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tv   After Words Brad Stone Amazon Unbound  CSPAN  July 9, 2021 2:31am-3:29am EDT

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>> i'm very excited to be here to your new book amazon unbound.
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and you have done tremendous work covering amazon. it's great to talk to someone who is steeped in the secretive and bizarre and highly productive company like amazon. >> thanks. the first thing i would like to ask is the timing of the book. it ended up becoming incredibly prescient to publish a new book given that jeff bezos is stepping down in a couple of months but what was the catalyst or your thinking behind coming up with this book? >> i did not have any idea
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that jeff bezos would be leaving as ceo of amazon. in fact i started this book the beginning of 2018 so the list of things that i didn't know about his long. hq to think that was just announced and that played out in the early parts of my research and his personal saga and the divorce from mckenzie and the tabloid scrum over his personal life that was midway through the research and then during the pandemic amazon already rapidly growing was given the injection of steroids and move to the center of this acrimonious debate of how it treats its workers and the safety of warehouse workers during covid-19. the reason i wrote the book to do another amazon book which i'm sure you can appreciate which is a glutton for punishment because i was proud of the everything store but it occurred to me that it was
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dated history not dated history but part of the story the beginning and the origin and yet then there was alexa and the growth of the transportation network and the explosion and so much and i hundred 50 billion-dollar company was a 1 trillion-dollar company and jeff bezos was the wealthiest person in the world in a whole other chapter to the saga. host: i love the first scene of the book it is like the opening scene at the movie. and then to be the center of attention and it sets the tone for the entire book. what does that say of what we
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are trying to capture in this book? >> that opening anecdote is jeff to be inducted into the portrait gallery. this is a hollow the most famous americans throughout history frederick douglass, abraham lincoln, george washington and jeff bezos with half a dozen other people are being inducted their portraits will hang in the gallery. so at the opening ceremony his son preston introduces him but the one thing he said at the speech that the portrait is quite severe.
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and then the artist to portray him scars and all. and i gathered all the scars the last 20 years leaving amazon and that's what the portrait shows. metaphorical scars. i like that because the book would be an account of his rise to power. and that's the journey i was hopefully going to take the readers on. host: it's like a sequel to your earlier book i saw a tweet if it was star wars or like the empire strikes back. [laughter] >> so how is this different
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than the jeff bezos from the first book? >> absolutely it is different in a number of ways. the most obvious is visibly he is a different guide. that tech nerd from seattle unfashionable, the presentation that were incredibly esoteric like the introduction of the fire phone that's historian over the last five years first of all, kudos to his physical trainer. that is quite an exercise regimen. he is much more fashionable. and his partner has bath boosted the fashionable's quite of that now he has the suits so that is one dimension of change another is the
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everything store is a brutal ceo whose very punishing and sets high standards and lashes out at underlings who don't meet his standards very steve jobs management style. many fewer of those kinds of stories of amazon unbound and those that look like godfather to like and then to motivate and then that way and has a more delicate touch. and yet he still has the founders magic and sets high bars and employee scramble to answer his e-mails and to satisfy him also his focus has expanded so much. he was laser focused so long on amazon building this
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mechanism and system of invention to carry on. and now this is the territory amazon unbound covers the deeper involvement of blue origin his space company. his philanthropy, his eyes of opened up to a much larger world which is behind his resignation as ceo. there so much more he's doing he's gone from the iconic tech ceo of the everything store into a global presence and amazon unbound. host: the company itself the profile has completely changed from the first book until now. with every business market that you could imagine. >> and one way to bring that home come is to think back to
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amazon's battles with the book publishers and how trivial those seeing now. they are significant issues for the book industry but amazon was fighting over the $9.99 amazon kindle price and the number of e-books in the amazon kindle store. and stripping suppliers if they were not satisfying amazon because the bush business was so strategic in 2011. and now the book business is still very representative of amazon and its image people still think of it as a bookseller but it's a minor part of the business now truly is the everything store. one of the most important markets is now alexa the voice-activated computer. it's investing billions of dollars in india with global ambitions.
