August 20th, 2014
Last year Amazon’s revenue was $74 billion. So it’s fascinating to remember when the company was just 10 people…and a dream. Today I stumbled across a remarkable video on YouTube showing Jeff Bezos — the founder of Amazon — describing its early days, their shared struggles, and the one idea which kept them going.
The funniest part of the speech is when Jeff Bezos takes the stage, he jokes to the audience that his name is Garth Vegan. “I’m going to be speaking to you about choreography,” he continues, before launching into his story. But it is a different Bezos than we’re used to seeing. The speech was delivered 13 years ago, in 2001 — when the founder of Amazon was still a young man in his 30s…
Jeff remembers when his company wasn’t even called Amazon. Its original name was Cadabra, Inc — as in Abracadabra. But he changed his mind when a lawyer mistook its name for “Cadaver, Inc.” He knew he needed something better — because he was risking his career to take a chance on the promise of online shopping.
His wife was in the audience that day, and Jeff remembered that “She had married a relatively stable person — goofy, but relatively stable — working at a law firm.” When she’d married him, Jeff had a nice steady job at a Wall Street hedge fund, so “This was a hard decision…” In fact, most of Amazon’s original employees kept their day jobs while they spent their nights filling the orders that would come in to the company.
Their first “distribution center” that was just 400 square feet — about the size of a one-car garage — when one of the engineers said “I can’t figure out if this is incredibly optimistic — or hopelessly pathetic.” And Bezos didn’t know. There was no way to know how customers would respond. But I love the way Jeff Bezos ultimately came to his decision, using what he described as a “regret-minimization” framework. You project yourself to the age of 80, and then try to minimize the number of regrets you’ll have when you’re looking back over your life…
“If I go do this thing, and participate in this thing called the internet, that I genuinely believe is going to be a big deal — and if I fail, am I going to regret having tried and failed?” Jeff Bezos knew that the answer was no. And he also knew that he’d always regret it if he didn’t try. “I would always wonder, and it would haunt me…”
As Jeff spoke, he acknowledged that his parents were also in the audience that day — and they were also one of his web site’s very first supporters. He told the crowd they’d invested “a reasonably large fraction” of their life savings — over $300,000 — into their son’s dream. And it was pretty much faith. “My dad’s first question was… What’s the internet?!”
They weren’t betting on any grand vision, Bezos explains. They were betting on their son. And he’d also confessed to them at the time that there was at least a 70% chance that they were going to lose it all. But in the first 30 days, the site got orders from all 50 U.S. states — plus 45 other countries. They couldn’t handle the volume, and expanded quickly — into a 2,000-square-foot basement warehouse.
Its ceiling was only six feet high — and one of their employees was 6′ 2″, so he couldn’t stand in the room without tilting his head to the side! Bezos himself would drive the packages to a UPS shipping facility — tapping on the glass when he was let to beg them to let him drop off his shipment. And they’d package the orders together — on their knees on the cement floor. Bezos remembers his first insight at Amazon was we ought to be wearing knee pads. Although he credits another employee for coming up with an even better idea. What they really needed was packing tables…
Looking back on those early days, Bezos remembers those overloaded weeks as one of the luckiest things that ever happened them. Not the spike in orders, but the challenge itself, which they had to learn to accept. “It formed a culture of customer service — in every department, every single person in the company — because we had to work with our hands so close to the customers, making sure that those orders went out.”
“It really set up a culture that’s served us well, and that is our goal to be earth’s most customer-centric company.”
For a shortcut to the video, point your video to
July 29th, 2014
It’s like something from a science fiction story: Amazon’s just announced a web page offering real “3-D printing”. I wasn’t even sure what that meant — but it’s a revolutionary new way to buy things that haven’t even been created yet…and a real glimpse into the future.
Here’s a four-sentence summary of the way the process works. We live in a world where technology now makes it possible to print more than just ink on a piece of paper. Technology now can also print out substances, using a computer-controlled machine, following a very precise pattern. The pattern is specified by the user, allowing lots of ways to customize a product before it’s even been built. It’s only when you hit the “print” button that your desired product springs into existence!
