[This was written in mid’21, and I had posted it as a Notion page. Now consolidating all of these reviews posted elsewhere into this site.]

Published 2021. 478 pages. Read Jun’21.

SPW stands for Sajith Pai’s words. These are my notes, comments, markups on the text.

SPW: Classic business narrative faction (my term for nonfiction) by one of the best Amazon-watchers out there. Brad Stone had written a previous book ‘The Everything Store’ which covers Amazon from its early years until 2012. This one can be seen as a continuation of that – drilling deeper into a company that has become one of the central actors of the tech era – but also an independent read covering its progress and missteps in several areas such as contactless grocery (Amazon Go), mobile phones (Fire phone), smart speakers (Alexa), content production (Prime Video) etc. 

Given my background in media, I thought chapter 10 on how its ad business emerged and grew, was really interesting; specifically pgs 254-57 around the decision, which Bezos, took to launch sponsored products, i.e., have paid for products appear above organic search, even at the risk of a noticeable drop off in customer purchases. There is also an interesting chapter on the pandemic, and Amazon’s response to it. Overall, an easy to read book, and one that portrays its subjects –  Bezos and Amazon – in a nuanced manner, without excessively eulogising or demonising them.

Here is what I found interesting to add to my notes folder.

PRFAQ (pg 31) – “six-page narrative Amazonians craft in the form of a press release at the start of a new initiative to envision the product’s market impact. The paper; a hallowed part of Amazon’s rituals around innovation. forces them to beginany conversation about a new product in terms of the benefit it creates for customers.” 

SPW: Narratives are essentially 6-page writeups; what Amazonians use in lieu of powerpoint. In the PRFAQ, you write out a mock press release to announce the product launch. The description of the product’s features and benefits leads you to visualize the product from the customer’s end, as well as get a sense of the different product features you need, as well as the benefits that you need to work towards.

MLP or Minimum Lovable Product (pg 48) – “At Amazon, Jeff Wilke had popularized the idea of calling it (MVP or Minimum Viable Product) “minimum lovable product” or MLP, asking, “what would we be proud to take to the market?”

‘Stubborn on vision, flexible on details’ (pg 63) – “Despite three years of work, Amazon hadn’t opened a single store. So in the peculiar fashion of invention at Amazon, they created separate teams to pursue the singular goal of bringing the company into the vast realm of physical retail. Bezos liked to say Amazon was “stubborn on vision, flexible on details” and here was an illustration: groups working on parallel tracks would essentially compete to fulfill the ‘just walk out’ ideal and solve the problem of the cashierless store.

Product names like Redshift, Aurora (pg 98) – “These were typically Amazonian names: geeky, obscure and endlessly debated inside AWS, since according to an early AWS exec, Bezos had once mused, “You know, the name is about 3% of what matters. But sometimes 3% is the difference between winning and losing.”

“Good intentions don’t work, but mechanisms do” (pg 100) – “Bezos liked to say “Good intentions don’t work, but mechanisms do”. Inside AWS, (Andy) Jassy applied that adage ferociously. The rhythms of a week at AWS revolved around several formal ‘mechanisms’ or well-honed processes or rituals.” 

SPW: There is a description of one of their key mechanisms – the Wednesday morning meeting, which infact are two meetings – the 2-hr operations review “to assess the technical performance of each web service” – attended by engineers – and the 90-min midday business review, “where the top 200 managers discussed the minute details of each customer, competitive developments and the financial health of each product unit.” I found it interesting that they used a randomizer to determine who to call to speak – since time was limited – “with the goal being, Jassy said to make sure managers were “on top of the key metrics of their service all week long, because there is a chance they may have to speak to it in detail.”

Jeffisms – “multiple paths to yes” (pg 127): “He also exposed them to a steady stream of Jeffisms: about one-way and two-way doors; how double the experimentation equals twice the innovation; how ‘data overrules hierarchy’ and there are ‘multiple paths to yes’ – an Amazonian notion that an employee with a new idea who gets a negative reaction from one manager should be free to shop it to another, lest a promising concept get smothered in infancy.”

‘Ingredients of epic storytelling’ or “what it takes to make a great show” (pg 151): These are principles or ingredients of storytelling, as ideated by Bezos, with inputs from Roy Price of Amazon Studios.

  • a heroic protagonist who experiences growth and change
  • a compelling antagonist
  • wish fulfillment (the protagonist has hidden abilities like superpowers or magic) 
  • moral choices
  • diverse world-building (different geographic landscapes)
  • urgency to watch next episode (cliffhangers)
  • civilizational high stakes (global threat to humanity like a pandemic, or disaster, or alien invasion)
  • humor
  • betrayal
  • positive emotions (love, joy, hope)
  • negative emotions (loss, sorrow)
  • violence

(SPW: perhaps ‘wish fulfillment’ and ‘superpowers should be two separate ingredients? They seem mixed up here.)

Campfire (pg 153-54): SPW: Amazon has a private retreat called Campfire– think of it as an internal TED talks session – where they get ‘literati and glitterati’ to do talks. The sessions, spread over a weekend sponsored by Amazon, consisted of “talks, lavish meals, intimate conversations, and hikes.” Looks like it was launched primarily with writers in mind, but as Amazon has expanded strongly into video production, they have both writers and visual creators / storytellers now.

Principal engineers (pg 205): “Amazon also sent in the ‘principal engineers’: an elite squad of about a dozen technical wizards at the company who parachute into troubled projects to diagnose problems.”

Social license to operate (pg 291): “Internal documents at the company advocated that Amazon do enough to maintain its ‘social license to operate’ – the business concept that refers to the public’s acceptance of a company, its employees and business practices.”

The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America by Marc Levinson (pg 350): SPW: Bexos had the S-team (the senior team at Amazon) and the board read this book in the fall of 2019, in order to absorb and align around one of the key reasons for the company’s decline – “unusual passivity in the face of early criticism”.