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probably thinks more about hollywood and tv shows and movies them books. >> while the talk about his transformation what do other amazon executives think about it? some senior leaders were happy about the economy independence while some were disappointed because jeff bezos basically failed to meet his own high standards by becoming fodder for tabloids. >> yes. first of all we can both acknowledge how difficult it is to get amazon executives to talk. particularly on the record about their boss it is a radioactive topic. fortunately this is a
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long-term project and the elephant in the room that needed to be addressed if you are asking how did they respond to the tabloid scandals like both of us with utter astonishment how could though world's most smartest and disciplined man be caught up in this the national enquirer tabloid that hasn't been relevant for many years putting his personal life of an intensely private person on its pages and then jeff responding with the famous blog post inc. using the inquiry to have altered your motives and the saudi intrigue they were absolutely astonished and i definitely heard disappointment from many
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that he allowed himself to be subjected to this but we have to acknowledge jeff bezos played it masterfully the media post we can get into of his accusations of political intrigue were true but it's long sympathy to his side and displayed the disappointment a lot of folks had to be grudgingly acknowledge once again jeff bezos he had one he outmaneuvered the enemies and now you look back and say that was a bizarre episode but it's pretty much in the past and as usual jeff bezos came out on top. host: did you talk to jeff bezos or mckenzie, his ex-wife? you mention those amazon executives. >> sure. first of all you probably remember that when the everything store came out, mckenzie gave me a one star review.
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i bragged it was the most famous book review ever but what it reflected is they did not like the first book. there were a number of problems they had with it i wasn't going for the portrait but an honest picture of a company that was challenging to work for and with but nevertheless had risen to be powerful in our societies so i had to get past some of the memory from the first book but any and amazon did cooperate and authorized a couple of interviews. and one is the ceo of the - - jeff bezos would not talk to me but the others are
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intensely private but does not answer to the media. host: so with the first chapter of the book there is a lot of great anecdotes about jeff bezos role of coming up with alexa and the echo in the common thread is jeff bezos sets the bar really high. for almost irrational goals that you are serious about making this product how important was jeff bezos to come up with this device that is the most successful personal device amazon came up with quick. >> we will probably talk about
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amazon as a dominating force in american business. to give amazon credit and jeff bezos credit as an innovative company and jeff bezos as an adventure that so he likes to describe himself digging into the history of alexa it was surprising and essentially the idea for alexa springs out from an e-mail late 2010 sends e-mail to the chief of staff and says why do we build a 20-dollar computer whose brains are in the cloud that is completely controlled by your voice. that was a radical notion. the idea that most speech recognition systems you spoke right into that makes it easy.
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speaking to a device across the room is a technical challenge but then the challenge of having it understand you and respond that was advanced artificial intelligence. but jeff bezos was doing a couple of things looking for ways to exploit amazon's early lead in web services and ways to move amazon into everyday use of people's lives. he conceives the project then and he is the product manager. he drives the vision and meets with the team sometime several times a week. he picks alexa's voice and makes decisions about what features it should have he wrestles if alexa does practical stuff playing music he wants it to be the star trek computer and then sets
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the bar high. first he wants to launch in six months which is impossible. it takes three years but he drives the team and authorizes the biggest impact he's willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on it and at one point he says higher all the ai people that you can know limit he gives carte blanche to hire any speech person who is available on the market. when the ceo is behind something like i and in particular the founder in any company that gives a project a lot of momentum. host: and with jeff bezos role as that raises an interesting point in your book but it creates a culture of fear where people are too afraid to
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argue against her bring up different ideas to say it's not a good idea against jeff bezos. does that affect the roadmap or the results in any way? >> i think the biggest illustration of that is the fire phone my nestled that story in the alexa chapter and jeff had this idea of a three d screen the premium handset and differentiate from the iphone nobody thought it was a good idea. in fact they dog tag to disagree and commit which stood for we have to do this but we don't agree with the roadmap. it doesn't seem like anybody stood up to his vision. but in terms of alexa, there were features that launched with the original echo they
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are too obscure even to name but because jeff wanted it. broadly no one is willing to stand up to him i don't think that is right i do think there is some good contentious discussions in the product meeting but he is the founder and has an incredible record of success. that brings a lot of credibility. if he insisted will probably happen. >> looking back at jeff bezos track record as a manager and knows that he is directly engage the fire phone and the amazon go studios there is a mixed record so far. what is his legacy as a product manager? as he is steve jobs visionary? >> without a doubt. no ones bad at one - - batting
