How does a company get to be as big as Amazon in just twenty-seven years? And how does a man become as rich as Jeff Bezos? After all, as of this writing Amazon employs nearly 1.3 million people and is valued by the stock market at $1.7 trillion. That’s trillion, with a T. And Jeff Bezos, with a fortune estimated today at about $195 billion, is the second-richest person on Earth. In Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire, journalist Brad Stone’s second book on the company and its founder, the answers emerge. The Jeff Bezos story is an impressive tale, but it’s not pretty.
This post was updated on August 18, 2021.
It’s far more than “the everything store”
To the nearly 200 million people who visit Amazon every month, the company represents an online shopping service. It’s the source of books, shoes, groceries, and millions of other items. “The everything store,” as Brad Stone described it in the title of his first account of the Jeff Bezos story. But Amazon is far more than an online store. It’s a conglomerate, ripe for the picking by the trustbusters. And the lion’s share of its profits comes not from the sale of products on its website but primarily from Amazon Web Services, which provides cloud computing resources to businesses and other institutions, and secondarily from online advertising.
Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire by Brad Stone (2021) 488 pages ★★★★★
Three world-class businesses
The online store garnered 51 percent of all online sales in 2020 and 9.2 percent of total US retail sales (compared with 9.5 percent for WalMart). But the Jeff Bezos story isn’t a profile of a merchant. Two other businesses operated by the company turned in equally impressive results.
- Amazon Web Services (AWS) commanded 32 percent of the worldwide market for cloud computing services, compared to runners-up Microsoft (19 percent) and Google (7 percent). In the most recent quarter, AWS’s revenue accounted for 47% of Amazon’s profit.
- Then there’s Amazon Logistics, which delivered 2.3 billion of the company’s packages in the U.S. in 2019. That compares with total package deliveries of 3.1 billion by FedEx, 4.7 billion by UPS, and 6.2 billion by the U.S. Postal Service. The numbers for Amazon are even more startling now, after a year of the pandemic. And according to Morgan Stanley, the company’s shipping service will surpass both UPS and FedEx by 2022.
Amazon’s online advertising operations are also remarkable, although less so. The company scored 10 percent of US digital advertising revenue in 2020; front-runner Google received 29 percent, Facebook 25 percent. And it’s worth watching Amazon’s media business, too. Prime Video was recently in the news for purchasing the storied MGM film studio. For perspective on this, see “Why Is Amazon in Entertainment?” by Shira Ovide and “James Bond, Meet Jeff Bezos: Amazon Makes $8.45 Billion Deal for MGM” (both in the New York Times, May 27, 2021).
The Jeff Bezos story also stars the two men now at the top
Why is Amazon so successful?
Stone profiles many other Amazon executives as well as Clark and Jassy. (The two are members of what Amazon calls the S-Team, or what in other companies might be termed the C-Suite.) A fair number of those executives have left the company drained to the point of exhaustion by unrelenting pressure from the top. And that pressure helps explain Amazon’s extraordinary success. But many other company founders and CEOs hound those around them without letup. Other factors seem more important in explaining the company’s success. Bezos’ intense focus on big-picture thinking. His willingness to wait for years for profits to emerge. His ability to learn from mistakes and to allow others to fail without consequences. And his insistence on constant innovation. In telling the Jeff Bezos story, Stone illustrates each of these traits with abundant examples.
No doubt about it: Jeff Bezos is a business genius
Amazon and its wide-flung operations are, of course, the centerpiece of Stone’s book. But he also relates in passing the stories of Bezos’ two other major businesses. (He owns both independently of Amazon.) At the Washington Post, which he purchased in 2013 for $250 million, Bezos has managed to turn around a money-losing enterprise into a vital, diversified media company. And at the rocket company Blue Origin, which Bezos founded in 2000, he vies with Elon Musk‘s SpaceX for primacy in the private space industry. Bezos has come in second best to date, but given his history of success piled on success it would be foolhardy to count him out. The Jeff Bezos story is far from over.
About the author
Journalist Brad Stone (1971-) is senior executive editor of the global technology group at Bloomberg News. He’s based in Bloomberg’s San Francisco bureau. Earlier in his career, he worked as a reporter for the New York Times and Newsweek. Amazon Unbound is the fourth of his books and the second he has written about Amazon.
For more reading
Earlier I reviewed the first of Brad Stone’s books about Amazon,The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (The Jeff Bezos story, or why I hate Amazon.com). I also reviewed his book, The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World (Uber, Airbnb, and the sharing economy).
Be sure to check out another important book about the company: Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America by Alec MacGillis (Assessing the havoc Amazon has created).
For more perspective on the company and on this book, you might check out two major articles in the New York Times. On June 15, 2021, the paper ran a massive article that filled five full pages in the print edition: “The Amazon That Customers Don’t See” about the conditions facing Amazon’s immense workforce. And the New York Times Book Review ran media columnist Ben Smith’s review, “To Understand Amazon, We Must Understand Jeff Bezos” (June 13, 2021).
You might also enjoy the novel,The Warehouse by Rob Hart (Amazon on steroids in a grim near-future dystopia).
Like to read books about business? Check out My 10 favorite books about business history and the 10 best books about innovation. And be sure to see The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age by Tim Wu (It’s time for antitrust: break up big corporations to restore democracy).
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.