Jeff Bezos: “I Solve Problems” - Interview by La Repubblica

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Interview with Amazon’s guru
Jeff Bezos: “I Solve Problems”
Jeff Bezos: One Step at a Time, from Books to Newspapers to the Stars

La Repubblica
Interview by Mario Calabresi, Massimo Russo
Article by Massimo Russo

July 24, 2016

Translation by Alexia Jolie Villa - Mirandola Comunicazione


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Florence. Jeff Bezos represents passion for innovation, faith in the future despite the times, redemption from failure as an inevitable step in the process of creation. “We’re facing big problems today,” he says, “but our ability to solve them is much bigger.” The meeting with the founder of Amazon, the world’s largest retail market, represents an opportunity to talk also about corporate culture, cinema, newspapers, the relationship between the United States and Europe, Donald Trump, Matteo Renzi, about the key choices of life. Our conversation is paced by his surprisingly loud laugh. No matter how famous it is – you can listen to it yourself, there are various collections on YouTube – when it arrives it’s like thunder. A sudden, prolonged explosion that is both captivating and intimidating. It’ll happen about 20 times while we’re together. At 52 years of age, wearing a gray suit and a white shirt, the entrepreneur is in Florence for a brief holiday with his wife, who’s an author. He’s slender and toned and his haircut would remind you of the group of officers of the TV series Star Trek; he recently became the world’s third richest man, after Amancio Ortega, head of Zara, and Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. Bezos announces the opening of a fulfillment center in Rome and of a research lab for artificial intelligence in Turin: “We have about half a dozen similar facilities around the world,” he explains. “We chose Turin because it has an excellent university, this is the real reason: we want to be where we can find the talent we need, and it’s also close to Milan.”


Will artificial intelligence change the way we live?
“We’re at the beginning of a golden age. For decades this was a dream from the world of science fiction. We still don’t know how to build computers that think like human beings, but we’re capable of solving problems that seemed unsolvable only 10 years ago. From medicine, to driverless cars, to language, it will be an enabling infrastructure and all the industries will use it.”


Why are you investing here?
“We like your market, and Italian consumers like our services. We only arrived in 2010, but things are going well. We’ve invested 500 million euros in Italy.”


Diego Piacentini, one of your top managers, will soon become the government’s adviser for innovation.
“Diego is a colleague and a friend, you’re lucky. I’ve known him for 20 years and he has always told me that someday he’d return to repay his country.”


Soon you’ll meet with the President of the Council, Matteo Renzi. If he asked you for advice what would you tell him?
“Your prime minister is very interested in how technology can improve society. I think we will discuss the digitalization of the country, of how you can increase productivity, on how to innovate the public administration.”


Once Piacentini’s mandate has ended, will he return to Amazon?
“I told him he can return whenever he wants, even tomorrow. No, [laughs], better not tomorrow. I know he cares a lot about this new commitment, he’s passionate about it.”


Talking about passion, you personally bought The Washington Post. Is there a future for traditional media? And will it be an industry based on advertising or subscriptions?
“There will be several models, some newspapers - not all of them – will make it. Newspapers that are only digital are growing on the side, we can already see them. The Washington Post has a bright future. It’s always been an extraordinary local newspaper with a global reputation, now we have a chance to turn it into a global newspaper with an equally global reputation. We’re trying to shift from a newspaper that drew a lot of revenue from a small number of readers to one that produces less revenue per user, but with a much wider audience. I think this is the right approach for the Post, for others it may not work.”


Therefore journalism should not have to rely on philanthropy or become nonprofit.
“It’s healthy and appropriate for a newspaper to be able to support itself. This is the model that has worked so far, there is no reason why it can’t return.”


Space is another of your passions. You starred in a cameo in the last movie of the Star Trek saga, Beyond. How was it?
“I begged them for the part [laughs].”


Was it fun?
“It was a lot of fun. They put makeup on me for two hours. They came to my office in Seattle to make a mold of my head, because the implants were made to measure. I caught a glimpse of a totally different world. I know the series, I’m a fan, I’ve seen every episode several times, I like the characters.”


Once, in high school, you wrote of your dream to colonize space and transform Earth into a nature reserve.
“Yes, I’m still working on it [laughs].”


You and Blue Origin, Elon Musk and SpaceX, Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic. Which one of you is positioned best in the race to space?
“Space is so large that it can accommodate many winners [laughs]. I hope SpaceX does well, Virgin Galactic too, and also others. Large industries are not made up of a single company, but of a multitude of companies, so an ecosystem can be created. My dream is that our next generation will be able to experience in relation to space the same spirit of entrepreneurial expansion that we’ve seen at work over the past 20 years in relation to the Internet. for this to happen companies like Blue Origin must make the transport of infrastructures available at a low cost. We think we can travel into space safely and without spending too much. If we succeed we will have prepared the world for the next generation. We want to see millions of people working and living in space.”


The motto of Blue Origin is “Gradatim ferociter,” one step at a time, with determination. It this also your philosophy?
“I think so. I’ve always felt that slow means calm, and that calm means fast. I’ve never believed in shortcuts. The easy way is an illusion, you have to work hard to build your foundations, and then build the rest over those. It’s what we do at Amazon and The Washington Post. You have to be stubborn about your vision, but flexible when it comes to details. You learn every time you experiment, and this leads you to change your plan. Programs must change. But your vision must remain stable over time, if you believe in it you must insist. Focus on a goal that you’re passionate about and go. Don’t be afraid to admit that an experiment has failed. You’ll have learned something new that can nourish your vision.”


