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Lessons from Amazon’s Early Growth Strategy

HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR On Strategy, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock new ways of doing business.

So much has been written about Amazon’s outsized growth. But Harvard Business School professor Sunil Gupta says it’s the company’s unusual approach to strategy that has captured his scholarly attention.

Gupta has spent years studying Amazon’s strategy and its founder and former CEO, Jeff Bezos.

In this episode, Gupta shares how Amazon upended traditional corporate strategy by diversifying into multiple products serving many end users instead of focusing more narrowly.

And he argues that some of their simplest business strategies – like their obsession with the customer and insistence on long-term thinking – are approaches that companies, big and small, should emulate.

If you’re interested in innovation strategy, this episode is for you. It originally aired on HBR IdeaCast in November 2020. Here it is.

ALISON BEARD:  Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review.  I’m Alison Beard.

If you had to name the most successful business leader alive today, who would you say?  I can’t hear you from my basement podcasting room, but I would bet that for many of you, the answer is Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.  This is a man who over the past 25 years turned his online bookstore startup into a diversified company currently valued at $1.6 trillion.

Amazon is a digital retailing juggernaut, it’s also a web services provider, media producer, and manufacturer of personal technology devices like Kindle and Echo.  Oh, and Bezos also owns the Washington Post and Blue Origin, a space exploration company.  Forbes tells us he is the richest person in the world.

How did he accomplish so much?  How did he change the business landscape?  What mistakes has he made along the way?  A new collection of Bezos’s own writing, which full disclosure, my colleagues at Harvard Business Review Press have published, offer some insights.  Here’s a clip from one speech that’s included.  The book is called Invent and Wander.

And our guest today, who has spent years studying both Amazon and Bezos, is here to talk with me about some of the key themes in it, including the broad drivers of both the company and the CEO’s success.  Sunil Gupta is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and cochair of its executive program, and cochair of its executive program on driving digital strategy, which is also the title of his book.  Sunil, thanks so much for being on the show.

SUNIL GUPTA:  Thank you for having me, Alison.

ALISON BEARD:  So Invent and Wander.  I get that Bezos is inventive.  You know, he created a new way for us to buy things – everything.  How is he also a wonderer?

SUNIL GUPTA:  So he’s full of experiments.  His company and his whole style is known for experimentation, and he says that in so many words that if you want big winners, then you have to be willing to have many failures.  And the argument is, one big winner will take care of a thousand failed experiments.  So I think that’s the wandering part.  But also his experiments are not aimless.  There is a certain thought and process behind what experiments to do and why they will connect to the old, old picture of what Amazon is today.

ALISON BEARD:  And your expertise is in digital strategy.  How does he break the traditional rules of strategy?

SUNIL GUPTA:  So for the longest time the way, at least I was taught in my MBA program and the way we teach to our MBA students and executives, is strategy is about focus.  But if you look at Amazon, Amazon certainly doesn’t look like it’s focusing on anything, so obviously Jeff Bezos missed that class, otherwise it’s a very, very different thing.

And then you’d say, why is it that so called lack of focus strategy seems to be working for Amazon?  And I think the fundamental underlying principle that he’s guiding his whole discussion of strategy is, he’s changed the rules of strategy.  So the old rules of strategy were, the way you gained competitive advantage is by being better or cheaper.  So if I am selling you a car, my car is better of cheaper.  But the inherent assumption in that strategy statement is, I’m selling one product to one customer.  And what Amazon is basically arguing is, the digital economy is all about connection.  We have got to connect products and connect customers.  Let me explain why that is so powerful.

So connecting products, here the idea is, I can sell you, this is a classic razor and blade strategy.  I can sell you a razor cheap in order to make money on the blade.  So I can sell you Kindle cheap in order to make money on the ebooks.  Now, at some level you might say, hey, razor and blade have been around forever.  What’s so unique today?  I think unique today is razor could be in one industry and blades could be in completely different industrys.

So for example, if you look at Amazon’s portfolio of businesses, you sort of say, not only Amazon is an e-commerce player, but also is making movies and TV shows, its own studio.  Well, why does it make sense for an e-commerce player, an online retailer to compete with Hollywood.  Well, Walmart doesn’t make movies.  Macy’s doesn’t make movies?  So why does it make sense for Amazon to make movies?

And I think once you dig into it, the answer becomes clear that the purpose of the movies is to keep and gain the Prime customers. Two day free shipping is fine, but if  you ask me to pay $99 or $119 for two day free shipping, I might start doing the math in my head, and say, OK, how many packages do I expect to get next year?  And is the Prime membership worth it or not?

