tv After Words Brad Stone Amazon Unbound CSPAN July 8, 2021 11:16pm-12:16am EDT
reports on the growth and evolution of amazon and profiles its founder. he's interviewed by insiders chief tech correspondent eugene kim. i'm very excited to be here to interview you today for your new book amazon. before we start i want to tell you when i first started covering about five years ago, the first thing i did is read your previous book about the amazon store so it is a true honor to get this opportunity and i am looking forward to it. >> people probably don't know this, but the reporters who cover amazon it is a small one and we all kind of know each other. you just have done tremendous work covering so it's great to talk to someone who is steeped in the secretive bizarre company
like amazon. >> the first thing i would like to ask is for the timing of the book it t ended up becoming incredibly prescient the perfect time to publish a new book about amazon given that he's stepping down in a couple of months. can you show us what was the catalyst or the thinking behind coming up with this book? >> i did not time it or have any idea that he would be leaving as the ceo of amazon. in fact i started this book in the beginning of 2018 and so the list of things that i didn't know about his long. i think it was just being announced and that played out in the early stages of my research,
the personal saga, the divorce from mckinsey, the whole tabloid over his personal life. that happened midway through my research and then i was writing it in the pandemic and this time when amazon, already a rapidly growing company was basically given an objection of steroids and this debate over how it treats its workers and the safety of warehouse workers during the age of covid-19. the reason i wrote the book and i'm sure you can appreciate this being a total glutton for punishment, i was proud of the everything story and it occurred to me over the years that it was a sort of dated history. it was part of the story, the origin, the rise of jeff, the origineg of amazon and then the
transportation network and the explosion in the amazon marketplace but so much happened. the 150 billion-dollar company became a trillion dollar company and i realized there was a whole another chapter to the saga. >> i personally loved the intro, the first scene of the book it's like an opening scene of a movie and basically starts at this kind of celebrity at the center of attention and it sets the tone for the book. what does that say about the period of amazon that you tried to capture in this book? >> the opening anecdote is being abducted into the smithsonian gallery. this is the sanctified hall of
the most famous americans throughout history, frederick douglas, abraham lincoln,ol geoe washington along with half a dozen other people like lynn manwell maranda are being abducted and to hang in the gallery and at the opening ceremony his son introduces him. he gives the speech surrounded by the upper elite of american society and politicians, media and there were a number of things i liked about it. one thing he said in the speech he commended the artist for the portrait which is quite severe. i don't know if you have seen it, but he looked scary and his portrait and come industry artist for portraying him, scars and all. he says you can really -- he says i've gathered a lot of
scars leaving amazon and that's one thing the portrait shows. metaphorical. i like that because the book was going to be an account of his rise to power so it represented the journey i was going to hopefully take the readers on. >> you had to sum up this period that you wrote about. it's like a sequel to your earlierur book. how is this different from the one you wrote about in your first book? >> the first and most obvious use visibly he is a different guy. the sort of awkward, from
seattle, the crazy laugh, the presentations that were esoteric. that ishe the jeff bezos of the everything story. first of all, kudos to his physical trainer because that is quite an exercise regimen. he is much more fashionable. i think that it seems plausible his partner has boosted his fashion level quite a bit. he's got the sunglasses and the cramped suits so that is one dimension of change. another is the portrait of quite a brutal ceo who is very punishing and sometimes hides the standards and lashes out at those that don't need standards, various steve jobs like management style and i think
origin. his philanthropy his eyes have opened up to a larger world and that is behind his resignation as the ceo there's more that he's doing now. he's gone from the iconic ceo of the everything story into this global presence. thisil conglomerate that is evey business market that you could imagine.
it was stripping suppliers out of the search results if they were not satisfying amazon and because the book business was so strategic and this was 2011 and 2012 and now the book of business obviously still very representative of amazon and its image and a lot of people still do think of it as a bookseller but it's a minor part of its business. this is at company that is truly the everything store one of its most important markets and the voice-activated computer investing billions of dollars and it has global ambitions and it thinks about tv shows and movies in terms of important content than books. while we are talking about the
transformation, what did other executives think about it while some people were disappointed because he basically failed to meet his own high standards by coming fodder -- >> to get the amazon executives to talk on the record about their boss it's sort of radioactive topic. the elephant in the room may be needed to be addressed and if you are asking how did they respond to the tabloid scandals
i think like both of us with utter astonishment like how could the smartest most disciplined man be part of this. they've been sloshing his personal life of this intensely private person on its pages and then responding with that famous post accusing the inquirer of if having political motives and international intrigue. amazon executives and employees were astonished and i definitely heard disappointment from many that he allowed himself to be subjected to this.
