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Amazon founder turns his eyes to the Washington Post

Amazon founder comes to the rescue of floundering Washington Post, but can the consummate businessman deliver it from oblivion?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 4:23am

In the relentlessly efficient world of Jeffrey Bezos, Amazon employees quickly learn when they have over-taxed the attention of their chief executive. He quietly pulls out his smartphone and starts replying to e-mails. In extreme cases, Bezos will walk out.

This demanding style is as much a signature of the Amazon.com founder as his famously long-term approach to developing new products or services, say people who have worked with the man who last week agreed to buy The Washington Post for US$250 million.

Bezos has developed a precise and inventive approach to management that has powered Amazon to the top ranks of US technology companies.

He favours a nimble, loosely organised company in which "two-pizza teams" execute important corporate tasks, because a work group requiring three pizzas over a lunch meeting is inherently too cumbersome. And he often requires employees pitching new ideas to write mock news releases for their product's imagined launch, a way of focusing their minds on what will most excite customers.

"One thing I learned is when you got a meeting with him, you'd better be ready," said Nadia Shouraboura, who until recently worked on Amazon's senior executive team reporting directly to Bezos. "He will figure out something you haven't thought of … If you haven't thought through exactly how to delight our customer, that's a bad thing."

There is an outwardly genial side to Bezos, 49, a father of four who has an outsized laugh and appears to revel in the salesmanship of a new product launch as he strides the stage in jeans and a buttoned-down shirt. But inside is a drive for perfection, manifested by an unwillingness to waste time or energy.

Politically, he has been mostly low-profile. He made waves with a US$2.5 million donation to the campaign for a Washington state ballot measure supporting gay marriage, but otherwise he has given sparingly, and mostly to home-state Democrats.

Campaign finance data gathered by the Centre for Responsive Politics shows the new owner of Washington's hometown paper has hitherto spent little of his personal fortune on political donations - giving just US$162,000 altogether to federal political candidates or committees since 1998.

In describing Bezos, the most common comparison is to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who was single-minded in his devotion to his vision of every new product released. But while Jobs, who died in 2011, is often described as a design visionary, capable of discerning what consumers one day will want, Bezos has focused on delivering whatever they currently desire — and as quickly as possible.

In 1994, he spotted an opportunity to take orders on the internet and dispatch these easily portable products by mail. Quitting a promising career in finance in New York, Bezos started trading, backed by a US$300,000 investment from his adopted father. His site officially launched on 16 July 1995, taking US$12,438 in the first week.

Bezos went on to become one of the wealthiest men in the United States, with an estimated US$25 billion in assets and plaudits from Time, Harvard Business Review and legendary investor Warren Buffett, who hailed Bezos as "the ablest CEO in America".

Bezos disdains the formality of job titles, encouraging staff to work outside the scope of their titles if it helps the company.

One of the most coveted honours at Amazon is the "Just do it" award, given to an employee every couple of months who strays from his or her job title to do something that will help Amazon. Bezos helps choose the winner himself and then hands the award - an old Nike shoe - to the winner at a company-wide event.

Bezos, who calls his staff "Amazonians", or even "missionaries", has largely ignored or brushed aside criticism. He is happy, however, to let the impression linger that Amazon is not always the easiest place to work.

"Our culture is 'friendly and intense'," he has said. "But if push comes to shove, we'll settle for 'intense'."

His business philosophy borrows from the Japanese kaizen concept of seeking continual improvement, credited with helping build great success at Toyota for many years.

But one former senior Amazonian has described the result as "a pretty brutal Darwinian atmosphere". Another former insider, the programmer and blogger Steve Yegge, has claimed that Bezos, on occasion, jokingly suggested staff - working in what Yegge called "dirt-smeared cube farms" - should be paying the Amazon founder for the privilege of working for his business.

Yegge's colourful 2011 blog posting - which he claimed was made public by accident - cast the Amazon boss as "Dread Pirate Bezos", spitting out instructions that saw his acolytes "scramble like ants being pounded with a rubber mallet". "Bezos is super-smart; don't get me wrong," wrote Yegge. "He just makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies."

What is not clear, even to some of those who have worked for Bezos for years, is how his management style will translate into running a newspaper amid a historic decline in readership and revenue.

Bezos has said little about his plans for The Post since the sale was announced, though in a letter to employees he made clear his desire to accelerate the pace of innovation at a company that for years has struggled amid the same digital transition that made online companies such as Amazon rich.

"The internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs," Bezos wrote. "There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment."

Bezos has said that he intends to keep his focus on Amazon and keep his home in the Seattle area rather than becoming a fixture in Washington, as four generations of The Post's outgoing owners, the Graham family, have been.

He also has agreed to keep the newspaper's top executives in place, though they may need to work without a popular corporate management tool: PowerPoint presentations.

But it is widely expected that he will still, in some way, 'Amazon-ify' the news business.

"Amazon realised information travels much faster as a digital object rather than a physical object, and now Amazon is a world leader in e-books," said Aaron Levie, co-founder and CEO of Box, a popular online content-sharing platform.

The first casualty of this shift will likely be newspapers themselves. Bezos remarked to a German paper last year that printed news would largely disappear in 20 years.

In April, Bezos increased his stake in Business Insider, a technology business news site. The site is run by founder Henry Blodget, a former Merrill Lynch analyst, who suggested there remains little value in journalists seeking to break news.

"If someone has a scoop, we post it four minutes later," he said.

Journalists at The Washington Post will doubtless be hoping Bezos does not intend to adopt a similar attitude.

The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, Reuters

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