But once you throw in, in addition to the two-day free shipping, you throw in some TV shows and movies that are uniquely found only on Amazon, I can’t do this math.  And why is Prime customers important to Amazon?  Because Prime customers are more loyal.  They buy three or four times more than the non-Prime customers, and they’re also less price sensitive.

And in fact, Jeff Bezos has said publicly that every time we win a Golden Globe Award for one of our shows, we sell more shoes.  So this is, and he said it in your book, Invent and Wander, also, that we might be the only company in the world which has figured out how winning Golden Globe Awards can actually translate into selling more products on the online commerce.

So this is a great example of the razor being in a very different industry and blade being in another industry.  Take another example.  Amazon has a lending business where they give loans to small and medium enterprises. If Amazon decides to compete with banks tomorrow, Amazon can decide to offer loans to the small merchants at such a low price that banks would never be able to compete.  And why would Amazon be able to do that?  Because Amazon can say, hey, I’m not going to make money on loans, as much money on loans, but I’ll make more money when these businesses, small businesses grow and do more transactions on my marketplace platform.  And I get more commissions.  So again, loan can become my razor in order to help the merchants grow and make money on the transaction and the commission that I get from that.  The moment I make somebody else’s, in this case the banks, core business my razor, they will make a very hard time competing.  So I think that’s the key change, the fundamental rules of strategy and competition in that direction.

The second part of connection is connecting customers, and this is the classic network effect.  So marketplace is a great example of network effects.  The more buyers I have, the more sellers I have.  The more sellers I have, the sellers I have, the more buyers I get, because the buyers can find all the items.  And that becomes flywheel effect, and it becomes a situation where it’s very hard for a new player to complete with Amazon.

ALISON BEARD:  In this diversification that Amazon has done, how have they managed to be good at all of those things?  Because they’re not focused.  You know, they’re not concentrated on an area of specific expertise.  So how have they succeeded when other companies might have failed because they lacked that expertise, or they were spreading themselves too thin?

SUNIL GUPTA:  So I think it depends on how you define focus.  Most of us, when we define focus, we sort of define focus by traditional industry boundaries, that I’m an online retailer, therefore going into some other business is lack of focus.  The way Amazon thinks about is focus on capabilities.

So if you look at it from that point of view, I would argue that Amazon had three fundamental core capabilities.  Number one, it’s highly customer focused, not only in its culture, but also in its capability in terms of how it can actually handle data and leverage data to get customer insight.  The second core capability of Amazon is logistics.  So it’s now a world class logistics player.  It uses really frontier technology, whether it’s key word, robotics, computer vision, in its warehouse to make it much more efficient.

And the third part of Amazon’s skill or the capability is its technology.  And a good example of that is Amazon Web Services, or AWS.  And I think if you look at these three core capabilities, customer focus and the data insight that it gets from that, the logistics capability, and the technology, everything that Amazon is doing is some way or the other connected to it.  In that sense, Amazon, and there’s no lack of focus, in my judgment on Amazon.

Now, if he starts doing, starts making cream cheese tomorrow or starts making airplane engines, then I would say, yes, it’s got a lack of focus.  But one of the other things that Jeff Bezos has said again and again is this notion of work backwards and scale forward.  And what that means is, because you’re customer obsessed, you sort of find ways to satisfy customers, and if that means developing new skills that we don’t have because we are working backwards from what the customer needs are, then we’ll build those skills.

So a good example of that is, when Amazon started building Kindle, Amazon was never in the hardware business.  It didn’t know how to build hardware.  But Bezos realized that as the industry moved, people are beginning to read more and more online, rather, or at least on their devices, rather than the physical paper copy of a book.  So as a result, he says, how do we make it easier for consumers to read it on an electronic version?  And they’re spending three years learning about this capability of hardware manufacturing.  And by the way, Kindle came out long before iPad came out.  And of course, that capability now has helped them launch Echo and many other devices.

ALISON BEARD:  Right.  So it’s the focus on the customer, plus a willingness to go outside your comfort zone, the wander part.

SUNIL GUPTA:  Exactly.

ALISON BEARD:  Yeah.  How would you describe Bezos’s leadership style?

SUNIL GUPTA:  So I think there are at least three parts to it.  One is, he said right from day one that he wants to be a long-term focus.  The second thing is being customer obsessed.  And many times he has said that he can imagine, in the meetings he wants people to imagine an empty chair.  That is basically for the customer. And he says, we are not competitor focused.  We are not product focused.  We are not technology focused.  We are customer focused.  And the third is, willingness to experiment.  And fail, and build that culture in the company that it’s OK to fail.

