Jeff Bezos' 1997 shareholder letter is still relevant - Axios
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Jeff Bezos' 1997 shareholder letter is still relevant


Ted S. Warren / AP

Making quick decisions and obsessing on customer outcomes are keys to keeping companies in a psychic start-up mode, CNBC's Anita Balakrishnan says in her writeup of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' annual shareholder letter:

Bezos compares "Day 1" companies — companies that are at the beginning of their potential — with "Day 2" companies. "Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1."

And to hammer his point about Day 1, Bezos attached a copy of his original, 1997 shareholder letter, which Business Insider founder Henry Blodget calls "still a playbook for building a great company."

"Jeff, what does Day 2 look like?"

That's a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I've been reminding people that it's Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic.

"Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1."

To be sure, this kind of decline would happen in extreme slow motion. An established company might harvest Day 2 for decades, but the final result would still come.

I'm interested in the question, how do you fend off Day 2? What are the techniques and tactics? How do you keep the vitality of Day 1, even inside a large organization?

Such a question can't have a simple answer. There will be many elements, multiple paths, and many traps. I don't know the whole answer, but I may know bits of it. Here's a starter pack of essentials for Day 1 defense: customer obsession, a skeptical view of proxies, the eager adoption of external trends, and high-velocity decision-making.

True Customer Obsession

There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.

Why? There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here's the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don't yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples.

Staying in Day 1 requires you to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see customer delight. A customer-obsessed culture best creates the conditions where all of that can happen.

Resist Proxies

As companies get larger and more complex, there's a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it's dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2.

A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you're not watchful, the process can become the thing.

This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you're doing the process right. Gulp. It's not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, "Well, we followed the process." A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It's always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it's the second.

Another example: market research and customer surveys can become proxies for customers — something that's especially dangerous when you're inventing and designing products. "Fifty-five percent of beta testers report being satisfied with this feature. That is up from 47% in the first survey." That's hard to interpret and could unintentionally mislead.

Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you'll find on surveys. They live with the design.

I'm not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering. Then, beta testing and research can help you find your blind spots. A remarkable customer experience starts with heart, intuition, curiosity, play, guts, taste. You won't find any of it in a survey.

Embrace External Trends

The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won't or can't embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you're probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind.

These big trends are not that hard to spot (they get talked and written about a lot), but they can be strangely hard for large organizations to embrace. We're in the middle of an obvious one right now: machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Over the past decades, computers have broadly automated tasks that programmers could describe with clear rules and algorithms. Modern machine learning techniques now allow us to do the same for tasks where describing the precise rules is much harder.

At Amazon, we've been engaged in the practical application of machine learning for many years now. Some of this work is highly visible: our autonomous Prime Air delivery drones; the Amazon Go convenience store that uses machine vision to eliminate checkout lines; and Alexa, our cloud-based AI assistant. (We still struggle to keep Echo in stock, despite our best efforts. A high-quality problem, but a problem. We're working on it.)

But much of what we do with machine learning happens beneath the surface. Machine learning drives our algorithms for demand forecasting, product search ranking, product and deals recommendations, merchandising placements, fraud detection, translations, and much more. Though less visible, much of the impact of machine learning will be of this type — quietly but meaningfully improving core operations.

Inside AWS, we're excited to lower the costs and barriers to machine learning and AI so organizations of all sizes can take advantage of these advanced techniques.

Using our pre-packaged versions of popular deep learning frameworks running on P2 compute instances (optimized for this workload), customers are already developing powerful systems ranging everywhere from early disease detection to increasing crop yields. And we've also made Amazon's higher level services available in a convenient form. Amazon Lex (what's inside Alexa), Amazon Polly, and Amazon Rekognition remove the heavy lifting from natural language understanding, speech generation, and image analysis. They can be accessed with simple API calls — no machine learning expertise required. Watch this space. Much more to come.

High-Velocity Decision-Making

Day 2 companies make high-quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly. To keep the energy and dynamism of Day 1, you have to somehow make high-quality, high-velocity decisions. Easy for start-ups and very challenging for large organizations. The senior team at Amazon is determined to keep our decision-making velocity high. Speed matters in business — plus a high-velocity decision-making environment is more fun too. We don't know all the answers, but here are some thoughts.

