The man who can’t stop getting richer

Thousands of dollars a second: Amazon’s CEO has been the wealthiest man in the world since 2017.

Is Jeff Bezos a genius or a monster? He has built digital companies that seem ready-made for the post-pandemic world. But such success leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many.

Jeff Bezos is worth over $130 billion (£104 bn). This makes him the wealthiest person of all time.

He owns Whole Foods, Blue Origin, Twitch, Audible, and the Washington Post.

He owns the cloud computing and online storage that supports Netflix, the CIA, and the NHS.

Most crucially, he founded and still runs Amazon.com, the online shopping giant that he once dubbed “the everything store”.

And despite the coronavirus pandemic and the collapse of the economy, 2020 has so far been yet another prosperous year for Jeff Bezos.

The entrepreneur, whose favourite insult is: “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” increased his personal wealth by well over $20 billion (£16 bn), while 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment.

In a world of social distancing and working-from-home, the increased reliance on web-based services and deliveries will only increase both Amazon’s and Bezos’s own financial dominance.

Next week, a new book about Bezos is published titled, Bezonomics: How Amazon Is Changing Our Lives, and What the World's Companies Are Learning from It.

It gives away some of the secrets of his success. Back in the late 90s, it was just an online book store, now it is a trillion dollar company.

In the headquarters, executives can recite the company policies by heart and follow quirky corporate jargon like the “two pizza rule”.

But the rank and file employees working in massive warehouses, filled with the distinctive beige boxes, face a different reality, constantly being monitored and timed. If they work too slowly, they get fired. As one former employee said, “If you’re not constantly moving, you’re probably gone.”

There is also a business cost to Amazon’s dominance. As the writer Charles Duhigg puts it, “Amazon’s obsession with expansion made it the corporate equivalent of a coloniser, ruthlessly invading new industries and subjugating many smaller companies along the way.”

On a more technical front, Amazon has pioneered the use of artificial intelligence to guess what customers want before they themselves know. For instance, Alexa home-assistant devices will soon book medical appointments for you if they hear you cough.

So, is Jeff Bezos a genius or monster?

Head in the cloud

To many entrepreneurs, he is the pinnacle of business brilliance: an inventor and visionary who has created thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in wealth. Bezos keeps making money because he can continually improve his products, while still gauging long-term trends. As he puts it, “We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details.” Other companies just cannot compete.

To his detractors, he represents all that is wrong in an economic system that continually rewards those who already have. Amazon is a notorious tax evader. Its employees work in stressful conditions. It transforms economies, wiping out old jobs too quickly for governments to react.

You Decide

  1. Can you imagine life under lockdown without Amazon?
  2. Should billionaires exist? Does anyone need that much wealth?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are Jeff Bezos. Write your own shopping list. What would you do with $138 billion (£110 bn)?
  2. You are a spokesperson defending Jeff Bezos against the charge that Amazon is too powerful to be left in private control. What would your arguments be? Summarise them on one page.

Some People Say...

“If you can’t tolerate critics, don’t do anything new or interesting.”

Jeff Bezos, American entrepreneur and CEO of Amazon

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The fastest growing and most profitable portion of Bezos’s business empire is Amazon Web Services, a cloud storage and software platform, which leases out chunks of the internet to an array of major companies, including Netflix, Zoom, Apple, Twitter, and Reddit. Amazon is responsible for 50% of packages sent out around the US. Home-delivered products now account for 30% of US rubbish. The cardboard alone costs 1 billion trees. After years of being criticised for not donating enough money, in February, Bezos announced $10 billion (£8 bn) to combat the effects of the climate crisis.
What do we not know?
We do not know exactly the long-term effects of an economy that moves completely online. As Samanth Subramanian writes in the Guardian: “It is as if we have forgotten that a product is an object moving through space, fighting gravity, air resistance and other forces of nature.” We also do not know whether Bezos is motivated by ambition, greed, or a belief that he is building a better world.

Word Watch

Blue Origin
Founded in 2000, this company aims to develop technologies to allow for private access to space. Just as railroads enabled economies to grow, it wants to build basic rockets which will, one day, underpin intergalactic travel.
Cloud computing
Data storage and computing power which is hosted remotely and can be accessed by many different users via the internet.
Corporate jargon
Also known as business speak – words and expressions which companies adopt that don’t mean much to anyone else.
Two pizza rule
Every meeting should be small enough that attendees could be fed with two large pizzas. The idea is that meetings with too many people lose focus, and waste everyone’s time.
Rank and file
The ordinary members of an organisation as opposed to its leaders. It comes from the ranks and files into which privates and officers line up in the military.
Pinnacle
The very top. Like a peak or a summit, used to describe the highest point on a mountain or a ridge.
Trends
A general direction in which something is developing or changing.
Detractors
People who criticise someone or something. The opposite of supporters.

Subjects

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