If there’s one reason above all others why Jeff Bezos is one of the most successful entrepreneurs and visionaries in history, it’s this:
Unlike most people, he is always thinking about the long term.
Or almost always. There was a moment – way back in 2003 – when Bezos probably had more short term concerns on his mind.
Something like: Am I about to die?
Bezos was out looking at a property in West Texas. Done with the tour, he jumped into his helicopter, ready to take off.
But as hard as the pilot cranked the throttle, the helicopter wouldn’t take off.
“We had a full cabin, and a full tank of gas, so the helicopter was heavy,” Bezos told Josh Quittner of Fortune magazine back in 2008.
“The way a helicopter takes off is to lift off a few feet, then the rotors tilt and it needs to get some forward momentum to generate lift.”
That didn’t happen.
Instead, the helicopter crashed.
Bezos told Quittner he only remembers thinking: “what a dumb way to die” – and that his life did not flash before his eyes.
If it had, it would have gone something like this.
Jeff was born in 1964 to 19 year-old year old Jackie Bezos and 20-year-old Mike Bezos, an adopted father.
He spent his childhood summers at his grandparents home in Texas, castrating cattle and doing other farm work.
When Jeff was 12, he was featured in a book called “Turning on Bright Minds: A Parent Looks at Gifted Education in Texas.” The book describes Bezos as “friendly but serious” and “not particularly gifted in leadership.”
Barely above the weight limit, Jeff joined a youth pee wee football team around the same time. “I thought he was going to get creamed out there,” Jeff’s mum later told a profiler. He was made captain in a couple weeks because he’s the only kid who could remember all the plays.
As a kid, Jeff never talked about being a spaceman. He wanted to be a space entrepreneur. He told teachers “the future of mankind is not on this planet.”
(Years later, Jeff owns a space exploration company called Blue Origin.)
As a teenager, Jeff worked for a summer at a McDonald’s. He hated it. So the next summer, Jeff and his girlfriend created a education camp for younger kids. They charged $600 a pop. Called “The DREAM Institute,” the camp got six signups. The camp’s required reading gives a look into Jeff Bezo’s right- and left-brain mind. According to Wired, it was: The Once and Future King, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Lord of the Rings, Dune, Watership Down, Black Beauty, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, and David Copperfield, along with the plays Our Town and The Matchmaker.
After college at Princeton, Bezos became employee number 11 at a startup called Fitel. The job had him flying between New York and London every week. “This is not the right way to organise a start-up company,” he told Wired in 1999.
During this period, Bezos focused on a life goal: finding a mate. He established a process – the “women flow” – to help him. He told friends setting him up that he wanted a woman who could “get me out of a Third World Prison.” He explained for Wired:
“What I really wanted was someone resourceful. But nobody knows what you mean when you say, ‘I’m looking for a resourceful woman.’ If I tell somebody I’m looking for a woman who can get me out of a Third World prison, they start thinking Ross Perot – Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! – they have something they can hang their hat on! Life’s too short to hang out with people who aren’t resourceful.”
He eventually married an office-mate named Mackenzie. She’s now a novelist and mother to 4.
Bezos’s next professional step was at hedge fund called DE Shaw. He cruised to a SVP title in four years, but he was soon itching to quit. He’d started researching this new phenomena – the World Wide Web – and wanted to build a company there.
On a long walk in Central Park, D.E. Shaw himself tried to talk Bezos out of quitting, but Bezos couldn’t get over the fact that the Internet was growing 2,400% per year. He decided he’d rather try and fail at a startup than never try at all. He quit his cushy job, and drove across the country to build Amazon.com in Seattle.
We repeat: Jeff Bezos is a visionary because he is always thinking about the long term.
In Seattle, Bezos hired his first employee: Shel Kaplan. Together, they built a site around the huge digital catalogues book distributors started using in the 1980s. In an ultimate irony, Jeff held most of his meetings at the neighbourhood Barnes & Noble.
During this period, Bezos began to articulate his long-term vision for Amazon. At first it would be a book store; but eventually it would sell everything.
Before the site went live, Bezos and Kaplan set up a bell to ring every time Amazon.com made a sale. After the site went live, the bell only lasted a couple weeks; it was ringing far more than anyone expected.
Amazon’s initial public offering went nuts in 1997, of course, but then came the crash. For a while, analysts called the company “Amazon.bomb.”
But Amazon survived for two reasons: Users kept coming to the site in bigger numbers, and Bezos never promised shareholders anything but a long-term vision.
More than anything this period demonstrated Bezos’s visionary quality. He had the foresight (and the courage) to know that short-term obstacles can be overcome – almost ignored – if they are taken in the context of carefully constructed longer-term plans.
Even after Amazon climbed out of the bubble rubble, Bezos refused to play the short-term Wall Street game of juicing revenues to hit quarterly targets at the expense of long-term investments.
He spent billions building distribution centres while other e-commerce companies horded their cash.
The company added controversial features to its site that favoured the user over immediate financial gain – most famously user-submitted product reviews.
Almost all of these long term bets paid off. And today, Amazon.com has expanded beyond selling books, to selling almost everything, including music, video, and even its own gadget, the Amazon Kindle.
By the end of its first dozen years, Amazon was up 5000% since its IPO.
When Amazon reported its financials for the first quarter of 2011, Wall Street punished its stock because Bezos and company had invested an extra $3 billion of its massive (and healthily growing) revenues in infrastructure, people, and R&D.
Silly. Don’t these people know? Jeff Bezos is a visionary because he is always thinking about the long term.