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averages 1000. with a number of industries is not just e-commerce but enterprise computing and he had the original insights and you look at the amazon kindle that changed bookselling and now alexa to usher in the age of voice computing the jury is out long-term how successful alexa could be. but it has inspired competing products. it is an extraordinary record of success. and we can talk about the downsides there is a lot of things just help to create like the marketplace and then started to be the product manager he said you manage this independently i don't want to be involved anymore and then it veers off course and hurting a lot of people
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but the overall record is startling that turnaround at the "washington post" has been amazing as well. host: interesting. mr. be a good time to talk about him stepping down and aws and his successor. maybe you can explain who he is and why that so important. >> a lot of people over the years when we had the discussion of who could be jeff bezos successor, first he said jeff bezos will be ceo forever but it will be and the more jeff them both of those unfortunately a lot of the senior leadership up until recently has been at amazon
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that both joined in the late nineties to help jeff bezos steer amazon through best to build it what it is today jeff ran the consumer business and then retired last year and andy was the shadow the chief of staff early on in the amazon lifespan. then he took over the idea of aws and cloud computing. as a relic of the past amazon for a long time was a very unprofitable company it lost money and investors had a lot of patience but aws was the struggling gem in the portfolio because the net income was high and this is cloud computing that you think i company that used to have the data center in the back, walled off servers
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blinking with air-conditioning no longer has that they are computing power is on the internet. that is cloud computing and jeff bezos with jeff self conceived that early 2000 is a huge business now 50 million-dollar run rate and jeff has steered that so it has been a remarkable success and entrance for amazon and jeff is now basically handing the company over to him. jeff is executive on —-dash jeff bezos' executive chairman was to focus on new things but for jeff he's focused on aws it's a homecoming to the other parts of the business. but my sense is what was pivotal was last year, the hearing at the house antitrust
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committee were mark zuckerberg and tim cook and jeff bezos were required to testify it was a political circus republicans were asking about the gop voices and democrats asking about antitrust and jeff bezos sat there from his office in seattle thinking why am i spending my time on this? so and he will be in that seat and jeff can do what he likes to do to work on new things. host: and jeff who is the counterpart or the other right-hand man from jeff bezos but he was less featured compared to other executives? was that intentional or a result of your reporting? but the timing of his retirement coincided with this transition. >> it wasn't intentional i think he's more featured in the everything story because
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he really figured out how to make the warehouses work then graduated to the head of the consumer business. he is in there quite a bit. but there is more of a focus on the up-and-coming executives like clark who is wilkie protégé now running the consumer business or doug harrington who was a major force as a emergence as a grocery. wilkie told jeff bezos he wanted to step aside but then the pandemic it and wilkie said i will stick around to help navigate amazon through it. he said he did not know jeff bezos was going to step aside her name andy as a successor. maybe he saw the writing on the wall and set i lost i have no evidence for that. he just said his time was done. so i think we can acknowledge
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any wrote a good story about this, amazon has always been known for having high turnover. the velocity of people moving in and out of the fulfillment center at the lower ranks is extreme for tech companies. they've always said at the upper echelon the loyal is extreme and people stick around. that has changed more people are leaving. i heard a joke people named jeff have left and whether that is because the stock price has gone up so high and they are enormously wealthy or that they see this is a huge company and this is a hypothetical there were they
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disappointed in the media scrum and they lost faith? i don't know but we have to acknowledge that the old-timers at amazon are moving aside and that will be a challenge for the company because it is a difficult idiosyncratic company to navigate and now there's a lot of newcomers in positions of influence. that will be interesting. host: the key figure is clark the new retail ceo. but you get into in the book. how word you describe him? he comes off as fiercely competitive, not afraid to throw people under the bus. he was demoted. >> someone told me they
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thought it wasn't a very flattering portrait of dave clark and i object. added tar it is a story of a guy who took a warehouse or a couple of dozen of fulfillment centers which today we should step back and say for a long time he ran amazon operations the film and centers, distribution centers, the vans driving on the streets the airplanes emblazoned with prime air aid to be to your front door was overseen by dave clark. when he took the job he's been it amazon forever but in 2012 there were a couple of dozen buildings now there are hundreds a whole transportation happens under his watch. he helped to build it. airplanes, the success is enormous so that chapter asks the question, who is capable