But the idea could change our world, transforming the way that everything gets made — and then sold. (“Shop the Future!” reads the slogan on the front page of Amazon’s store.) Amazon’s announcement notes that 3-D printing allows vendors to sell “a potentially infinite number of products” — each one customized by the purchaser — and all at very reasonable prices. Mixee Labs (one of Amazon’s partners) calls this “the app store for the physical world”, since you’re not buying digital products, but things! And you can choose the material for your purchase before it’s even been produced, as well as its color, its size, whatever text or image you want to include…
Print your initials on steel cuff links! Make a dog tag personalized with the name of your own dog! “Customization gives customers the power to remix their world,” explains the co-founder of Mixee Labs, “and we want to change the way people shop online.” But it’s gone from being a theoretical concept to something you can utilize today.
For example, imagine buying a bobblehead that’s been customized so it looks like you! You can choose the bobblehead’s eye color, hair color, and hairstyle, and even add eyeglasses. (Even the spring inside the bobblehead is generated by the printer, and it’s only when the bobblehead is produced.) “Turn yourself, friends, family, and coworkers into bobble heads,” reads the product’s description on Amazon — which suggests it as the ultimate personalized gift.
“The age of 3D printing is just beginning and you can experience it first hand!” reads another Amazon web page. It’s offering an iPhone case with a pattern of plastic that’s described as “rivulets of blood.” Besides red, it’s also available in black, blue, and white… But like any fashion accessory, part of the thrill is the rarity of this accessory. It’s not mass produced; there are only as many in existence as there are customers who ordered them. And you’ll always know that they were built from scratch — automatically! — using a 3-D printer….
Amazon’s 3-D Print Store offers more than 200 products to choose from. But none of them exist — yet — until you actually click the yellow “Add to Cart” button. Then behind the scenes, Amazon and their partners will go to work assembling your chosen substance, molecule by molecule, into the appropriate pattern. It could change everything — the way all products are created and then sold — and it’s just started happening at Amazon.
May 2nd, 2014
Last year they made a movie about trying to land a job at a high-tech company, just to enjoy all of its amazing perks. But this week Amazon’s CEO revealed some of their own employee benefits, and they’re absolutely mind-boggling. What’s it like working at Amazon? They’ll give you money for taking classes that can help you get a better job somewhere else, and when you finally quit, they’ll give you thousands of dollars more!
And there’s also some very strange perks that could only happen on a Kindle…
Here’s Amazon’s original list of employee perks. But it was just last Thursday when Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, shared some wild new stories about how Amazon’s been “empowering” their employees. In a detailed letter to shareholders, Bezos revealed that now Amazon will actually pay 95% of an employees tuition for classes in high-demand fields like nursing or airplance mechanics. Wait a minute — are those skills even relevant to careers at Amazon? No! That’s what’s so stunning about this program. “The goal is to enable choice,” Bezos explains, since for some employees Amazon’s just going to be a stepping stone to a job somewhere else, and “If the right training can make the difference, we want to help.”
But there’s an even more drastic program which takes this philosophy to the extreme. The name of the program is “Pay to Quit,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. “Once a year, we offer to pay our associates to quit,” Bezos explains. First it’s $2,000, and then the next year it’s $3,000, and then $4,000 the next year — all the way up to $5,000. “The headline on the offer is ‘Please Don’t Take This Offer’,” Bezos explains, but it encourages employees to really think about what they’re wanting from their careers. “In the long-run, an employee staying somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t healthy for the employee or the company.”
And to keep employees even more happy, Amazon let’s many of them work from their homes. For example, if you’re calling Amazon’s Kindle support line, they may end up answering your call from their own apartment! “This flexibility is ideal for many employees…” Bezos points out, either because they have young children, or just because they prefer working from home! Just keep that in mind the next time you press the Mayday button on your Kindle Fire HDX — because you may be seeing video of an Amazon support staffer from their very own home!
In fact, that led to the strangest stories in Bezos’s letter — about some of those only-on-a-Kindle moments. Imagine being the Amazon employee who answers a customer’s call for help, only to discover that their question is: Will you marry me? This has happened 35 different times, according to Bezos. And another 648 times, Amazon employees have answered a Mayday call, only to discover that the caller wanted to sing them a song!
And sometimes the request is even stranger: Can you read me a bedtime story? “Pretty cool,” says Bezos — who points out that that’s happened at least 3 different times. Will you sing me “Happy Birthday”? That’s happened at least 44 times. I don’t know what’s stranger — the fact that customers are making these strange requests, or that Amazon is counting the number of times that it happens. According to Bezos, there have been 109 different times when a customer’s contacted Amazon’s Mayday support line to ask: “Can you help me order a pizza?”
