Last modified: November 30, 2000 10:40 AM PST
Despite tough year, Amazon's Bezos keeps his chin up
Last year Time Magazine's designation capped off an amazing run for Bezos and Amazon, the e-tail giant he founded in 1995. With record numbers shopping online, the Seattle-based company's stock reached an all-time high, its holiday sales beat expectations and Bezos and Amazon seemed to be the vanguard of a brave new retail world.
But this year has been a struggle for Bezos and his famously unprofitable company. The year started with the company's first-ever layoffs and is closing with some of its workers trying to unionize. In between, as investors cast increasingly wary eyes on e-commerce, Amazon saw its growth rate slow, its market value plummet and some of its partners wither and die.
Despite everything, Bezos remains upbeat. In a recent interview at Amazon's distribution center in Fernley, Nev., Bezos talked with CNET News.com's Troy Wolverton about Amazon's successes, defended its business strategy and discussed his and Amazon's future plans.
CNET News.com: What's been the biggest surprise of running Amazon.com?
Bezos: Well, the biggest surprise for sure--and it has no close contender--is just where we are today. I mean, I am the most surprised person on the planet about what's happened over the last five years.
This is not what happens. We started and wanted to build a small, profitable company. And of course we built a large, unprofitable company. That is, however, by design.
We saw that this was working incredibly well and we really wanted to invest in our business, invest geographically, invest in new product categories, make the most of this opportunity. But the fact that this opportunity even exists I think is just awe-inspiring surprising.
What's been the biggest disappointment?
It's pretty hard to be very disappointed when we as a company have won this huge lottery.
Start-up companies, to get anywhere, have to have all the planets aligned. And for start-up companies to turn into important, lasting companies, the planets, the stars and the globular clusters have to align. (laughs) It is a very rare event.
To get where you are today?
Yes. The 48th best-known brand name in the world across any industry or category. This, in only five years. To have 25 million customers. Anybody who would have predicted any of those things in such a short period of time would have needed to have been immediately institutionalized.
So what do you see as the biggest success of Amazon so far?
I'd say the best success is probably the reputation that we've earned for
Bezos on how the game changed in e-commerce
We've always taken our promises to customers seriously. It's the one inviolate thing at Amazon.com. And I think our customers know it and I think they've responded to it. I think that's the reason that we have 25 million customers--many times the size of our nearest competitors--is because we really do care about that.
Regarding the mantra of "get big fast," do you have any second thoughts about that? Was that the wrong strategy?
No, it was absolutely the right strategy. If we hadn't pursued that strategy, you would not be interviewing me right now. It wouldn't be worth your time.
How would you have been different?
Well, we probably wouldn't have gotten the scale that we need to be a lasting e-commerce business.
E-commerce--as opposed to physical retailing--is a scale business. Scaled businesses are characterized by relatively large fixed costs and relatively small variable costs. And that's exactly the kind of business we have.
If you're in a physical retailing environment, if you double sales, you basically double costs. You have twice as many square feet. You have twice as many sales associates. That's not how our business works.
In our case, we make big investments in technology. If we write software to help people with a gift wizard, it doesn't matter whether we have 25 million customers or 1 million customers--it costs just as much to write that gift wizard. So those are very scalable investments.
The technology investments are, but what about the infrastructure
Actually, they're very scalable relative to physical world commerce.
Even today, when our model is not showing its full strength because we're still honing it, we still have twice the sales per employee of even the very best mass merchants that have been honing their model for decades.
A number of different e-tailers across the Web, many of whom are
crashing and burning right now, also attempted to get big fast. Was it right for them to follow your strategy?
I don't know, I think it depends a lot on the particulars. Every time and every business requires its own strategy.
In our case, we were so early that it was the right strategy for us. And you can argue that companies coming on the scene now have to take a slower approach.
Companies that Amazon invested in, such as Pets.com, Living.com and Kozmo.com, all tried to get big fast. What did you counsel them to do?
Bezos on getting big fast
I would claim that we always, even though we were working to get big fast, we were always quite cautious on our cost structure. The first really major investment we made in our cost structure was in 1999, just a year ago, when we invested $300 million in our distribution center network.
Get big fast does not mean build a huge cost structure. I think it's a very important distinction.