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of us building something like this and what were the cost accrued along the way? one is when it came to personal relationships work was more important he had a longtime friend that i write about in the book another amazon executive originally his boss and when valdes goes to target and he never talks to him again it's remarkable but it shows how seriously they take the rivalries. but then another aspect they built facebook moves fast and break things but amazon is in the physical world and the transportation capability very much like fedex or dhl model we will not employ these drivers we will hire contractors. we will put them in the van but we don't manage them
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because god forbid we don't want that headache or trouble that could accompany that. and what happened the next couple years is there were stories of packages throat in the garden and and drivers destroying people's front yards or accidents or death. at least that was the temporary impact of moving fast. amazon has strategic reasons to do that they could no longer count on ups or the postal service they moved quickly it was a troubled rollout. there was a lot of litigation and they had to pay some settlements as a result. but if you look today, amazon is delivering 70 percent of their packages and dave clark
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is promoted and is running all of amazon retail. it is a remarkable story of innovation and the mastery of operations but in some sense the true cost of tech it's moved quickly without a lot of caution or appreciation for the unanticipated consequences might be. host: with clark, it seems he has a different reputation compared to wilkie or others that were liked or respected but clark has a track record to create enemies along the way. i think he calls himself to people that i serve to fire people. does that work in his new role? >> one way people can look at it is twitter. he is the unusual amazon ceo
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who will trade blows with people the thing about fred smith the ceo of fedex and takes a shot at him. and tends to critique coverage of amazon have you ever been the subject of a dave clark tweet? he will start throwing elbows. maybe it is even refreshingly combat of because most executives just say the staff quietly. but he says what he believes. the reputation and i talked to a time of amazon operation folks to put together my portrait, even if people felt discarded or trampled upon and said his bedside manner is not good there was still an admiration be grudgingly or maybe even in astonishment like wow.
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he built this huge network he fulfilled jeff bezos dream controlling the amazon package from the fulfillment center to the pat on - - customer front door that allows so much control over the customer experience when you see amazon say your package will be there between nine and 11 and the follow-up e-mail says we are delayed it will be early afternoon that is because amazon controls the supply chain that cannot of happened ten years ago and says it was from today from one day delivery for prime numbers and then the pandemic it's a goes back at two days great it is all possible because of what clark built. it is a portrait of an effective executive is harsh and unrelenting and it allows him to meet the goals of his
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boss was the founder of the company. >> it's interesting to see how he will play with the new ceos in a completely different dynamic. >> i think you're right also when natural impulse everyone thinks they can continue to do their old job in addition to their new job so will they each gave each other room to run well jeff bezos give the new guy room to be the ceo? and then with dave clark is now the boss of his former peers. like harrington or any of the other executives like advertising and the alexa business one of the peers is
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now their boston that is an uncomfortable dynamic as well. >> i think we should spend some time talking about donald trump. clearly a big piece of the amazon narrative the last for five years. a mutual animosity between jeff bezos and trump and you get it more into it in the book. was it a good thing? or was it jeff bezos fault did he lose anything for not fostering a better relationship with trump? what is your assessment? >> those are good questions. when i finish the book i thought that maybe jeff bezos , he got off on the wrong foot. i have the's e-mails the end
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of 2015, trump is campaigning to be president taking shots at everyone and jeff bezos enters the fray with an e-mail that basically puts donald on his face. we are saving you a seat on the virgin rocket other pr executives were asking jeff not to send those e-mails and he insisted. i don't know if he was just being protected of the post maybe there was a little bit of ego like everyone else's getting into it i want my turn to take a shot. and then trump one which it seems like a lifetime ago i guess it was five years ago and jeff bezos he probably would've gotten hammered anyway because he owns the "washington post" but the ramifications of that bitterness amazon loses the jedi contract which is a huge leg up in the cloud business
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for governments and public institutions huge problems with the post office. and a lot of publicity around trumps bitterness toward the post and jeff bezos in particular now a lot of what trump wanted to do never happened. he talked about raising corporate taxes. were made ridiculous claims about being a lobbyist for amazon. none of that was true but recently the judge and the jedi case ruled amazon should be able to continue to protest that decision that was awarded to microsoft radiate raising the possibility to rethink the whole process so now it's possible with some time and reflection that amazon and jeff did not lose much in terms of their ongoing fight
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with the trump administration. probably they would prefer to fly under the radar but with jeff's ownership of the post that probably would have been impossible. >> i think the whole e-mail thread between carney and jeff bezos how to respond to trump was my personal favorite part of the book. that was very good. but how unusual is that for business leaders to have tension with sitting presidents so there has to have a lot of discussions of how this is slowing down the business or how to respond? >> i suspect it's not unusual catherine graham famously tangled at the nixon administration.
