I’ll start with my favorite dialog of the evening:
Q: What makes you lose sleep at night?
“I happen to sleep very well at night, but I tell our investors that should not be a signal of solace. I mainly worry about details, like the in-stock levels for this Holiday season. The big issue for me is How do we maintain our culture as we continue to grow? I see a big company in our neighborhood losing its culture, and the people are mystified by it.
Executives value social cohesion more than truth. From our evolution, I don’t think we are truth-seeking animals but social cohesion animals. In the primitive tribe, it can be dangerous to be right. Jealous others may kill you in the night. It is easier to propagate your genes if you are easy to get along with. But when you are under attack, and survival is at stake, then people prefer the truth.”
“If forced to choose between a retailer and a tech company, I’d say we are a tech company. We like to invent and think long term.”
“AWS and Kindle are like bookends on our strategy. AWS takes our skill set moving forward. Kindle takes customer needs backward. And that is much scarier. We have to learn new skills, like how to build a hardware device. Kindle was three years in development. We hired smart people to help us, but you also need what I call an ‘institutional skill’ to make it gel.”
“There are so many institutional no’s. I ask why not? For our roadmap conversations each year, we have three filters: it is differentiated, with a good ROIC, and the scale is large. It doesn’t have to work though. But if it does, will it meet the three criteria.”
Q: What impact will the iPad have?
“People often think about the Kindle when asking that question, but I think about our B of retail sales. Window shopping laying on the sofa is easier on the iPad than a laptop. As I think about people laying down on the sofa and shopping, I may hyperventilate. I think people are going to have a lot of screens. They will be lightweight and thin. When you travel, you will bring them all. When you go on a date, you’ll just bring the smart phone… or you won’t have a second date!”
Q: How is China going?
“The metrics are improving, such as customer contacts per unit sold. Each country is different. We ship using bicycles and take cash on delivery with portable counterfeit detection machines.
Jack Ma told me ‘Why do so many U.S. companies fail in China? The Chinese country manager is trying to keep the U.S. boss happy not the Chinese customers happy.’ So when I go to China, I always ask who is happy, and I am told “yes, yes, not you. The Chinese customer.”
Q: Did you ever think you would be this successful?
“B is crazy. It took a lot of luck in scaling. In 1997-98, we thought we might become worth B, and maybe B if we had enough beer.
I remember during our quiet period, B&N sued us and then announced that they were going to hold a press event announcing their online store. All this during our IPO quiet period when they knew we couldn’t respond. So I thought we should attend their event all dressed as mimes. We would be quiet, but our presence would remind people about us. Well, just about everyone tried to talk me out of it. Even if you have not had a drink for a year, if five people say you’re drunk, you still should lie down.”