And Bezos points out that — by a very slim margin — customers prefer ordering from Pizza Hut instead of Domino’s.
April 26th, 2014
“See what happens after you click buy,” teases a new web page at Amazon. At six different fulfillment centers across the United States, you can now take a tour!
The tours happen on the first and third Tuesday of every month, between 10 a.m and 2 p.m. (“Come see the magic…” urges Amazon on web page.) On Thursday, Amazon surprised the world by announcing the new tours during their standard quarterly earnings call. You can now visit Amazon facilities in California, Virginia, Arizona, Tennessee, Delaware, and Indiana…
The tours take approximately 60 minutes (though spots are limited, and you’re required to claim your spot with an online form). And if you’re thinking of arranging a field trip, Amazon suggests that the “optimal” size for a tour group is 30, though “we can accommodate larger groups, if needed.” If you’re bringing your children, Amazon requires all visitors to be over the age of 6. And if you’re wondering what to wear, here’s Amazon’s official response. “We ask guests to wear closed-toe shoes without heels…”
Imagine tromping around the warehouse where Amazon ships out all their goodies. (It’s almost like visiting Santa’s workshop, since this is where most Christmas gifts really come from…!) But it’s also a strong push by Amazon to win the hearts of America’s consumers. They’re transforming themselves from a giant, faceless corporation into a good neighbor in your community who employs folks just like you!
“Our fulfillment network hired more than 20,000 full-time employees last year,” reads the headline on Amazon’s tours page, “creating jobs and opportunities across the United States.” Another infographic points out that working in one of their fulfillment centers is “Safer than a department store.” (The number of illnesses and injuries reported at Amazon’s warehouses is 51% lower than at a general warehouse, and 33% lower than at a department store.) And Amazon wants you to know that they actively recruit U.S. veterans, and give grants to community organizations…
Amazon may become the most powerful company in the world, conquering the supply chains for virtually every single consumer product, and displacing every store in your local community. Not just retail stores, but also grocery stores, and even pet food stores, movie theaters, and of course, bookstores. “We continue to create jobs across the country,” Amazon says cheerily — and a little defensively — on their tours page. But whether you love them or hate them, either way it’s now possible to at least take a peek behind the curtain and see what’s happening for yourself.
The tours are already proving to be very popular. “An attempt Thursday to book a visit resulted in initial slots in September,” notes one reporter in San Bernardino, “and a follow-up e-mail indicated the dates requested were no longer available.” He then contacted a spokesperson at AMazon who told him that “We’ve had a great response from the community in San Bernardino.
“We’re excited for customers to be able to come see firsthand what happens after they click buy on Amazon…”
February 5th, 2014
Brad Stone wrote a new book about about Amazon, and it’s already stirred up a controversy. I enjoyed Stone’s radio interview on Marketplace, but apparently Amazon isn’t one of Stone’s fans. “He had every opportunity to thoroughly fact check and bring a more balanced viewpoint to his narrative,” complains Amazon’s Vice President of Global Communications, “but he was very secretive about the book and simply chose not to.” And one of Stone’s detractors turns out to be the wife of Amazon’s CEO!
In an interesting twist, Mackenzie Bezos is expressing her displeasure with a negative one-star review of the author’s book on Amazon! And it opens with her own vivid and heartfelt perspective on the man she’s been married to for 20 years. “I worked for Jeff at D. E. Shaw, I was there when he wrote the business plan, and I worked with him and many others represented in the converted garage, the basement warehouse closet, the barbecue-scented offices, the Christmas-rush distribution centers, and the door-desk filled conference rooms in the early years of Amazon’s history…”
Her review is titled “I wanted to like this book”, and it’s already received 3,154 “helpful” votes from other Amazon customers. er first complaint is there’s inaccuracies in the book which contradict her own her firsthand memories of the Amazon story. And her second complaint is the negative quotes about the tension in executive meetings create a “lopsided and misleading portrait” of the culture at Amazon. So for balance, she presents some warm and positive quotes drawn from a personal collection — “an archive of the thousands of thank you messages written to Jeff over the years”.