of one the sympathy to his side and despite the disappointment once again he had one, he outmaneuvered his enemy. can you tell us a little bit about the reporter? >> you probably remember when the everything store came out, then mckenzie gave me a one star review and i sort of bragged that it was the most famous book review ever.
they had a number of problems with it. nevertheless had risen to become very powerful in our society. i had to get past the memory of the first book. in the end amazon did cooperate with others like andy and jeff wilkie and david clarke who is now the ceo of the consumer business. he would not talk to me and mckenzie scott as far as i could tell has done one interview that titled the book launch. maybe we can start with the first chapter ofst the book.
there's a lot of great anecdotes about the role in coming up with alexa and the echo. they pushed the team to aim for irrational goals. how important was this device that arguably was the most successful personal device? >> sure. we are probably going to talk about amazon as potential monopolists and as a dominating force in american business, so i don't mind and that's why i started the book up this way.
that's how he likes to describe himself as an inventor. whent i dug into the history the story hadn't been told and essentially the idea screams right out of his mind in 2010 he sends a note to his technical assistance at the time, and he says why don't we build a computer whose brains are in the cloud that is completely controlled by your voice and that was a kind of radical notion this idea that most speech recognition systems that makes it really easy so speaking to a device across the room was going to be a technical challenge then there is just the challenge of having it understand and respond.
he was looking for ways to exploit the services and ways to kind of move amazon into every day use in people's lives so to answer the question he puts the chief of staff in chargeiv of it and then is the product manager. he meets with the team sometimes several times a week. he picks the voice and makes decisions about what features it should have and wrestles about whether alexa is going to do espractical stuff like playing music. he wants it to be kind of a versatile artificial intelligence and then he sets the bar high. first he wants it to launch in six months but constantly drives the team and authorizes the biggest impact he had.
he gives it carte blanche to go and hire any smart speech person available on the market and when they are behind something like that that's going to give a lot of momentum that also creates a cultural sphere where people are too afraid to argue against or bring up different ideas or say it's not a good idea. did that affect the product roadmap in anyhe way?
>> the big illustration of that is in the alexa chapter and the idea you can have a 3d screen and premium handset and differentiatedee from the iphone and nobody on the team thought it was a good idea in fact they had dog tags made that said disagree and it stood before we've got to do this but we don't agree with the product roadmap. to answer your question sure there were features that launched to broadly say no and stand up to him there are good contentious discussions in these meetings but i think that he is the founder and has an
incredible record of success and that brings a lot of credibility. if he insists, it is probably going to happen. >> looking back at the track record there's only a few like a handful of big projects that he was directly engaged in. but there is a mixed record so far. what is his legacy as a product manager do you still think that he's like a steve jobs visionary? >> without a a doubt. no one's batting average is going to be a thousand and when you think about he has remade a number of industries and it'ss not just e-commerce but he had to some of the original insight for that and then you look at the product that he drove that
changed bookselling and now ushering in the age of the voice computing i think the jury is out on how successful alexa could be but it certainly has inspired a lot of products. it is an extraordinary record of success and we can talk about the downside because there were a lot of things they helped create like the marketplace that got to a certain side and then and instead of being the product manager he said do you manage this independently. it's profitable and doing great and it veers off course and it's impacting and potentially hurting a lot of people. but i think the overall record as an inventor is startling and it's not just amazon. >> interesting. maybe it is a good time to talk
about his stepping down. a lot of people over the years when we have a discussion about who might be bezos' successor, first we said he will be the ceo forever, but if we need to go through the exercise it is either going to be andrew or jeff wilkie and both of those guys unfortunately a lot of the leadership until recentlyat has been made ill at amazon but both of them joined in the late '90s and helped kind of steer amazon through the bust and build it into what it is today. he ran the consumer business and a retired last year.
