Jeff Bezos, the Internet retail mogul and relentless business innovator who has agreed to buy The Washington Post, has a lesser-known trait that may serve him well amid the tumult of today’s crumbling newspaper business: lots of patience.
The willingness to pursue a long-term vision was critical to the rise and persistence of Amazon, the global company he built from a suburban Seattle garage and through the travails of the dot-com bust and the recession.
Some of his private investments, such as his deal for The Post, are marked even more by a fascination with pursuing lofty goals requiring extremes of perseverance.
Bezos has invested millions in a space flight company, a reflection of his passion for “moonshot” innovations, and, perhaps most symbolic of his endurance, he is also helping to lead an effort to build a clock that will tick for 10,000 years.
“It’s a special Clock, designed to be a symbol, an icon for long-term thinking,” he has written of the machine, which is to be built inside a mountain in West Texas. “As I see it, humans are now technologically advanced enough that we can create not only extraordinary wonders but also civilization-scale problems. We’re likely to need more long-term thinking.”
In a letter to Post employees, Bezos said that “journalism plays a critical role in a free society.” In other remarks he has made clear his belief that journalism will endure despite the challenges wreaking havoc across U.S. newsrooms.
Bezos has said he reads newspapers only in their digital form and warned that the industry’s prosperity depends on its transition to new media.
“Journalism is not going to disappear,” Bezos told the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung in a November interview.
“We have found out that people are willing to pay for their newspaper subscriptions on their tablets,” he said. “Tablets will further influence our everyday life. Soon every household will have more than one tablet. This will be normal. And these trends will strengthen newspapers.”
When asked whether the Kindle Fire or iPad could save newspapers, Bezos said: “I would not go that far and speak of saving newspapers. The enduring transition period from printed to digital newspapers is difficult to handle for many publishing houses business-wise, because they have to offer print and digital at the same time. They have to be present at both fields, and that is a problem.”
He predicted in the interview that printed newspapers will not be commonly used in 20 years.
Born in 1964 in Albuquerque to a 17-year-old mother, Bezos never met his biological father. He was adopted by Mike Bezos, who married his mother just before he was born. Jeff took his stepfather’s last name.
The family moved around a bit, and Bezos graduated as class valedictorian from a high school in Miami-Dade County, already harboring dreams of being a space entrepreneur. He attended Princeton, from which he graduated summa cum laude majoring in electrical engineering and computer science. While working at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw in New York and researching the possibilities of e-commerce, Bezos realized that one of the most obvious things to sell online was books.
Sensing the possibility of the Internet, Bezos quit his Wall Street job and drove with his wife cross-country to Seattle. Bezos started building the foundation for Amazon.com in the garage of his rented house in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue. In 1995, the site opened for business and quickly became a hit.
In describing Bezos, business associates and former employees tell stories that make one of three points: He pursues ambitious plans, he focuses on pleasing customers and he is willing to make even minute demands of his employees to achieve his ends.
Customers can write e-mails directly to Bezos, who frequently responds to comments or complaints. Nadia Shouraboura, who until recently worked closely with Bezos on Amazon’s senior executive team, also called the “S-Team” at the company, remembers getting an e-mail from Bezos on a Friday night about a customer whose package showed up a day late.
“To me, it’s one case — one of a million. But if you think about it the way Jeff thinks about it, if we missed one package, we probably missed others,” Shouraboura said. “So that would be a big deal.”
Her entire team worked through the night trying to figure out what went wrong. It turned out to be a package going on a truck half a minute late. Bezos expected a detailed e-mail afterward on exactly what went wrong and how to prevent the same mistake from happening again.
“He’s very detailed, down to the lowest level of detail,” Shouraboura said.
Bezos can often come across as gregarious and intensely focused — some employees have described him as “unblinking.” His infamous loud cackle of a laugh is often what signals his presence in the company’s new gleaming and sprawling campus headquarters outside downtown Seattle.
He also has an unusual style of running meetings: Instead of having someone give a PowerPoint presentation in typical corporate fashion, Bezos has the presenter write a paper that can be no longer than six pages outlining his or her ideas
“Like seriously, if it’s 6 1/2, you don’t go,” Shouraboura said.
