- Over the last decade, Amazon has become one of the most powerful, respected and feared companies in tech and beyond.
- It got there by actually doing what other companies say they do: focusing relentlessly on customers and being willing to experiment, fail and learn.
- These habits will help Amazon conquer the 2020s, but as its power grows, so will the criticism.
When I left Seattle in 2010, it was a one-company town. And that company was in trouble.
Microsoft had laid off thousands of employees in the wake of the financial crisis. It had been slow to decade-defining technologies like search and smartphones, then wasted billions on ill-fated acquisitions. The company was still printing money, but the trajectory pointed toward a long, slow decline reminiscent of IBM.
There was another tech company in Seattle, but nobody paid it much attention.
Back then, Amazon was like eBay or Craigslist — an important website you went to for a specific purpose. It wasn't a daily habit, like Apple's iPhone, Google's search engine or even Facebook. My wife had signed up for an Amazon Prime membership to get a service (now discontinued) called Amazon Mom, which automatically delivered diapers and other supplies for new parents every month and increased the size of the diapers based on our daughter's presumed growth rate. Outside Seattle, few people had heard of Prime — it now counts more than 100 million members.
Among Seattle tech workers, Amazon had a reputation as an overgrown dot-com start-up, a place for maverick Type A personalities who didn't want to be part of the Microsoft Borg.
People who worked there in the early 2000s talked about doing cutting-edge things with Linux and thinking in unusually creative ways about technical challenges. According to local lore, the company stumbled into its cloud computing business by taking lessons it learned over the years during the holiday shipping season. The dramatic spikes in demand taught Amazon how to scale up functions in its own data centers, like computing power and data storage, and it considered offering similar capabilities to other businesses. (Like much lore, this is probably an exaggeration — Amazon consistently says AWS was a carefully considered new business built more or less from scratch.)
Employees worked hard, and some were occasionally called upon to do death-march-style launches late at night and over weekends, a relic of the dot-com era that most other companies had stamped out by the 2000s.
Most still worked in the company's clunky pink headquarters, in a former VA hospital overlooking downtown.
What a difference a decade makes.
Over the last 10 years, Amazon has become one of the most powerful, respected and feared companies in tech, and well beyond.
Revenue in its core business, e-commerce, has increased sevenfold from an already massive base of $34.2 billion. Yet Amazon still has only 40% of the overall e-commerce market in the U.S., according to eMarketer, and far less worldwide, leaving plenty more upside.
AWS has turned from an asterisk to the third-largest enterprise software business in the world, with an estimated $35 billion in sales this year, according to FactSet, trailing only Microsoft and Oracle. Analysts project it will surpass Oracle in 2020. Cloud computing turned out to be one of the defining tech business trends of the decade, spurring Microsoft into reaction and saving what's now considered "the other Seattle company" from its slow slide to irrelevance. (One of the architects of Microsoft's response, Satya Nadella, is now CEO.)
Amazon's logistics and shipping operations have become almost impenetrable moats that few other companies will ever have the resources or ability to match, and the company said in April it was spending $800 million in a single quarter to offer free one-day delivery for all Prime customers in the U.S.
It tiptoed into physical retail with Amazon bookstores, then bought upscale supermarket Whole Foods in 2017, by far its largest acquisition. Now, Amazon is reportedly on the verge of opening up chains of grocery stores and convenience stores, allowing it to vacuum up revenue for things like fresh food and toothpaste.
In hardware, Amazon was once confined to monochrome e-readers, before stumbling through a failed phone launch in 2014. That all served as a dress rehearsal for the release of an entirely new gadget: the home assistant. Alexa seemed to spring into the world fully formed, turning Apple's Siri into a legacy technology and leaving Google — the self-proclaimed artificial intelligence experts — playing catch-up.
As the decade ends, Amazon has set its sights on online advertising, stealing market share and ad dollars from Google, and health care, creating panic inside pharmaceutical distribution and health insurance companies. Those are just the new projects we know about.
Along the way, Amazon has become the second-largest employer in the U.S., with more than 750,000 full-time employees, mostly in its fulfillment centers and warehouses, up from less than 34,000 at the end of 2010. It outgrew the old VA hospital on Beacon Hill and transformed the landscape of Seattle, occupying more than 13 million square feet of office space and dominating the entire area south of downtown with modern new skyscrapers and a trio of glass spheres with an indoor tropical rainforest — a nice perk for workers in Seattle's dreary winters.
Perhaps most surprising to the former Amazon bears has been CEO Jeff Bezos' ability to invest in the future while also starting to produce some long-awaited profit, driven by the technology margins of AWS.
Since 2014, Amazon's operating profit has steadily improved, from $2.2 billion in 2015 to around $4 billion for the next two years, to more than $12 billion in 2018, with analysts projecting $13.4 billion in 2019.
As a result, investors who have held the stock since 2010 have seen their investment increase in value by a factor of 13. It's now one of the largest companies in the world by market cap, and Bezos is neck-and-neck with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates for the title of world's richest person.