he took over this idea of cloud computing and as some people might remember as a relic he wat a very unprofitable company had investors had patience for that. but the operating margins and net income was high and this is cloud computing. it's difficult to understand but you think the company that used to have a data center in the back no longer has that. there computing power is cloud computing and he conceived that in the early 2000's.
with a a lot of independence frm bezos he has steered that and jeff is now basically handing the company over to him. a couple things to note, he's an executive chairman and plans to remain involved and says he wants to focus on new things. he's going to have a home coming to the other parts of the business but last year as you probably remember the hearing in the house antitrust committee they were required to testify and it was a political circus. they probably thought why am i
spending t my time on this. so he will be in that hot seat and have to answer the questions and jeff will get to do what he likes to do which is work on new things. >> he was less featured compared to other executives. was that intentional or a result of the reporting? any thoughts on the timing of his retirement that kind of coincided? he's more featured in the everything store because he figured out how to make the warehouses work and then he graduates as the head of the consumerer business. he's certainly in there quite a bit but there is more of a focus on the up and coming executives like dave clark who was the
protégé now running the consumer business. he told him he wanted to step aside in early 2020 and then the pandemic hit and they all call him jaw he said he would stick around to navigate them through. he says he didn't know he was planning to step aside and anoint him as the successor so maybe he is being disingenuous and saw the writing on the wall and thought i've lost a political battle. i have no evidence for that he just says i think we can acknowledge and you wrote a good story about this amazon has always been somewhat known for having high turnover. the velocity of people moving into and out of the centers is
extreme for tech companies. they always said in the upper echelons that it's extreme and that has changed. more people are leaving. i heard a joke people are calling it jeff exit because more people have left. whether that is because the stock price has gone up so high, they are wealthy or is it they see that it's become an unmanageable company and its severe or this is a hypothetical were they disappointed in the tabloid media of 2019 and they lost a little bit of faith, i don't know but we have to d acknowledge the old-timers are largely moving aside and that will be a challenge there are a
lot of newcomers. the retail ceo. how would you describe him? he kind of comes off as a fiercely competitive not afraid to throw people under the bus, best man at the wedding got demoted someone mentioned to me they thought it wasn't a very flattering picture and i sort of objected to that because at its heart it is the story of a guy that took a warehouse of a couple of dozen fulfillment
centers and we should step back and say he ran amazon operations. everything that moves the packages from aa to be was overseen by dave clark. the whole transportation thing is happening under his watch. he helped build it. airplanes, the success has been remarkable. so that chapter, who is capable of building something like this and what are the costs along the way. when it came to personal relationshipsel it was more important and he had a longtime
friend from the book another executive named arthur valdes who was originally his boss and when he ultimately went to target, dave never talked to him again which for a lot of us is remarkable but it shows how seriously they take these rivalries. another aspect we hear about facebook move fast and break things. they built the transportation capability very much like with a fedex model they are not going to employ these drivers. there were stories of packages flying in the gardens.
the driver is to in people's front yards and in some cases accidents and even death. i write about that and that was the temporary impact of building those transformation capabilities. they moved very quickly and it was a bit of a troubled rollout. there's been a lot of litigation and they paid a settlement as a result of this. and dave clark is running now all of amazon retail so it is a remarkable story of innovation and the mastery of operations but ine some sense when they moe quickly without a lot of caution or appreciation for what some of the consequences might be.