First, never use a one-size-fits-all decision-making process. Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process. For those, so what if you're wrong? I wrote about this in more detail in last year's letter.

Second, most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you're probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you're good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.

Third, use the phrase "disagree and commit." This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there's no consensus, it's helpful to say, "Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?" By the time you're at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you'll probably get a quick yes.

This isn't one way. If you're the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren't that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with "I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we've ever made." Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.

Note what this example is not: It's not me thinking to myself "well, these guys are wrong and missing the point, but this isn't worth me chasing." It's a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way.

And given that this team has already brought home 11 Emmys, 6 Golden Globes, and 3 Oscars, I'm just glad they let me in the room at all!

Fourth, recognize true misalignment issues early and escalate them immediately.

Sometimes teams have different objectives and fundamentally different views. They are not aligned. No amount of discussion, no number of meetings will resolve that deep misalignment. Without escalation, the default dispute resolution mechanism for this scenario is exhaustion. Whoever has more stamina carries the decision.

I've seen many examples of sincere misalignment at Amazon over the years. When we decided to invite third party sellers to compete directly against us on our own product detail pages — that was a big one. Many smart, well-intentioned Amazonians were simply not at all aligned with the direction. The big decision set up hundreds of smaller decisions, many of which needed to be escalated to the senior team.

"You've worn me down" is an awful decision-making process. It's slow and de-energizing. Go for quick escalation instead — it's better.

So, have you settled only for decision quality, or are you mindful of decision velocity too? Are the world's trends tailwinds for you? Are you falling prey to proxies, or do they serve you? And most important of all, are you delighting customers? We can have the scope and capabilities of a large company and the spirit and heart of a small one. But we have to choose it.

A huge thank you to each and every customer for allowing us to serve you, to our shareowners for your support, and to Amazonians everywhere for your hard work, your ingenuity, and your passion.

As always, I attach a copy of our original 1997 letter. It remains Day 1.

Sincerely,

Jeff

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Questions swirling around Corey Lewandowski

Evan Vucci / AP

A hot topic of conversation the past 48 hours among sources close to President Trump: Corey Lewandowski's decision not to register as a lobbyist. Lewandowski, who runs a political consulting firm that advertises its proximity to the White House, talks to the president regularly, including visits to the West Wing. But he insists he's doing no lobbying for his clients, whatsoever.

This situation is fast developing into a major PR problem for Trump's former campaign manager. I'm told multiple media outlets, including the New York Times, are investigating Lewandowski's firm. Politico's Ken Vogel and Josh Dawsey published a deeply-reported story a couple of days ago that says a second firm Lewandowski co-founded appears to have offered access to the President.

The key paragraph:

A document provided to an Eastern European politician by an international consulting firm that Lewandowski co-founded this year promises to arrange "meetings with well-established figures," including Trump, Pence, "key members of the U.S. Administration" and outside Trump allies. [Barry] Bennett...[Lewandowski's business partner]... said that he hadn't seen the Washington East West Political Strategies document. He acknowledged, though, that he and Lewandowski started the firm.

I asked Lewandowski on Sunday about his decision not to register as a lobbyist. He wouldn't explain himself, but instead kept telling me to contact his clients. Lewandowski then sent me a statement from his firm's lawyer John Mino, which said the firm and its employees "take their compliance obligation seriously," and are fully compliant with lobbying disclosure laws.

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Startup Bridj shuts down after deal with car company falls through

Bridj, a start-up that called itself the "first pop-up mass transit system" is shutting down after a hoped-for deal with a major car company fell through.

The company, which operated in Boston and Kansas City, sought to offer various regional shuttles, using data to determine where vehicles should be placed. In a post on its Web site, the 50-person company was ceasing operations after three years:

We made the strategic choice to pursue a deal with a major car company who promised a close date for a sizable transaction in lieu of a traditional venture capital funding round. The close date timeline extended from weeks to months, as they sought to gain the appropriate internal approvals that we (and they) thought were already in place. Throughout, we remained convinced of the close strategic fit and both sides had every expectation that the transaction would close. Despite assurances, and all parties acting in the best of faith, that didn't happen.
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New York Times plays nice with Trump

Mark Lennihan / AP

President Trump got a 100-day gift on Sunday from the paper he had called "totally failing" at a rally the night before: The New York Times' Sunday Review began a campaign to get readers to "Say Something Nice About Donald Trump," and a cover story of the section respectfully channeled the Steve Bannon world view.
What's going on here: Neither of the pieces appeared to be sarcastic. Both appear to be part of the paper's effort to be more relevant in the Trump era.

Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist hired from the Wall Street Journal, debuted in Saturday's paper, calling for more balance in the climate-change debate.

At the time Stephens was hired, James Bennet, the paper's editorial page editor, told the Huffington Post's Michael Calderone it was an effort to "further widen" the range of views the paper presents to readers.
In Sunday's paper:
  • Michael Kinsley, the leading liberal, wrote an opinion piece, "The Upside to the Presidential Twitter Feed," praising Trump for composing tweets himself, and making "social media almost a part of our constitutional system": "[T]he average citizen now has a view straight into the president's id."
  • But the surprising part was the last graf: "So that's one good thing he has done for the country. Can you think of another? Please let me know at somethingnice@nytimes.com. We'll be revisiting this theme regularly in Sunday Review."
  • On the section's cover, in a piece called "The New Party of 'America First,'" theologian R.R. Reno, editor of the journal First Things, writes: "Mr. Trump's shocking success at the polls has done our country a service. Scholars may tut-tut about the historical connotations of 'America First,' but the basic sentiment needs to be endorsed. Our country has dissolved to a far greater degree than those cloistered on the coasts allow themselves to realize."

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Pence admits Trump tax plan could bleed red ink

Andrew Harnik / AP

Vice President Pence said plainly on NBC's "Meet the Press" what has long been whispered at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue: The White House is fine with a tax cut that raises the deficit.

Pence: "[T]he early response [to the tax plan] on Capitol Hill has been very encouraging."

Moderator Chuck Todd: "I understand people are happy about it, but you are gonna increase the deficit."

Pence: "Well, maybe in the short term. But the truth is if we don't get this economy growing at three percent... we're never gonna meet the obligations that we've made today."

Why it matters: The administration's willingness to allow deficit spending to fund a tax cut makes it less likely that Speaker Paul Ryan will get his border adjustment tax. It could raise $1 trillion over a decade, but would do so in a way — making imported consumer goods more expensive — that's too painful for many key Republicans to stomach.
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White House: China ‘starting to do something’ on North Korea

Susan Walsh / AP

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster praised China on Sunday for steps toward confronting North Korea — including public statements, messages in the Chinese press, and a "more strident and stringent enforcement of existing U.N. sanctions."
"Yes, we do see China starting to do something," McMaster told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday.
"But it is clear, more needs to be done. We are going to ask China to do more as we do more, as [well as] our South Korean and Japanese allies."
McMaster said the U.S. could not "tolerate" the risks from a North Korean nuclear buildup, and he accompanied his diplomatic stance with a renewed threat, saying Trump would solve the issue "one war or another."
Between the lines: For the U.S. audience, McMaster is giving Trump a pat on the back for successfully recalibrating his rhetoric on China. For the international audience, McMaster is prodding Beijing to amp up efforts to further isolate North Korea.
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Globalization and French lace

Emilio Morenatti / AP

An excellent Sunday New York Times piece traces the path of globalization using French lace:
  • Calais became a major center of lace production in the early 19th century. As of the 1960s, 30,000 people worked in lace factories there, at which point technological improvements meant fewer workers were needed.
  • Soon after, demand began to drop and factories opened in Asia in which 15 employees cost the same as one in Calais.
  • In 2005, the E.U. ended textile import quotas — the "final blow" for French lace as Asian lace flooded the market.
  • Today: Fewer than 300 people work in the remaining lace factories in Calais, which "rely more on machinery than manpower."
Why it matters: Globalization and mechanization have cost millions of manufacturing jobs from Calais to Cleveland, and it's affecting politics. Calais used to be a left-wing stronghold — now it's expected to go for far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in the May 8 presidential runoff.

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Trump: Kim Jong-un is a "smart cookie"

KRT via AP Video

President Trump's response when asked what he thinks of the North Korean dictator by CBS' John Dickerson:

"I really, you know, have no comment on him. People are saying, 'Is he sane?' I have no idea. I can tell you this, and a lot of people don't like when I say it, but he was a young man of 26 or 27 when he took over from his father, when his father died. He's dealing with obviously very tough people, in particular the generals and others. And at a very young age, he was able to assume power. A lot of people, I'm sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So obviously, he's a pretty smart cookie."