ALISON BEARD:  What about personally, though?  Is he a hard charger?  Is he an active listener?  What’s it like to be in a room with him?

SUNIL GUPTA:  Oh, he’s certainly a hard charger.  I mean, he’s also the kind of guy, when he hires people, he says, you can work long, hard, or smart.  But at Amazon, you can choose two out of three.  And I think this is similar to many other leaders.  If you look at Steve Jobs, he was also a very hard charging guy.  And I think some people find it exhilarating to work with these kind of leaders.  Some find it very tough.

ALISON BEARD:  Do you think that he communicates differently from other successful CEOs?

SUNIL GUPTA:  So the communication style that he has built in the company is the very famous now, there’s no PowerPoints.  So it’s a very thoughtful discussion.  You write six-page memos, which everybody, when their meeting starts, everybody sits down and actually reads the memo.

In fact, this was a very interesting experience that I had.  One of my students, who was in the executive program, works at Amazon in Germany.  And he is, he was at that point in time thinking of moving to another company and becoming a CEO of that company.  So he said, can I talk to you about this change of career path that I’m thinking about?  I said, sure.  So we set up a time, and five minutes before our call, he sends me an email with a six-page memo.  And I said, well, shouldn’t he have sent this to me before, so I could at least look at it?  He says, no, that’s the Amazon style.  We’ll sit in silence and read it together.  And so I read it together, because then you’re completely focused on it.  And then we can have a conversation.  But this discipline of writing a six-page memo, it’s a very, very unique experience, because you actually have to think through all your arguments.

ALISON BEARD:  You also mentioned the long term focus, and that really stood out for me, too, this idea that he is not at all thinking of next year.  He’s thinking five years out, and sometimes even further.  But as a public company, how has Amazon been able to stick to that?  And is it replicable at other companies?

SUNIL GUPTA:  I think it is replicable.  It requires conviction, and it requires a way to articulate the vision to Wall Street that they can rally behind.  And it’s completely replicable.  There are other examples of companies who have followed a similar strategy.  I mean, Netflix is a good example.  Netflix hadn’t made money for a long period of time.  But they sold the vision of what the future will look like, and Wall Street bought that vision.

Mastercard is exactly the same thing.  Ajay Banga is giving three year guidance to Wall Street saying, this is my three-year plan, because things can change quarter to quarter.  I’m still responsible to tell you what we are doing this quarter, but my strategy will not be guided by what happens today.  It will be guided by the three-year plan that we have.

ALISON BEARD:  There are so many companies now that go public without turning any profit, whereas Amazon now is printing money, and thus able to reinvest and have this grand vision.  So at what point was Bezos able to say, right, we’re going to do it my way?

SUNIL GUPTA:  I think he said it right from day one, except that people probably didn’t believe it.  And in fact, one of the great examples of that was, when he was convinced about AWS, the Amazon Web Services, that was back in the early 2000s, when a majority of the Wall Street was not sure what Jeff Bezos was trying to do, because they say, hey, you are an online retailer.  You have no business being in web services.  That’s the business of IBM.  And that’s a B2B business.  You’re in a B2C business.  Why are you going in there?

And Bezos said, well, we have plenty of practice of being misunderstood.  And we will continue with our passion and vision, because we see the path.  And now he’s proven it again and again why his vision is correct, and I think that could give us more faith and conviction to the Wall Street investors.

SUNIL GUPTA:  Oh, absolutely.  And he’s one of the persons who has his opinion, and you always surround yourself with people better than you.

ALISON BEARD:  How has he managed to attract that talent when it is so fiercely competitive between Google, Facebook, all of these U.S. technology leaders?

SUNIL GUPTA:  So a couple of things I would say.  First of all, it’s always good fun to join a winning team.  And all of us want to join a winning team, so this certainly is on a trajectory which is phenomenal.  It’s like a rocket ship that is taking off and has been taking off for the last 25 years.  So I think that’s certainly attractive to many people, and certainly many hard charging people who want to be on a winning team.

And a second thing is, Amazon’s culture of experimentation and innovation.  That is energizing to a lot of people.  It’s not a bureaucracy where you get bogged down by the processes.  So the two type of decisions that we talked about, he gives you enough leeway to try different things, and is willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into things that may or may not succeed in the future.  And I think that’s very liberating to people who are willing to take on the ownership and build something.

ALISON BEARD:  But don’t all of the tech companies offer that?

