The Wise Guy Who Predicted the Future

Evan Prodromou sends a funny letter to Jeff Bezos about books for dogs and the Kindle

My friend Evan Prodromou’s a funny guy. Nearly ten years ago, Amazon sent him a promotional e-mail that was written in the voice of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO. (“We’re doing an important test at Amazon.com that we wanted you to know about. Starting today, as a long-term test, you can get Free Super Saver Shipping on orders over $49…”) They even sent it from an e-mail address that made it look like a personal e-mail — JeffB@Amazon.com

So Evan took it on himself to write back!

“Cool! I appreciate your time and effort in personally overseeing this project and making sure I’m kept abreast of the situation. Others may say you’re getting too big for your britches, Jeff, but us here on the ground, where the action is, we know you’re Amazon.com, heart and soul. True blue, baby!”

Today I went back and re-read that e-mail, and I had to laugh, because part of Evan’s e-mail seemed to foreshadow the invention of the Kindle! One of Evan’s suggestions — all the way back in 2002 — was for Amazon to develop “a way to teleport books directly into customers’ laps!” It was his way of teasing Amazon that they should be thinking bigger than just “free super saver shipping”.

    JB> It may be the most important experiment
    JB> we’ve done to date.

Holy crap! The most important experiment to date!!!! Perhaps it’s anti-gravity books? Or CD-in-a-pill? Personal Amazon moon-car?

    JB> Starting today, as a long-term test, you can
    JB> get Free Super Saver Shipping on orders
    JB> over $49. Previously, only orders over $99
    JB> qualified.

WHA…?! That’s the MOST IMPORTANT EXPERIMENT TO DATE? A $50 drop in the qualifying price for free shipping?

I dunno what the hell’s going on there at Amazon.com Laboratories, Jeff, but, DUDE, you’re paying those eggheads TOO MUCH. From any angle you look at it, this is a STUPID experiment…

That’s not how you get to be Time’s Man of the Year two years running, Jeff. C’mon.

I guess I’m just trying to give you some friendly advice, Jeff, since you took the time to write me this personal email. Let me be blunt, Jeff: you are betting on the WRONG HORSE. I can think of like 50 experiments that are better than this experiment. 500! EASY! What about…

* TELEPORTING books directly to customers’ laps?


Okay, there were also some other suggestions (at least a few of which involved pornography). But I feel like this e-mail really preserved a moment in time. It was June of 2002, and just six months after the day Amazon announced their very first profits. Now they were making a big push to expand their sales — starting with lower shipping costs.

But meanwhile, geeks like Evan had just lived the “dotcom boom,” and all the excitement — not just of a sudden explosion in e-commerce, but also of self-publishing personal web sites. If nothing else, this made it easier than ever to tease the CEO of a major corporation. Especially when he sent you his e-mail address!


I mean, the list goes on and on. These are EXPERIMENTS, Jeff. I think what you’re describing is more like a “trial balloon.” And you know what? NO DOT-COM has ever won the Nobel Prize for TRIAL BALLOONS. Look it up, you’ll see I’m right.

    JB> This past January, we launched everyday,
    JB> 365-days-a-year, Free Super Saver Shipping
    JB> on orders over $99, and it’s been
    JB> successful. Customers have adopted it
    JB> in large numbers (it takes 3-5 days longer
    JB> than our standard shipping, but it’s
    JB> free), and its proven economically
    JB> sustainable for us as well.

Blah blah blah. Jeff, it looks like you bought this load of baloney hook, line and sinker. LISTEN TO YOURSELF. Just stop for a second and listen to yourself. Do you believe ANY of this…?

Dude, I know it was with personal feelings that you sent me this email and stuff, and I’m trying to slog through it, but I have to tell you that you’re boring me to tears. You sound like a marketing wonk! You do! Really!

And that’s not the Jeff Bezos I know! That’s not the Jeff Bezos who solicits my personal opinion on things. The Jeff Bezos *I* know is a VISIONARY. He’s the ONE-EYED MAN, baby! He doesn’t get caught up in this mincy-prancy N-months M-dollars hoohaw. That’s for the LITTLE PEOPLE. That’s for the functionaries and the sawdust people.

I mean, the Jeff Bezos I know, he’d be in a meeting with some balding weirdo beancounters with green visors and arm-bands, who are droning on and on to him about the niggling details of this so-called experiment, and he’d be pretending to listen to them, and then he’d stand up and say,

“BOOKS FOR DOGS!”

And the little people, they’d get all agitated and confused, because they don’t understand VISION, Jeff, you have to show it to them, but Jeff Bezos, he’d continue,

“Books for dogs! There are what, 380 million dogs in America today? Maybe 8-9 billion worldwide? North American pet-product sales — what is it, $4 trillion per annum? We need a piece of that pie! And what better way than to sell BOOKS for DOGS to READ! YOU, STANLEY! Yes, you! Run with this idea! You’ve got my full authority to make it happen — community canine literacy programs, drool-proof paper, get some celebrity dog writers like Rin Tin Tin and Benji. THE WORKS. Report to me in three weeks! And I want an Amazon.com product next to every dog bowl in this country when you get back!”


“See, that’s the kind of thing Jeff Bezos does,” Evan concluded. And it’s fun to imagine whether the real Jeff Bezos ever actually read Evan’s reply. If he did, he was probably laughing hysterically. But I also wonder if that’s the reason Amazon eventually stopped sending out e-mails that seemed “personally” written by Jeff Bezos. To avoid the earnestly mocking responses from people like Evan who actually wrote back….


Dude, listen: I’m here for you. I’ll continue to buy books from Amazon.com, and if this “experiment” doesn’t work out, you’re welcome to come stay at my place for a few weeks till you get back on your feet.

Also, listen: it was a good idea for you to run this concept past me before announcing it to the general public. I hope I’ve convinced you to really give it long hard look-over. At the very least, consider some way to work in lasers to the equation. Some science stuff, you know…?

    JB> Sincerely,

    JB> Jeff Bezos Founder & CEO Amazon.com

Hey, so, I hope you don’t mind if I just call you “Jeff”, OK? You can call me “Evan” or even “Ev” or “The Evster” or whatever. Just feel free…

Stick with me, man! We’ll go far.

Sincerely,

~ESP


It’s been almost ten years, and I had to find out what happened. Evan was always equal parts enterpreneur and computer programmer, and he eventually co-founded a popular travel web site called WikiTravel. Later he founded identi.ca, an open-source site for status updates (like Twitter), and became the lead developer at StatusNet, which promotes open and standardized status updates which can be easily distributed across different microblogging communities.

But all these years later, I still felt like I had to ask Evan about his crazy 2002 e-mail — because after all, Amazon did implement one of his suggestions. With a Kindle, it now really is possible to teleport an e-book directly into customers’ laps. So what does he think now about the visionary thinking of Jeff Bezos? I asked Evan, and he answered with a single sentence.

“I’m still waiting for Books for Dogs.”

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