly was junked in part because Andy Jassy, Bezos’ successor as CEO, was a New York Giants fan. Bezos himself seems to have preferred to go for the areas offering the largest tax incentive, which meant NYC and Northern Virginia.
But New York politics is famously tough, very pro-union, and Bezos’ hard-charging all-male leadership group seems to have assumed they could weather any storm simply with the governor’s support. “Their synapses were molded by 15 months of supplication, from cities and their own colleagues,” Brad writes. Which is more proof that being rich and aloof rots your brain.
5. The frustrated space dreamer
Blue Origin was founded two years before Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and could have dominated the private space industry. Instead, Bezos’ company fell behind SpaceX at every step, and only belatedly started copying its moves (getting government contracts, launching communications satellites to pay the bills). It did this despite a billion dollars of Bezos money every year, despite poaching hundreds of employees from its rival — but so little was actually in motion that those employees apparently called Blue Origin “the country club you go to after toiling at SpaceX.”
Bezos is the ultimate space nerd; his high school valedictory speech was on the very salient topic of how we need to move our heavy industry off-planet to leave Earth pristine. But with all the focus on Amazon projects, he could barely devote one day a week to Blue Origin. His tried-and-true system of six-page memo meetings and tiny teams were not getting the job done on their own. Innovating in retail and innovating in space launches are not, as it turns out, remotely the same thing.
The result: dysfunction that was out of this world. One of the most awkward moments in Amazon Unbound comes when Bezos tells an all-hands at Blue Origin that one of their top executives won a major space award, and tries to get them to show their appreciation. Response: silence. It’s the Bezos equivalent of Jeb Bush’s cringeworthy “please clap.”
6. The Hollywood mogul with a spreadsheet
Over at Amazon Studios, another faltering start was almost entirely due to Bezos deputy Roy Price. Despite Bezos pestering him for a big hit, for “my Game of Thrones,” the vast majority of pilots that Price churned out were sub-par (and in the case of Woody Allen’s first TV series, extremely ill-advised). Price also invested way too much energy in a weirdly misogynistic pilot of his own, Shanghai Snow, which mercifully never saw the light of day.
Man in the High Castle, despite its fine premise faltered in what Bezos called “terrible” execution — and Price doomed himself by repeatedly harassing executive producer Isa Hackett, daughter of famous author Philip K. Dick. Amazon’s internal investigation into the Hackett affair let Price off the hook until #MeToo came along.
“I know what it takes to make a great show,” an increasingly frustrated Bezos insisted. From then on, his Studios team were forced to fill out spreadsheets ticking boxes for whether each show contained elements like “a heroic protagonist who experiences growth and change” and “civilizational high stakes.”
Meanwhile, Bezos was more focused on enjoying the Hollywood party lifestyle, which MacKenzie the introvert shunned, in his vast Los Angeles mansion. It was at one such party that Bezos met Lauren Sanchez, then the wife of a Hollywood super-agent.
7. The self-made tabloid target
As soon as Sanchez entered Bezos’ life, discretion seems to have exited out the back door. A year before the split with MacKenzie was announced or even suspected, Bezos was openly affectionate with his new girlfriend in hip Hollywood eateries. Sanchez’s brother, Michael, was apparently alarmed that they would so flagrantly risk discovery by the paparazzi. But his response would make him the Judas in one of the most jaw-dropping dramas of the last decade.
For Michael Sanchez, it turns out, was the one who sent his sister’s private text messages and photos exchanged with Bezos to the National Enquirer. Why Lauren sent him these snippets, we don’t know, but Brad learned that the siblings do have an odd relationship.
Sanchez, a supporter of Bezos enemy Donald Trump, claims that he was trying to manipulate the Enquirer and help introduce the relationship in what he called a “soft landing.” But that doesn’t explain why he got $200,000 from the Enquirer, or why he added a fake photo of Bezos’ junk culled from a male sex worker website, or why he was also charging Lauren $25,000 a month for his services in “discovering” who leaked the information to the tabloid.
Bezos added his own bizarre twist to the saga when he claimed his phone had been hacked by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi leader and former friend (turned enemy when MbS cronies murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for Bezos’ Washington Post). This is certainly possible, Brad concludes; MbS sent Bezos bizarre cryptic videos via WhatsApp that may have installed spyware on his phone. But there’s no proof for Bezos’ claim that the Saudis were involved in the Enquirer scheme. Why would they need to be, when the simple explanation known as Michael Sanchez is right there?
We may never know what Bezos was thinking in these moments, or why he cared so little about MacKenzie that he was openly dating Sanchez a year before the divorce. Perhaps one day the flawed genius of Amazon will pen his autobiography; his pithy, witty “No thank you, Mr. Pecker” Medium post, in response to the Enquirer‘s extortion, shows that Bezos has a gift for writing more than just six-page business memos. Until then, Brad’s two-volume account of his life’s work is the most compelling thing going.