SUNIL GUPTA:  They do, but if you think about many other tech companies, they’re much more narrow in focus.  So Facebook is primarily in social media.  Google is primarily in search advertising.  Yes, you have GoogleX, but that’s still a small part of what Google does.  Whereas if you ask yourself what business is Amazon in, there are much broader expansive areas that Amazon has gone into.  So I think the limits, I mean, Amazon does not have that many limits or boundaries as compared to many other businesses in Silicon Valley.

ALISON BEARD:  So let’s talk a little bit about Bezos’s acquisition strategy.  I think the most prominent is probably Whole Foods, but there are many others.  How does he think about the companies that he wants to bring in as opposed to grow organically?

SUNIL GUPTA:  So some acquisitions are areas where he thinks that he can actually benefit and accelerate the vision that he already has.  So for example, the acquisition of Kiva was to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the systems that he already put in place in his warehouse.  And logistics and warehouse is a key component or key part of Amazon’s business, and he saw that Kiva already was ahead of the curve in technology that he probably wanted to have that in his own company.  So that was obvious acquisition, because that fits in the existing business.

Whole Foods is kind of a slightly different story, in my judgment, because I some ways, you can argue, why is Amazon, an online player, buying an offline retail store, Whole Foods?  And in fact, they bought it at 27% premium.  So that doesn’t make sense for an online retailer commerce to go to offline channels.  And I think, in fact, part of the reason in my judgment is, it’s not just Whole Foods, but it’s about the food business, per se.  And why is Amazon so interested in food?  In fact, Amazon has been trying this food business, online food delivery for a long period of time without much success.  And Whole Foods was one, another way to try and get access to that particular business.  And why is that so important to Amazon, even though you could argue, food is a low margin business?

And I would say, part of the reason is, food is something, grocery is something that you buy every week, perhaps twice a week.  And if I, as Amazon, can convince you to buy grocery online from Amazon, then I’m creating a habit for you to come onto Amazon every week, perhaps twice a week.  And once you are on Amazon, you will end up buying other products on Amazon.  Whereas if you are buying electronics, you may not come to Amazon every day.

So this is a habit creation activity, and again, it may not be a very high margin activity to sell you food.  But I’ve created a habit, just like Prime.  I’ve created a loyal customer where you think of nothing else but Amazon for your daily needs, and therefore you end up buying other things.

ALISON BEARD:  And Amazon isn’t without controversy.  You know, and we should talk about that, too.  First, there are questions about its treatment of warehouse employees, particularly during COVID.  And Bezos, as you said, has always been relentlessly focused on the customer.  But is Amazon employee centric, too?

SUNIL GUPTA:  So I think there is definitely some areas of concern, and you rightly said there is a significant concern about the, during the COVID, workers were complaining about safety, the right kind of equipment.  But even before COVID, there were a lot of concerns about whether the workers are being pushed too hard.  They barely have any breaks.  And they’re constantly on the go, because speed and efficiency become that much more important to make sure customers always get what they are promised.  And in fact, more than promised.

Clearly Amazon either hasn’t done a good job, or hasn’t at least done the public relations part of it that they have done a good job.  Now, if you ask Jeff Bezos, he will claim that, no, actually, they have done things.  For example, they offer something called carrier choice, where they give 95% tuition to the employees to learn new skills, whether they’re relevant to Amazon or not.  Pretty much like what Starbucks does for its baristas, for college education and other things.  But I think more than just giving money or tuition, it requires a bit of empathy and sense that you care for your employees, and perhaps that needs, that’s something that Amazon needs to work on.

ALISON BEARD:  And another challenge is the criticism that it has decimated mom and pop shops.  Even when someone sells through Amazon, the company will then see that it’s a popular category and create it itself and start selling it itself.  There’s environmental concerns about the fact that packages are being driven from warehouses to front doors all over America.  And boxes and packaging.  So how has Bezos, how has the company dealt with all of that criticism?

SUNIL GUPTA:  They haven’t.  And I think those are absolutely valid concerns on both counts, that the small sellers who grow to become reasonably big are always under the radar, and there are certainly anecdotal evidence there, small sellers have complained that Amazon had decided to sell exactly the same item that they were so successful in selling, and becoming too big is actually not good on Amazon, because Amazon can get into your business and wipe you away.  So that’s certainly a big concern, and I think that’s something that needs to be sorted out, and Amazon needs to clarify what its position on that area is, because it benefits from these small sellers on his platform.

And your second question about environmental issues is also absolutely on the money, because not only emission issues, but there’s so many boxes that pile in, certainly in my basement, from Amazon.  You sort of say, and it’s actually ironical that Millennials who are in love with Amazon are extremely environmentally friendly.  But at the same time, they would not hesitate to order something from Amazon and pile up all these boxes.  So I think Amazon needs to figure out a way to think about both those issues.