i don't know, have you ever been the subject of a tweet? rkhe will get out there and stat throwing elbows. he is sort of maybe even refreshingly combative because some will just say that stuff quietly. i talked to a ton of amazon operation folks putting together my portrait people that felt discarded or trampled upon or said his bedside manner was not good which was quite a number of people there was an admiration or even a sort of astonishment that built a huge network. they were controlling the fulfillment center to the front door and what that allows is so much control over the customer
experience. whenen you see amazon says your package will be there from nine to 11 and the follow-up we are delayed it's going to be sometime early afternoon, that's because amazon controls its supply chain. that couldn't have happened ten years ago. when the pandemic hits and it's going back to two day deliveries those are things possible because of what clark built and so i think it's the portrait of an executive who is harsh and unrelenting and that has allowed him. >> this is a completely
different dynamic. there is also a natural impulse. everyone probably thinks they can continue to do their old job in addition to their new job so he gives zelensky room to run and will bezos give room to be the ceo? then with dave clark he is now the boss with some of his former peers. well doug harrington or any of the otherhe executives running e divisions like advertising and the device business and the alexa business. that can create an uncomfortable dynamic as well. >> i think we should spend some time talking aboutso donald trup clearly a big piece over the
lasty four or five years with this mutual animosity between bezos and trump. was this a good thing that it happened or was t it false for t fostering a better relationship with trump? what is the assessment? >> those are really good questions. when i finished the book i might have thought he got off on the wrong foot. donald trump is campaigning to be president, taking shots at everyone and he enters with an e-mail that basically we are saving you a seat on the rocket. some other executives were
asking him not to send those e-mails and he sort of insisted. maybe there was a little bit of ego like everyone else is getting into it. i wantg my turn taking a shot at him and then trump one which seems like a lifetime ago. the ramifications of that are that amazon loses the contract, $10 billion with a huge leg up. huge problems with thero post office.
they made ridiculous claims about the post being a lobbyist for amazon but none of that was true.ou so recently, the judge in the case ruled that amazon should be able to continue to protest the decision which was awarded to microsoftro raising the possibility that they go back and rethink that whole process so it's possible they have a little bit of time and reflection. they probably would have preferred to fly under the radar but with his ownership of the post that was going to be impossible.
>> that e-mail threat on how to respond that was my personal favorite part of the book. how unusual is this for a business leader to have a public tension there has to have discussions on how is it slowing down the business or how to respond to this. >> i suspect it is not unusual. catherine graham famously tangled with the nixon administration and this is something he took on when he bought the post. we can look at the four years of trump and say amazon had an extraordinary rate of growth and talked about one of those
what is the true reason for this? why does he want to go back? >> it was circumstance. he was looking to sell the post. the paper was in a kind of perpetual decline. they didn't have the finances to make it a national newspaper and he went out looking for a savior with bezos. so a lot of it was simply circumstance. i think that he appreciated and saw the post and opportunity for what it was may be in the back of his mind thought about the influence in having the post and future trajectory. but i also think that hopefully this comes out in the book that one of his talents and interests isn't just an invention but creating a system of invention. one of the mechanisms and papers and rituals that can encourage
businesses to do new things and to grow and he had been successful creating the system at amazon. with the post he saw the institution he could work his magic the documents, the meetings and apply his thinking to a really valuable american institution and help turn it around. the renaissance of the post and now soon his successor as it has been remarkable and the system of invention worked really well there. >> we should talk about hollywood.
he was having a good time but bezos was having a great time. was this a big decision? it ultimately led to a lot of personal issuesn and tabloids it's easier to look at these things not to look back and ask the big question why did he go to hollywood, why is amazon funding of the tv shows but to follow the chain of events, the biggest category of sales is media, books, movies and music. music goes away because of the ipod and itunes.
it's 2015, 2016, he is one of the wealthiest people in the world. steve jobs has passed away. he represents american innovation and ingenuity. they don't know if this contributed to the end of their marriage but certainly mckenzie didn't seem to just enjoy it as much. jeff loved going to the award the shows and jimmy kimmel starts making fun of him. not only was it a strategic bet that aligned with his personal geek eunice and fantasy. they thought the lord of the rings, who knows if that is going to be good or not. but he loved the attention and as his eyes start to open up into this larger world beyond. it was also smart to bundle it in with a benefit for prime
members. if we think it is two days or one days shipping there is a fulfillment center out of san francisco they probably get that stuff in one or two days anyway so he brings the prime video and all sorts of other things join, amazon music and photos. they are not competing head to head anymore. amazon has a seat at the table in this media so it's smart and strategic and they have all sorts of consequences.
