It feels sometimes like the “enemy hordes are at the gates,” an Amazon shareholder told Jeff Bezos at the company’s annual meeting in 2018. “Is this the price one pays for getting this big, this powerful? Is this a trend? Is it going to blow over?”
The Amazon founder was eager to answer, as we reported from inside the meeting in Seattle. All large institutions “deserve to be inspected and scrutinized,” Bezos said, acknowledging how much the company had grown. “It’s normal.”
Bezos said he advises people inside the company not to take this scrutiny personally, which he said can lead to a counterproductive response.
“There’s only one way to handle it,” he said, “and that is that we have to conduct ourselves in such a way that when we are scrutinized, we pass with flying colors.”
We’re putting all of this to the test.
GeekWire is launching a new podcast, “Day 2,” that will examine the impact of the company’s business on the world. We’ll do this through in-depth conversations with people directly involved, and with experts in the underlying issues.
As people who follow the company know, Bezos’ mantra is that it’s always “Day 1,” approaching the world with the fresh mindset and clear eyes of a startup.
The phrase is so infused into Amazon’s culture that it’s the name of the company’s headquarters tower on its campus north of downtown Seattle. When Bezos moved offices, the “Day One” name went with him to the new building down the street.
So what does Amazon consider Day 2? “Day 2 is stasis,” Bezos said at an internal meeting a few years ago. “Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”
This podcast is about none of those things. We do not posit that Amazon has entered a period of decline. On the contrary, the company continues to be one of the most impressive business growth stories in modern history. As tech and business reporters in Seattle, we’re fortunate to get to cover such a fascinating company in our backyard.
But at a company that built an empire obsessing about its customers, what if “Day 2” could instead mean an expanded mindset, larger awareness and a bigger sense of responsibility for its impact on everything else? Could Amazon do this without losing its innovative edge? Could the company (and the world) ultimately be better off as a result?
With Bezos stepping aside as CEO, and Andy Jassy and a new generation of leaders taking the helm, there’s no better time to ask these questions.
Of course, these issues are not black and white. As our reporting has repeatedly shown, Amazon has expanded its focus well beyond the customer in recent years: rallying other corporate titans to join its climate pledge, launching a $2 billion housing fund, supporting a wide variety of education initiatives, literally building a homeless shelter into its campus, and keeping businesses afloat during the pandemic. The list goes on and on.
Bezos personally launched a $10 billion Earth Fund, and allocated $2 billion to his Day 1 Fund for early childhood education and families experiencing homelessness.
In the meantime, the company has hardly stopped growing in size and influence. Since the end of 2018, Amazon has added 650,000 new employees, doubling in size to 1.3 million people. Its profits have also doubled to more than $21 billion annually, and its net sales are up 50% to $386 billion. Its market value is more than $1.5 trillion.
Its cloud computing division, Amazon Web Services, powers many of the world’s online businesses, bringing in $45 billion in annual revenue and $13.5 billion in profits on its own.
Back in 2018, the shareholder who asked Bezos about Amazon’s “bumpy year” cited issues such as antitrust inquiries, questions over corporate taxes, and attacks from then-President Donald Trump. These days, the list would also include its response to a nascent union movement; its treatment of third-party sellers; its approach to artificial intelligence and privacy; and its handling of COVID-19 in its fulfillment network. This list could go on, too.
“I think Amazon is an amazing story. Not only Jeff Bezos as an American success story, but this company is literally changing the world,” said Jason Boyce, a former Amazon third-party seller. “I’m infinitely impressed with what they have accomplished and what they are doing. But they have reached a point where they are so big, and so powerful — I challenge anyone to try to do anything online that doesn’t touch Amazon in some way — that I think we have to take a different look.”
We first connected with Boyce after spotting him in the footnotes of the U.S. House antitrust committee’s report on the big tech titans last year, which recounted “several instances over his seventeen years as a seller when Amazon leveraged his work, undercut him on price, and eventually drove him out of business.”
Boyce is the co-author of “The Amazon Jungle,” and the founder and CEO of Avenue7Media, an agency that works with third-party retailers on Amazon. After he joined us as a guest on our flagship GeekWire Podcast, for episodes about the future of retail and Amazon’s emerging competition with Shopify, we asked him to collaborate and join us on a standalone podcast about Amazon, and he agreed. My colleague John Cook and I, longtime business and tech journalists and GeekWire’s co-founders, will take turns hosting the show.
We will be bringing in a mix of guests as the episodes roll out, seeking to understand topics from multiple perspectives. These are complex issues, worthy of in-depth exploration and insightful conversations. This was underscored in our first “Day 2” episode with Peter Dering of Peak Design, whose company issued a savagely funny video mocking Amazon for knocking off its popular camera bag. As you’ll hear, Dering’s take on the issue is much more evolved and pragmatic than a sound bite on a news segment might suggest.
“I’m super grateful for the platform here to explain, at a deeper level, the thoughts going on in my head and Peak Design’s head,” Dering said as we wrapped up the conversation. “This is just like every other important social issue that we are facing right now. It requires a nuanced discussion.”
The episode with Dering and an introductory conversation with Jason, John and me are available now to Day 2 podcast subscribers and in the players above. We’ll have more on GeekWire next week.
Subscribe to the Day 2 podcast in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen. (Podcast feed available here.)