ALISON BEARD:  And at what point will it have to?  I mean, it seems to be rolling happily along.

SUNIL GUPTA:  Well, I think those issues are becoming bigger and bigger, and it’s certainly in the eye of the regulators, also, for some of these practices.  And not only because it’s too big, and there might be monopoly concerns, but these issues will become larger, and any time you become a large company, you become the center of attraction for broader issues than just providing shareholder value.

ALISON BEARD:  Yeah.  So those are weaknesses possibly for the company.  What are some of Bezos’s personal weaknesses that you’ve seen in studying him and the company?

SUNIL GUPTA:  So I think one thing that stands out to me, and at least in the public forums, I have not seen any empathy.  And it’s, I mean, we talk about that the leaders have, should have three qualities.  They should be competent.  They should have a good character.  And they should have compassion.  So he’s certainly very competent.  I mean, he’s brilliant in many aspects, right, from the computer vision and AI and machine learning, to the nuances of data analytics, to the Hollywood production, etc.  He also seems to have good character, at least I have not heard any personal scandals, apart from his other issues in his personal life, perhaps.

Those characteristics of competence and character make people respect you.  What makes people love you is when you show compassion, and at least I haven’t seen compassion or empathy that comes out of him.  I mean, he certainly comes across as a very hard charging, driven person, which probably is good for business.  But the question of empathy is perhaps something lacking right now.

ALISON BEARD:  Yeah.  The other issue is his just enormous wealth.  He did invent this colossally valuable company, but should anyone really be that rich?

SUNIL GUPTA:  Well, I guess that’s, you can say that’s the good or the bad thing about capitalism.  But I think, and again, my personal view is there’s nothing wrong in becoming rich, if you have been successful and done it with hard work and ingenuity.  But how you use your wealth is something that perhaps will define Jeff Bezos going forward.  I think Bill Gates is a great example how he actually has used his wealth and his influence and his expertise and his brilliance into some certain thing that actually is great for humanity.

Now, whether Jeff Bezos does that down the road, I don’t know, whether his space exploration provides that sort of outlet which is both his passion as well as good for humanity, I don’t know.  But at some point in time, I think it’s the responsibility of these leaders to sort of say, my goal is not simply to make money and make my shareholders rich, but also help humanity and help society.

ALISON BEARD:  If you’re talking to someone who’s running a startup, or even a manager of a team at a traditional company, what is the key lesson that you would say, this is what you can learn from Jeff Bezos?  This is what you can put to work in your own profession?

SUNIL GUPTA:  So I would say two things that at least I would take away if I were doing a startup.  One is customer obsession.  Now, every company says that, but honestly, not every company does it, because if you go to the management meetings, if you go to the quarterly meetings, you suddenly go focus on financials and competition and product.  But there’s rarely any conversation on customers.  And I think, as I mentioned earlier, that Jeff Bezos always tells his employee to think of the imaginary chair in which a customer is sitting, because that’s the person that we need to focus on.  Howard Shultz does the same thing at Starbucks, and that’s why Starbucks is so customer focused.

So I think that’s the first part.  And the argument that Bezos gives is, customers are never satisfied.  And that pushes us to innovate and move forward, so we need to innovate even before the rest of the world even sees that, because customers are the first ones to see what is missing in the offering that you have.

And the second I would say that I would take away from Jeff Bezos is the conviction and passion with what you do.  And many times that goes against the conventional wisdom.  And the Amazon Web Services is a great example of that.  The whole world, including the Wall Street Journal and the Wall Street analysts were saying, this is none of Amazon’s business to do web services.  But he was convinced that this is the right thing to do, and he went and did that.

And part of that conviction may come from experiments.  Part of that conviction comes from connecting the dots that he could see that many other people didn’t see.  I mean, that’s why he went, left his job, and went to Seattle to do the online bookstore, because he could see the macro trends as to what the Internet is likely to do.  So, I think that’s the vision that he had.  And once you have the conviction, then you follow your passion.

ALISON BEARD: Sunil, thanks so much for coming on the show.

SUNIL GUPTA:  Thank you for having me. Alison.

HANNAH BATES: That was Harvard Business School professor Sunil Gupta, in conversation with Alison Beard on the HBR IdeaCast.

We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about business strategy from Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review.

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This episode was produced by Mary Dooe, Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. And special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Nicole Smith, Erica Truxler, Ramsey Khabbaz, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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