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this is something jeff bezos took on in 2013 when he bought the post now look at the four years of trump and say amazon had an extraordinary rate of growth. talk about one of the most for trial periods for any american business in history. and one of that was the pandemic in the last year the trump administration but it doesn't seem to have sloan amazon down at all. you could argue perversely that trumps bundling of mismanagement to extend that helped amazon because it has been a boost to its bottom line at the time people were scared to step into the store. >> to bring up the "washington post" and you dedicate a whole chapter on that topic, but i'm trying to understand why jeff bezos but the "washington
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post". - - bought the "washington post"? may be free press but why? >> it is a funny paradox. [laughter] host: what was the true reason? >> first of all it was circumstance. they were looking to sell that paper was in a perpetual decline. they didn't have the financials to make it a national newspaper so he went to look for a savior he had a personal relationship with jeff bezos. a lot of it was circumstance. but yes, jeff appreciated and saw the post and the opportunity for what it was. may be in the back of his mind thought of the influence of the future trajectory is
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important. hopefully this comes out in the book one of his interest is one of the mechanisms and the rituals to encourage businesses to do new things and grow? and not at all successful but to see a broken institution where he could come in and work his magic to document meetings and bring new things and apply his thinking to a real valuable american institution and help turn it around. so the renaissance of the post under marty barron and by the time this is a hard it has been remarkable in his system of invention has worked very well there.
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host: we should talk about hollywood. in your book, you make clear that jeff bezos relished the limelight. the part he says mckenzie was having a good time at these parties but jeff bezos was having a great time. was a sad decision that ultimately led to a lot of personal issues with tabloids and moving into hollywood instigated that. >> it's easier to look at the's not look back and ask the big question why did jeff bezos go to hollywood but to follow the chain of events. very quickly amazons biggest category of sales in the 2000's is media. books and movies and music
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then music goes away because of the ipod and itunes and now online music. they see that they rush out the amazon kindle to make sure that doesn't happen to books now e-book sales go down. that was a 20 year trend now netflix is raising so amazon creates a video store to download movies and tv shows. that model starts to fraying now it is streaming yet to pay billions of dollars to license friends or seinfeld that is competitive they are enriching the studio so how do you get out of the battle to pay for content? you make your own. it is cheaper this goes back to the days of hbo and showtime everybody figure this out it is cheaper and more effective and more of a hold on your customers when you produce your program so amazon gets into the business and
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jeff bezos loves that. he is surrounded by celebrities. he goes to parties with matt damon and ben affleck. and you have a big ten full of stars everybody is orbiting around him was 2015, 2161 of the wealthiest in the world steve jobs has passed away with ingenuity and he enjoys that we don't know this contributed to the end of the marriage but mckenzie did not seem to enjoy it as much. and jimmy kimmel starts to make fun of him so not only was it a strategic that and it aligns with his giddiness of science fiction and they bought the lord of the rings who knows. he loves the attention and as
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as i start to open up and it's a larger world beyond amazon. than the last quick thing is that it is smart to bundle as a benefit for prime numbers. if we think today prime is still just shipping that is just all it is but there is a fulfillment center outside of san francisco they get in one or two days anyway. so jeff bezos brings prime video into the bundle and other things amazon music and photos. they are not competing head-to-head with netflix anymore. prime video it's almost you think of it is free but it's bundled into the annual membership and amazon has a seat at the table with this revolution of media it was smart and strategic and did
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have consequences for jeff and his personal life as well. >> you bring a lot of characters to life in this book people that we only read about and one of those interesting people was done caring team on - - doug carrington that this internal report that you found titled amazons future is crap and he urges the executive team selling groceries inspired jeff bezos to ultimately by whole foods. i thought it was interesting he said it made me think. so talk about that whole process. >> let me give a little bit of context that executive retreat and this is another mechanism