The trend: Trump respects people, even dictators, that are able to obtain and consolidate power. He has, for example, congratulated President Erdogan of Turkey for gaining sweeping new powers in a controversial referendum, and expressed admiration for the control Vladimir Putin has over Russia.


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Trump says health care bill will cover pre-existing conditions "beautifully"

Patrick Semansky / AP

President Trump set a high bar for the Republican health care bill this morning, claiming on Face the Nation that the bill has "evolved" and will cover pre-existing conditions "beautifully" even as it gives more leeway to the states.

Reality check: Trump appeared to be referring to the fact that the latest amendment to the bill preserves the federal rule requiring insurers to cover pre-existing conditions. That's true, but what it doesn't preserve is the federal rule banning insurers from charging higher premiums to sick people — states could get waivers from that under certain conditions. That's why liberal health care analysts say the coverage could become unaffordable for people with health problems.

Trump's response: "Forget about unaffordable. What's unaffordable is Obamacare." He also acknowledged that the bill would rely partly on separate high-risk pools in the states that get the waivers: "Pools are going to take care of the pre-existing."

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Woodward and Bernstein on how to cover Trump

Cliff Owen / AP

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein performed a rare duet last night as they presented awards at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, and they offered reflections and advice on covering the presidency.

Bernstein:

  • "Shortly after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, Bob and I were asked a long question about reporting. We answered with a short phrase that we've used many times since to describe our reporting on Watergate and its purpose and methodology. We called it: 'The best obtainable version of the truth.'"
  • "Richard Nixon tried to make the conduct of the press the issue in Watergate instead of the conduct of the President and his men. We tried to avoid the noise and let the reporting speak."
  • "Almost inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy — and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be. [Applause] And when lying is combined with secrecy, there is usually a pretty good roadmap in front of us. Yes, follow the money. But follow also the lies."
  • "I know of no important story that I've worked on in more than half a century of reporting that ended up where I thought it would go when I started on it."
  • "Almost all of our sources in Watergate were people who had, at one time or another, been committed to Richard Nixon and his presidency."
  • "Incremental reporting is essential. We wrote more than 200 stories in Watergate."

Woodward:

  • Carl "obtained a list of people who worked at Nixon's reelection campaign committee, not surprisingly, from a former girlfriend. [Laughter] He's finally embarrassed."
  • "No one would talk. Carl said, 'Here's what we have to do,' launching a system of going to the homes of people, knocking on doors when we had no appointment."
  • "[I]n 2017, the impatience and speed of the Internet — and our own rush — can disable and undermine the most important tool of journalism ... that luxury of time to inquire, to pursue, to find the real agents of genuine news, witnesses, participants, documents, to dive into the cab."
  • "Like politicians and presidents, sometimes, perhaps too frequently, we make mistakes and go too far. When that happens, we should own up to it. But the effort today to get this best obtainable version of the truth is largely made in good faith. Mr. President, the media is not fake news." [Applause]
  • "The indispensable centrality of fact-based reporting is careful, scrupulous listening and an open mind. President Nixon once said, 'The problem with journalists is that they look in the mirror when they should be looking out the window.' That is certainly one thing that Nixon said that Carl and I agree with."
  • "Whatever the climate, whether the media is revered or reviled, we should and must persist, and I believe we will. We also need to face the reality that polling numbers show that most Americans disapprove of and distrust the media. This is no time for self-satisfaction or smugness."
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Inside Trump's NAFTA reversal

Photo by "Face the Nation" Executive Producer Mary Hager

CBS's John Dickerson asked Trump what he knows on Day 100 of his presidency that he wishes he knew on day one:

Trump: "Well, one of the things that I've learned is how dishonest the media is, really... NAFTA, as you know: I was going to terminate it, but I got a very nice call from a man I like, the president of Mexico.

"I got a very nice call from Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada. And they said: Please, would you rather than terminating NAFTA — I was all set to do it. In fact, I was going to do it today. I was going to do it as we're sitting here....

"But they called up and they said, 'Would you negotiate?' And I said, 'Yes, I will negotiate.' ... But the media didn't cover it that way. The media said, oh, I didn't terminate NAFTA."