>> titled amazon's future and harrington kind of urges the executive teams to look into selling groceries and that sort of inspired him to even ultimately by whole foods. this is another mechanism in the system of invention that are required to bring papers pitching a new idea and then they sit there in silence. he says this one made me think.
doug comes from the famous tribe that tried to deliver groceries. it went out of business and it didn't work but he thought the idea was good. they joined in 2007 and it limped along a couple of years and he never really invested in it. he thought of other things that were more important. so then in 2012, doug brings the paper and argues and i'm going to summarize, people are buying things once every other week. the customer relationship even though c it is unprofitable or very low margin creates a strong bond with the customer and if they ever get into the amazon
business and figure out how to do e-commerce i it could be dangerous and disruptive. he begins to authorize more ambitious investments. they go on a journey and bezos tended to think of things like long-term opportunities. he thought it was more of a long-term opportunity than a couple things startt to happen. google and insta card gets popular and then he realizes he has to get serious about this. whole foods was being attacked by activists and investors and then now amazon is opening up
its own supermarket all over the place and thanks to the pandemic i think online grocery shopping has caught on so by virtue of his experience it was pretty asintegral in helping to get the religion and catch up in that category. what is kind of your assessment level and track record basically? >> so far they don't have a lot to show for it. jeff is selling a billion
dollars every year and investing a lot of that into blue origin. they haven't met any of the goal yet. we are speaking when they might start selling tickets to the suborbitalke spacecraft but meanwhile they are launching rockets into orbit into the space station seemingly every week. to put it succinctly he thought he could go slow. when you are the conservative guy at the poker table and you have a whole strategy it is sometimes blown up when the ambitious and may be reckless guy showss up and starts betting on everything and look, he skips suborbital to go into orbit with his rockets and it works when
the government starts basically paying him giving him these big contracts to build the company and jeff is personally funding it. he's personally spending all this money and elon is getting paidhe to practice. he starts hiring more people and setting up the goals sort of step-by-step ferociously with a lot of initiatives and i do think and this is in the book it has helped to see a little bit of a dysfunctional culture there. sending into orbital space it will be a tremendous triumph and success but so far i don't think that he has a lot to show for
it. >> what is the legacy stepping down? how will history remember? >> i think that a lot of it might be at the play out. we will see some kind of antitrust case in the years ahead. i think wee will see regulations as the governments try to grapple with some of the paradoxes of the amazon model and the fact that it's a platform for sellers and the fact that it sells private labeled contracts using the data of some of the independent sellers and the stories they are
telling now are not uniformly good. there's a lot of consternation. we look back and look at rockefeller and that is covered by the government action. let's acknowledge that and say the legacy still is not completed and might have some asterisks next to it. a lot of the negativity is going to fade and will be left thinking about someone that revolutionized business and in the span of 20 years built a company that's changed in a number of ways not just online shopping but reading and voice computing and enterprise computing in the way the governments operate. i think the only comparison of
steve jobs in terms of a number of industries that he's changed and who knows, he might end up doing more with respect to space and blue origin. in those respects he will stand as one ofo the great business leaders of our time. >> i think that is all the questions. thanks again for your time. appreciate it. learned a lot. it's a great book. >> great to talk with you.
have coalesced. we need to use more enforcement to go after the tech companies but they have different reasons for doing so. rooted towards the big businesses in general to shrink them down to size and for the republicans it is tied to this cultural war against technology companies in general where they see them as bias in the way that a moderate content or corporate culture so the antitrust portion of big tech is tied to feeling that the tech companies are out to get them.
>> secret service was founded in the aftermath but it wasn't until the death of john f. kennedy the presidential protection service began to get closer attention from the american people. in the prologue of the book zero fail she writes that she started the coverage on the scandal which agents brought prostitutes to their hotel rooms while making arrangements for president obama to visit columbia. we talked about her in-depth look in her new book of the rise and fall of the secret service.
missouri republican senator josh hawley gives his thoughts on the influence tech companies have on the free speech. he's written a book about it in the tyranny of big tech and interviewed by the "washington post." >> welcome to "washington post" live. i am a tech policy reporter and author of the technology newsletter. my guest today is senator josh hawley, republican from missouri. senator, welcome to the "washington post." >> thank you. senator, i am looking forward to talking about your proposal to break up the big tech companies in your new book that we wanted to start with the events of january 6th. senator, you were the first senator to object to the certification of joe biden's electoral college victory. you write in your book,