Amazon Leadership and Technology

In 1998 I was pursuing a master's degree when a classmate suggested I avoid the bookstore and buy my books online at a site called Back then Amazon had 1.5M customers; they now have 137M; their revenue was less than $148M and now its $9.86B; they just sold books then, and now they sell just about everything. Why have they been so successful? Two things come to mind: leadership and technology.

Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, still abides by the investment philosophy he outlined in his 1997 letter to shareholders (I have bolded certain phrases):

Because of our emphasis on the long term, we may make decisions and weigh tradeoffs differently than some companies. Accordingly, we want to share with you our fundamental management and decision-making approach so that you, our shareholders, may confirm that it is consistent with your investment philosophy:

  • We will continue to make investment decisions in light of long-term market leadership considerations rather than short-term profitability considerations or short-term Wall Street reactions.

  • We will continue to measure our programs and the effectiveness of our investments analytically, to jettison those that do not provide acceptable returns, and to step up our investment in those that work best. We will continue to learn from both our successes and our failures.

  • We will make bold rather than timid investment decisions where we see a sufficient probability of gaining market leadership advantages. Some of these investments will pay off, others will not, and we will have learned another valuable lesson in either case.

  • We will share our strategic thought processes with you when we make bold choices (to the extent competitive pressures allow), so that you may evaluate for yourselves whether we are making rational long-term leadership investments.

  • We will work hard to spend wisely and maintain our lean culture. We understand the importance of continually reinforcing a cost-conscious culture, particularly in a business incurring net losses.

  • We will balance our focus on growth with emphasis on long-term profitability and capital management. At this stage, we choose to prioritize growth because we believe that scale is central to achieving the potential of our business model.

  • We will continue to focus on hiring and retaining versatile and talented employees, and continue to weight their compensation to stock options rather than cash. We know our success will be largely affected by our ability to attract and retain a motivated employee base, each of whom must think like, and therefore must actually be, an owner.

We aren't so bold as to claim that the above is the "right" investment philosophy, but it's ours, and we would be remiss if we weren't clear in the approach we have taken and will continue to take.

On the technology front, here are some excerpts from Jeff's 2010 shareholder letter released yesterday:

Look inside a current textbook on software architecture, and you'll find few patterns that we don't apply at Amazon. We use high-performance transactions systems, complex rendering and object caching, workflow and queuing systems, business intelligence and data analytics, machine learning and pattern recognition, neural networks and probabilistic decision making, and a wide variety of other techniques. And while many of our systems are based on the latest in computer science research, this often hasn't been sufficient: our architects and engineers have had to advance research in directions that no academic had yet taken. Many of the problems we face have no textbook solutions, and so we -- happily -- invent new approaches.

All the effort we put into technology might not matter that much if we kept technology off to the side in some sort of R&D department, but we don't take that approach. Technology infuses all of our teams, all of our processes, our decision-making, and our approach to innovation in each of our businesses. It is deeply integrated into everything we do.

One example is Whispersync, our Kindle service designed to ensure that everywhere you go, no matter what devices you have with you, you can access your reading library and all of your highlights, notes, and bookmarks, all in sync across your Kindle devices and mobile apps. The technical challenge is making this a reality for millions of Kindle owners, with hundreds of millions of books, and hundreds of device types, living in over 100 countries around the world--at 24x7 reliability. At the heart of Whispersync is an eventually consistent replicated data store, with application defined conflict resolution that must and can deal with device isolation lasting weeks or longer. As a Kindle customer, of course, we hide all this technology from you. So when you open your Kindle, it's in sync and on the right page. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, like any sufficiently advanced technology, it's indistinguishable from magic.

These letters help to explain why Amazon has been consistently successful in building a long-term business supported by continual advancements in technology. Is it any wonder Amazon is the #1 Internet Retailer?


Jeff Bezos keeps his project teams small and empowers them with freedom to solve whichever they want. The focus is on output, not the means. Even with technology, the focus is on customer, not the how and what. Amazon success has proved again that innovation can only come from bottom.

Posted by IT Consultant on April 28, 2011 at 11:47 AM PDT #

Great point, Jennifer. Innovation does come from the bottom, but the top needs to cultivate it.

Posted by David on April 28, 2011 at 09:47 PM PDT #

Amazon's leadership in technology and online has certainly made it increasingly difficult for standard high street retail. Some people might claim that this has led to a reduction in retail jobs (e.g., but if you look at the number of jobs created by Amazon in Swansea it's hard to argue. It's just a case of the industry ensuring that online retail jobs are taken into account.

Posted by guest on May 06, 2011 at 07:58 PM PDT #

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