Working with Bezos on Kindle

In 2004 I got the opportunity to work with Jeff Bezos to develop the original Kindle. It was Amazon’s first foray into hardware and I learned a ton from my interactions with Jeff. Here’s some of the stories and lessons that I took away from that experience:

1/ Learn and adapt. Amazon’s second largest business was decimated when Apple digitized the music industry. CD sales had been important to Amazon, but they were dwarfed by book sales. Jeff took the lessons from iPod/iTunes and applied them to Kindle.

2/ Ignore the “institutional no”. Amazon’s core retail business was pummeled after dot-com crash, and we were still pulling out of the tail spin in 2004 when Jeff started the Kindle team (same year he started AWS team). Everyone told him it was a distraction, he ignored them.

3/ Cannibalize yourself. Steve Kessel was running Amazon’s media business in 2004 (books/music/DVD’s). Books alone generated more than 50% of Amazon’s cash flow. Jeff fired Steve from his job and reassigned him to build Kindle. Steve’s new mission: destroy his old business.

4/ Don’t assume something can’t be done, just because others have tried and failed. 2 start-ups had already failed with ebook readers. Sony had a reader in the market that wasn’t getting any traction. These failures emboldened Jeff’s determination.

5/ Just because it ain’t broke, doesn’t mean you can’t make it better. Jeff told us “Physical books are one of the greatest inventions ever and there’s nothing wrong with them. How do we make the reading experience even better?” Our answer: lighter, portable, easy to sync.

6/ Invent. Failed eBook readers had used LED screens, we embraced e-ink (first commercial use). iPods used cables to sync, we used WiFi and cellular. We added a keyboard for search (this was a mistake, but it was worth a try). We invented a novel way to digitize books. Etc

7/ Set unrealistic expectations. Jeff wanted 100k books in store at launch for $9.99 each. This was my job and it seemed impossible. Publishers whaffled between fear and indifference. But Jeff wouldn’t take no for an answer. Those were some of the toughest meetings of my career.

8/ Make magic. Syncing over WiFi without cables was innovative, and our team was proud of it. But Jeff didn’t think it was magical enough. He insisted on syncing over cellular, and he didn’t want to charge the customer for data. We told him it couldn’t be done, he did it anyway.

9/ Hardware is hard. Every software/internet platform eventually builds hardware. And they learn the same lesson every time, it’s much harder than building software. Slow iteration cycles, atoms vs bits, etc. The only way to learn is to ship. It took 3.5 years to ship Kindle v1!

10/ Be inspired. It would have been impossible for a professional CEO to build Kindle (or AWS) in 2004 at Amazon. I remember sitting in so many meetings where people questioned why we were doing this, right in the middle of a turnaround in the core business. I was inspired.

PS - Jeff almost died in a helicopter crash around the time of these stories. If he hadn’t survived, the world would look very different.

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Jul 13th 2020

The most difficult / pivotal moment in my career occured shortly after Sheryl joined FB in 2008. She saw my potential and wanted to give me more responsibility for the business, but decided first to do a 360 performance review. The feedback from my team and peers was devastating.

While everyone acknowledged my high level of competence in partnerships and business strategy (this is also what Sheryl saw in me), they universally criticized me for being political and untrustworthy. Sheryl told me I couldn’t stay at FB if I didn’t address this.

This was obviously extremely difficult to hear. I was completely unaware that people viewed me this way, and it wasn’t consistent with my values. But the feedback was clear - it wasn’t isolated - and I realized I had a huge blind spot.


Jul 6th 2020

When I was at Amazon in the early 2000s, I attended a recruiting dinner with 150 prospects seated at tables of 10. Jeff Bezos sat at my table and pitched Amazon, then moved on. 2 hours later I overheard him pitching the final table with the exact same message. Consummate salesman

Salesmanship is the most underrated skill required of a CEO. It’s not as much fun as strategy, product development, culture, etc. But it’s critical to building a company. Repetition polishes a story like a soft stone. We’ve all heard Bezos tell the same stories over and over...

Great CEOs are like politicians, they understand the importance of repetition and stump speeches. Don’t change your message to keep yourself entertained, most people in the audience are hearing it for the first time. Find your story and share it generously.


Jun 22nd 2020

I’ve sat on both sides of the platform / developer dynamic: managed FB’s developer ecosystem including Zynga during our web platform days, and managed FB’s relationship with Apple/Google as the largest app developer on iOS/Android. Here’s a few things I learned:

1/ Platform management is a fascinating case study in value creation and power dynamics. Value creation: durable platforms strike a “balance of value” between platform owners, developers and end-users.

2/ Power dynamics: there’s natural tension between platform owners and developers. They share the same end-users: who owns the customer? They make each other’s products more useful: which direction does value flow? They have overlapping features: where is “the line”?