Jeff Bezos: ‘If you cannot afford to be misunderstood, don't do anything new or innovative’

Jeff Bezos
Photo by Franziska Krug

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is currently worth almost $132 billion, according to Forbes, making him the richest man in the world. Part of the journey to becoming extraordinarily successful, says Bezos, was standing firm in his convictions even when others doubted him.

"One thing that I tell people is ... if you're going to do anything new or innovative, you have to be willing to be misunderstood," says Bezos in an interview with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner, published by Business Insider in April.

"If you cannot afford to be misunderstood, then for goodness' sake, don't do anything new or innovative."

When Amazon first allowed customers to post reviews of books, for example, stakeholders pushed against the new idea.

"When we first did customer reviews 20 years ago, some book publishers were not happy about it because some of [the reviews] were negative. So it was a very controversial practice at that time, but we thought it was right, and so we stuck to our guns and had a deep keel on that and didn't change," says Bezos.

"So when you are doing something in a new way, and if customers embrace the new way, what's going to happen is incumbents who are practicing the older way are not going to like you," the tech boss says.

When you are trying something new, skeptics will come in two categories, says Bezos. "Well-meaning critics" are concerned the new innovation won't work out but hope it does, and "self-interested critics" resist change to maintain their own dominance.

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"For sure, we would be very naïve to believe that we're not going to be criticized. That's just part of the terrain. You have to accept that," says Bezos.

Bezos encountered doubters even before he launched Amazon.

"I got the idea to start Amazon 16 years ago," Bezos said in the commencement speech he delivered at Princeton in 2010. "I came across the fact that web usage was growing at 2,300 percent per year. I'd never seen or heard of anything that grew that fast, and the idea of building an online bookstore with millions of titles — something that simply couldn't exist in the physical world — was very exciting to me."

At the time, he had a good job with a good boss.

"I was working at a financial firm in New York City with a bunch of very smart people, and I had a brilliant boss that I much admired. I went to my boss and told him I wanted to start a company selling books on the Internet. He took me on a long walk in Central Park, listened carefully to me, and finally said, 'That sounds like a really good idea, but it would be an even better idea for someone who didn't already have a good job,'" says Bezos.

Bezos respected the advice, but didn't take it.

"That logic made some sense to me, and he convinced me to think about it for 48 hours before making a final decision. Seen in that light, it really was a difficult choice, but ultimately, I decided I had to give it a shot," says Bezos. "I didn't think I'd regret trying and failing. And I suspected I would always be haunted by a decision to not try at all. After much consideration, I took the less safe path to follow my passion, and I'm proud of that choice."

Though pursuing a new or innovative idea will be hard, Bezos says its important.

"I think the great thing about humans in general is we're always improving things. And so if entrepreneurs and inventors follow their curiosity and they follow their passions, and they figure something out and they figure out how to make it," Bezos tell Döpfner.

"And they're never satisfied. You need to harness that."

See also:

Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest person
Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest person

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