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and then they also there in silence and then afterwords and then with some more history but doug comes from trying to deliver groceries it went out of business and didn't work. so he joined amazon they started amazon fresh 2007 it went along for a couple of years and jeff bezos never really invested in it he thought alexa and the fire phone and china and india were more important. then in 2012 doug brings the paper and argues people are buying things from amazon once every other week but at walmart or at kroger they are going there multiple times a
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week to buy food that customer relationship even though it is a low-margin creates a strong bond with the customer and if they ever get into the amazon business to do e-commerce that could be dangerous and disruptive jeff said it made me think he begins to authorize more ambitious and projects and investments in groceries so they expanded fresh it doesn't work they tried prime now delivery service in new york it expands but my sense wasn't always lost money they introduced to the ago store the cashier no grocery store then he thinks of the land rush and the long-term opportunities you ways that groceries was a long-term opportunity but then google introduces google
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express insta cart becomes popular then finally he realizes it is a land rush you have to get serious whole foods was in trouble being attacked by activist investors and now amazon is opening up its own supermarket all over partly thanks to the pandemic online grocery shopping has caught on. so by virtue of his experience and were wound was integral to help amazon catch up in that category. host: i want to spend some time on blue origin that is where jeff bezos spends a lot of his time going forward. it sounds like based on your book there were some hiccups from miss management and some rivalry with elon musk
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jealousy played into it. what is the track record? >> so far they don't have a lot to show for it. he is selling $1 billion of amazon stock every year and investing a lot of that into blue origin a 20 -year-old company they haven't met any of their goals yet. we are talking where maybe it will start selling tickets to new shepherd the spacecraft that meanwhile space x is launching rockets in orbit to the iss almost every week. so to put it succinctly jeff thought he could go slow be the toward is not the hair. step-by-step that is the motto of blue origin. when you are that conservative guy at the poker table and you have a whole strategy, sometimes it is blown up from the ambitious
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and reckless guy shows up and bets on everything. elon musk shows up skips suborbital to go into orbit with rockets and it works in the government basically starts to pay him and give him these big contracts to build his company. and jeff is personally funding it i don't know if it is jealousy but rivalry is an accurate word. he's spending all this money and elon musk is paid to practice. so he changes the orientation is hiring more people setting ambitious goals instead of step-by-step ferociously a lot of overlap and i do think it helps to cede a dysfunctional culture they are still trying to figure it out maybe later this year they will send the tortoise into suborbital and
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that would be a tremendous success but so far i don't think he has a lot to show for it. host: one of the last questions but what is jeff bezos legacy since he is stepping down? he still wants to be engage. he is not retiring. but how will history remember jeff bezos as amazon ceo quick. >> that's a good one. i should ask you to go first. i think a lot of that may play out we will see some antitrust case in the years ahead. we will see a regulation as governments try to grapple
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with the paradox of the model it's a platform for sellers and the seller and it sells private label products in competition with and using the data of the independent sellers. the stories that sellers are telling now are not uniformly good. and we look back and look at rockefeller that is colored a little bit by the government actions. but let's acknowledge that there is a legacy that is not completed mia have some asterisks next to it but we'll put that aside. and likely with the passage of time a lot of the negativity will fade and will be left thinking of someone who revolutionized business and build the company that has changed the world in a number of ways not just online
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shopping but reading, voice computing, enterprise computing the way governments operate and companies and research institutions. i really do think the only comparison to steve jobs of the number of industries he has changed. who knows. he might do more with space in blue origin. that's a tremendous accomplishment but as an innovator and business builder there is a lot of room to criticize jeff and amazon but in that respect i think one of the great business leaders of our time is how he will stand. host: i think that is all the questions. thanks again for your time. i appreciate it. i learned a lot. it is a great
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welcome to washington both light. i'm a tech policy reporter and author of the technology later the technology lit up in my guest today is senators josh hawley a republican from missouri. senator welcome to the "washington post." >> thank you. >> senator i'm looking forward to talking to you a bit about your proposal to break up big


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