Such meetings begin with everyone reading the paper in silence — for as long as 40 minutes. Afterward, people start asking questions and sharing their opinions.
The idea is that reading the paper first allows the discussion to go deeper.
“I think if you’re not prepared, or if you haven’t done your homework, or you didn’t think it through, you’re not going to survive,” said Shouraboura, who ran the company’s global supply chain. If faced with an Amazon employee who didn’t prepare well enough for a meeting, Bezos might walk out of the meeting, yell or simply ask the person to write the paper again.
Bezos, who ranks 11th on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest individuals in the United States, with a net worth of $25.2 billion, has given little indication of his political leanings over the years. He has not been a heavy contributor to political campaigns, although he and his wife have regularly donated to the campaign of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. In years past, they have given modest contributions to a handful of Republican and Democratic senators.
Bezos’ political profile rose suddenly and sharply when he and his wife, MacKenzie, agreed last year to donate $2.5 million to help pass a referendum measure that would legalize same-sex marriage in Washington state, catapulting them to the top ranks of financial backers of gay rights in the country. The donation doubled the money available to the initiative, which was approved in November and made Washington among the first states to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote.
Perhaps the single biggest item on Amazon’s legislative agenda is a bill that would empower all states to collect sales tax from online retailers.
Amazon is required to collect the tax only in states where it maintains a physical presence, such as a warehouse. But Amazon now is supporting the bill, which has passed the Senate and is pending in the House. State sales taxes no longer pose a real threat to Amazon; with an emphasis on same-day shipping, the company is building distribution warehouses across the country and would have to pay the tax anyway.
Last month, the company announced it would hire 5,000 employees at these warehouses, an ambitious growth strategy that is hurting profits in the short run.
Like Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham, Bezos has shown support for efforts to change education policy, including the creation and expansion of public charter schools.
The Bezos Family Foundation — whose board includes Bezos, his parents and other family members — gave more than $11 million in 2011 to an array of national organizations such as Teach for America, Stand for Children and the KIPP Foundation, according to tax filings. The foundation also gave grants to scores of individual schools around the country as well as several charter school chains, including Uncommon Schools, which operates schools in New York and Massachusetts.
Bezos’ parents, Miguel and Jackie, were active in a fierce battle last year to allow the creation of public charter schools in Washington state. Washington had been one of a handful of states that did not permit charters, which are publicly funded schools that are privately run and largely without unions. Teachers unions opposed the ballot measure, which narrowly passed with financial backing from Miguel and Jackie Bezos as well as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Netflix founder Reed Hastings.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Jeff Bezos’ business career, however, is his willingness to endure short-term losses — something many newspapers have been forced to do in recent years — in order to prosper later. This can be particularly difficult in the face of impatient investors.
“One thing that I learned within the first couple of years of starting a company is that inventing and pioneering involves a willingness to be misunderstood for long periods of time,” Bezos said this year in a Harvard Business Review.
Today, for example, the company sells its Kindle devices at a loss. It is also willing to pay for expensive delivery to gain clients of its premium Prime membership.
“The chief characteristic of Amazon is that it is relentless,” said Dan Gillmor, a journalism professor at Arizona State University and tech columnist (Gillmor owns a small stock holding in Amazon). “That is good news for The Post, because if this is a baseball game, we are, at the most, at the bottom of the third inning in the evolution of a 20th-century news model to one that is more diverse and part of a complicated ecosystem of news and information.”
Brad Stone, who recently completed a book about Bezos and Amazon, said he was surprised by the announcement because Bezos has been skeptical of “old guard” institutions that served as gatekeepers before the Internet and are vulnerable to the forces that have since been unleashed. On the other hand, “he also believes that his business methods are broadly applicable. . . . He is definitely a capitalist and very much an innovator.”
“Jeff is a man of big vision,” Shouraboura said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he does something astronomically innovative and interesting and different. That’s just him.”
Alice Crites, Paul Farhi, Jan Friedmann and Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.
© 2013, The Washington Post