“Gradatim Ferociter” (“Step by Step, Courageously”)
This is not a comprehensive biography such as the one of Steve Jobs written by Walter Isaacson. Rather, it is an extended profile in which Richard Brandt provides a wealth of biographical information relevant to what its subtitle correctly indicates: “Jeff Bezos and the rise of Amazon.com.” As for the title, it refers to patented software system (I-ware) written mostly by Paul Hartman, a programmer who joined Amazon in 1997. Bezos was determined that customers would have “something to make the ordering system frictionless…They should be able to click on one thing, and it’s done.” Therein lies one of the keys to the great success Amazon continues to achieve. As Brandt explains, “Jeff Bezos will do anything he can think of to make the process of using Amazon.com easier.”
In this 191-page book (plus 10 pages of annotated notes), Brandt demonstrates the genius of selection and concision previously on display in his extended profile of the “Google Boys” in Inside Larry & Sergey’s Brain. Most readers will learn about as much as they want to know – and probably need to know – about how and why Amzaon.com was first envisioned and then created by a remarkable entrepreneur whose stepfather fled from Cuba after Castro seized control, who spent much of his childhood on a ranch in Texas (fixing tractors and castrating cattle was “what I considered to be an idyllic childhood”) and graduated from Princeton, who once hoped to become an astronaut, and who left a lucrative position and promising career in D.E. Shaw, “the most technologically sophisticated” firm on Wall Street, according to Fortune magazine at that time) and relocated to Seattle in 1994 with his wife MacKenzie, determined to start a company that sold books online.
Brandt creates a context for each of the key decisions that Bezos made, enriching the narrative with a wealth of comments of those who were personal friends or business associates with him at one tine or another. What I find especially interesting, indeed remarkable, is the fact that neither Bezos’ personality nor his values seem to have changed very much since his childhood years. Brandt observes, “Jeff was born with a mind capable of tenacious focus.” For example, at age three after his request to sleep in a “real bed” was denied, he dismantled his crib with a screwdriver. He graduated from Princeton Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering after acknowledging, “One of the great things Princeton taught me is that I’m not smart enough to be a physicist.” Actually, he was but probably not smart enough to produce work worthy of a Nobel laureate.
Most of the 17 chapters are devoted to a rigorous examination of what happened after Bezos arrived in Seattle with “the self-confidence of Muhammad Ali, the enthusiasm of John Kennedy, and the brains of Thomas Edison.” Brandt provides a riveting account of a business success story, with Bezos obviously playing the lead role. That is how he built the company. In fact, that is how he achieved each of his prior successes. And that is how he will proceed with another project, “Blue Origin,” that involves what Bezos describes as “establishing an enduring human presence in space.” Once again, the Bezos business philosophy is operative: (1) obsess over customers, (2) invent and then reinvent tenaciously, (3) focus on the long term, and (4) “It’s always Day One.” (I selected Amazon’s slogan for the title of this review.) Bezos will always strive to reach the stars and Brandt believes that someday “he may just get there.” I like the odds.