Amazon was born in ‘94. Today it has more than 150.000 employees and more than $100 billion in revenues. What is the reason behind these results?
“I remember driving to bring the packages that needed to be shipped to the post office, hoping that one day I could afford a forklift to load them. Everything has changed, but not the important things. We’re still obsessed with customers, we like to invent, to pioneer, to take the long way, no shortcuts, to stay focused, to be proud of working well.”


What is Amazon today? A hi-tech company, a retail company, a company that does everything?
“[Laughs] What we do is driven by technology. If I had to choose a definition I’d say it’s a customer company, a company serving customers. The main reason we’ve been successful over time is that we really care about our consumer more than about our competitors. Working hard to please customers: this is where we get our energy, not by fighting with competitors. It’s our secret.”


Okay, technology, but recently you’ve also opened brick-and-mortar bookstores, shops.
“It’s an experiment. The speed with which we expand will depend on how much we understand. We want to be sure that it makes sense.”


Amazon also features a specific corporate culture. For example, PowerPoint presentations are prohibited.
“Yes, you have to write complete sentences with verbs and names, topics, paragraphs. The problem with presentations is that they’re easy for authors, because you just need to line up a list of points, but it’s difficult for listeners. When you have to write a six-page document, you’re forced to understand your thinking. When I write, I myself realize that I understand better what I meant. Our meetings last an hour, an hour and a half. We spend the first 30 minutes in silence, reading and taking notes. During the second half hour we discuss things. Reading silently improves the quality of the conversation.”


Some of Amazon’s products, such as the Kindle eBook reader, or the AWS services for businesses, have revolutionized their respective sectors, by innovating them radically. What is the recipe for innovating?
“It’s simple. Improving customer experience. Innovation must be adopted by consumers. If they don’t choose it, if they prefer the old road, there is no innovation [laughs]. We love to invent and we’re willing to make mistakes. The big winners, like Kindle and AWS, repay us for our mistakes. Mistakes are expensive, they’re embarrassing, they’re unpleasant. In some cultures they may also be the reason why you’re dismissed, why you’re fired. Invention and failure are the same, you can’t have one without the other.”


We always remember successes, but what about failures? What was your biggest failure?
There were lots of them [laughs]. Not enough time to list them during this interview. An example. One of the biggest was called “ Amazon’s auctions,” 15 years ago. I thought it was a great system, but only my mother ended up using it, or maybe not even her. We tried again two years later, still nothing. In the end we came out with Amazon Marketplace, which after another 18 months reached four percent of all our sales. At that point we realized that we had finally found a winner. Stubborn about vision and flexible about details.”


Amazon is known for its rigor and frugality. But last year an investigation carried out by the New York Times accused the company of pressuring employees too much. How do you react to these criticisms?
“The public editor of the New York Times acknowledged that there were many inaccuracies in that article, as we explained. But the best answer I can give is that we can’t do what we do with unhappy people who spend their day looking at the clock. It takes creativity, you have to wake up in the shower thinking about your customers. You have to have people who feel part of it all, who find meaning in what they do. That article was right about one thing, about the fact that we work hard. But I don’t think we’re the only ones [laughs]. We need people who like change. Others prefer stability. But the Internet is not the right place for them.”


Once, in a speech at a University, you said: “When you’re 80, you’ll look back on your life and the most important thing will be the choices you’ve made." What has your best choice been so far?
“Eighty percent of your happiness depends on who you choose as your companion. I was lucky. I’ve been married for 23 years with Mackenzie. She’s been my best choice... so far [laughs]. I have no regrets. We usually regret what we haven’t done, like not declaring our love to someone. If you follow your passions you’ll have no regrets. Choose who you want to spend your time with, define your battles: do I want to fight on this side or invent on the other? I prefer inventing. But they’re personal choices. Everyone has to find their own way.”


This week you’ve become the third richest man in the world. You’re known for your moderation. What does money represent for you?
“I’m the luckiest person in the world. I was born in a country that allows you to be enterprising, I had extraordinary models, a family that helped me. The people I admire most are the ones who come from difficult situations and make it despite everything. This is not my case. I have four children, I like my life. Thanks to Amazon I have the chance to work in the future and this is a dream for me, it gives me a purpose. Once you’ve taken care of your basic necessities, sustenance, health, I think this is what we all seek: the feeling that what we do makes the world a better place.”


Back to the present. There is an uneasy relationship between many American hi-tech companies and Europe: from privacy policies to tax issues.
“You keep the simple stuff for the end, huh? [Laughs]. There are several dossiers concerning hi-tech companies and Europe. Let’s take the issue of the privacy of citizens with respect to national security. It’s one thing for which we still don’t have a solution. Regarding regulatory issues, I’d like to say something: the main thing that legislators should worry about is prudence. We must be cautious in order not to damage innovation. Of course we need rules, but we must think hard about the best way to apply them.”


Do you think Donald Trump is fit to be president of the United States?
“A presidential candidate should be happy to be put under scrutiny, to be questioned. We have a piece of paper in the United States, it says that we have freedom of speech. It’s called the Constitution. But if nobody respected it, it wouldn’t mean anything. The founding reason for the existence of laws is that people believe in them. Otherwise they wouldn’t make sense. If you believe in freedom of speech, especially as a candidate, your duty is to respect it and say: “Come here, I’m at your disposal, question me.”

pubblicato il 25/07/2016


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