One secret to Amazon's success is its relentless adherence to a set of principles that has proven to work across many different industries.
The principles were generated mostly by Bezos himself and are perpetuated through persistent repetition in internal meetings, according to reporting in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Brad Stone's 2013 book, "The Everything Store," and elsewhere.
Perhaps the most important core principle is putting the customer first. Everything else is secondary.
It was revolutionary when my wife and I first realized that, as Prime members, we could return almost anything we bought from Amazon, on the company's dime, simply by printing out a return label and slapping it on the box in which it arrived. Try to imagine any other mass-market company willing to absorb such hassle and expense in the name of keeping customers happy. It may be common at luxury retailers like Nordstrom, but if you've ever waited in a customer service line to return something at a big box store, you know it's not easy.
This is the rule, not the exception. Amazon employees commonly talk about how they've been in meetings where revenue-generating ideas were rejected because they would be bad for customers.
Another key ingredient at Amazon is nonstop experimentation and learning from failure. When the company's Fire Phone flopped, it doubled down on hardware and found success in the Echo personal assistant and Fire TV streaming products. Now, it unveils a jumbo mix of 20 or more new products every fall. Most never make a dent, but it only takes one or two hits to justify the exercise.
The company's $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods looked like a puzzling misstep at the time, but two years later Amazon is reportedly pushing full speed ahead into launching its own grocery stores, taking the lessons learned and data gathered from Whole Foods shoppers to direct its expansion.
At Haven, Amazon's joint venture with Berkshire Hathaway and J.P. Morgan Chase, the companies are researching how to lower health insurance costs for their employees. You can bet that Amazon's own slow but steady march into the $3.5 trillion health-care space will be informed by Haven's successes and failures.
An obsession with customers and a willingness to experiment sound like the kind of corporate platitudes you can read about in any basic business book.
But while many CEOs talk about customers, how many actually manage their companies that way, rather than focusing on what's best for shareholders? Think about all the companies that talk about innovation but endlessly iterate on one or two hit products, while discouraging experimentation through byzantine bureaucracies.
Amazon actually walks the talk.
As consumers grow ever more fickle and selective in their purchases, Amazon's methodology — low prices, endless selection, a continuous stream of novel products — will continue to make it a fearsome competitor in the next decade. An eventual $2 trillion market cap is not out of the question.
Amazon's customer obsession has a dark side.
It's tempting to justify overworking employees in the name of getting customers their packages a little bit faster. It's also tempting to view suppliers, independent sellers and other partners as interchangeable — they're only important to Amazon insofar as they help the company get customers what they want, when they want it, at the right price.
There's something cavalier about how Amazon has started creating its own "private label" versions of popular products, competing directly with the vendors whose products it sells, although Amazon points out that physical retailers do it all the time. Or the way it treats sellers on the Amazon Marketplace, which pits third-party merchants against one another in a brutal pricing war, exacerbated by lax enforcement against counterfeit products and against shady seller tactics.
The more powerful Amazon gets, the more complaints about these practices will grow, putting the company at odds with antitrust regulators and lawmakers who are aggressively starting to take on Big Tech.
Amazon can protest that it's actually doing more than almost any other company for average citizens — offering consumers low prices and infinite selection and creating tons of living-wage jobs in economically depressed parts of the country. A spokesperson pointed out that despite its growth, Amazon still represents very small percentage of overall retail sales — less than 4% in the U.S. — and that 90% of sales still occur in physical stores.
Nonetheless, if the growing trend toward populism continues, Amazon's size and power coupled with Bezos' personal wealth make it a fat target.
There's a more existential threat, too.
Over the last couple years, the idea that humans are destroying the natural world has gone from hippie dinner-table conversation to mainstream acceptance. Young people are growing angry over climate change, and the 2020s are likely to see increasing political and social upheaval as the news gets worse.
Against this backdrop, there's Amazon enabling impulse buys, delivered on-demand through the massive combustion of fossil fuels. (In a fitting bit of irony, as the South American rainforest was burning last summer, the top Google search result for the term "Amazon fire" was the Amazon Fire TV stick.)
Add a CEO who's obsessed with space travel, and the whole enterprise could come to be seen as a real-world version of the Pixar movie "Wall-E," where a retail chain sold so much junk that it made the earth uninhabitable ... and then sold its last few occupants an endless escape into outer space.
The company earlier this year tried to get ahead of this criticism by creating and promising to stick to a Climate Pledge, committing to measure greenhouse gas emissions and adopt reduction strategies in line with the Paris Agreement climate accords.
But as the extent of the crisis becomes more apparent, people will be looking for scapegoats.
Like Facebook, another company that gets criticized for reflecting our flaws back to us, Amazon could shoulder the blame for giving us exactly what we want.
Editor's note: Matt Rosoff is CNBC.com's editorial director of technology, based in San Francisco.