I cried as I read the Career Choice announcement on Amazon today. What Amazon is doing to help its employees is affecting lives in the most meaningful way I can think of. It restores my faith in humanity…
Mrs. Bezos acknowledges that some people in the book describe a “supportive and inspiring culture”, but argues that the author dismisses them as robots throughout the book. And her third complaint is the book speculates about what Jeff Bezos was thinking or feeling, writing that “Hollywood often uses a more honest label: ‘a story based on true events.'” But in the end she points out one of the miracles of life on the internet. Since this book is about real people, the “characters” in the book can step forward “and speak for themselves!”
For example, she cites another review of the book posted on Amazon by Rick Dalzell, who was Amazon’s Chief Information Officer at Amazon for 10 years starting in 1997. “Brad Stone did a lot of research and the result is a glimpse into the history of one of the world’s most exciting companies,” Dalzell acknowledges, though he’s titled his review “Intriguing stories, incomplete and unbalanced history,” and awarded the book just three stars. Dalzell was actually interviewed for the book (along with 300 past and current Amazon employees), and he devotes a whole paragraph to debunking Stone’s interpretation of what it means when Jeff Bezos laughs. “Jeff’s laugh is spontaneous, sincere, warm and endearing. It diffuses stressful situations.” In Stone’s book, Dalzell is cited as saying that Bezos “often” wields the laugh to punish people who aren’t meeting his high standards…
“While I found [the book] rather interesting, lots of stories are missing or just inaccurate. Brad painted a one-dimensional picture of Jeff as a ruthless capitalist. He completely missed his warmth, his humor, and his empathy — all qualities abundantly present in the man.”
And Mrs. Bezos also applauded another review of the book posted on Amazon by Jonathan Leblang, who actually went to high school with Amazon’s founder, and has since become the director of the company’s Lab126 in Menlo Park. He awarded the book four stars, calling it “Interesting, but flawed,” saying it was interesting to see how the company where he worked would be seen by an outsider — but that there were mistakes.
“[A]s with any book where the subject is not an active participant, the book is slanted toward those episodes where Stone can find someone to talk about them. And of course, he includes that which supports his thesis… Overall, from the parts that I know about, about 80% is correct and 20% isn’t (often in details, but incorrect nonetheless). That, of course, taints my view of the book as a whole, because I have to assume that 20% of the stuff I don’t have personal knowledge of is also incorrect.
But even with his concerns about accuracy, he still managed to find something positive (and funny) about The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.
“That said, I would still recommend the book (and especially the picture of Jeff in High School!)”
Check out the book (and the reviews) for The Everything Store:
Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
January 25th, 2014
Amazon’s hiring engineers to build a brand new product, which they’re predicting “will be bigger than Kindle!” I didn’t even know there was a department at Amazon that was called “Kindle New Initiatives” — but there is, and they’re hosting a meet-and-greet event at their lab in Massachusetts just next Friday. “I hate to help Amazon hire even more people in Cambridge who will no longer return my phone calls or e-mails,” joked a Boston technology columnist, “but this is a pretty intriguing description of what they’re up to…”
He quotes an earlier invitation from Amazon promising that they’re building “a new revolutionary Version 1 product that will allow us to deliver Digital Media to customers in new ways and disrupt the current marketplace.” And the clues are starting to pile up. When Amazon opened this lab in 2011, they announced new hires would be working with Amazon’s “digital products” team — the group responsible for Kindle ebooks, as well as Amazon’s Instant Video (and all the mp3s in their digital music store), plus Amazon’s “cloud” storage service.
So who’s in Amazon’s crosshairs? Some have suggested it’s “an A-Phone” — Amazon’s own version of an iPhone (which woould play digital media like music and videos, but would also let you access your library of Kindle ebooks). While I believe Amazon will enter the phone market at some point, I just don’t think they’d use the word “disruptive” to describe it. A better slogan for what Amazon’s working on might be…
“I Want My A-TV”
It started with a question. Why is Amazon producing TV shows? For the past few years they’ve been “greenlighting” new shows, which are only avalable on the web and on Kindle Fire tablets. It’s a weird business model — unless Amazon was already secretly envisioning a much larger audience for the shows they’re creating. So maybe Amazon is releasing a device that plugs right into your TV, letting you stream all the movies and TV shows that are available from Amazon.
It could be just like Google Chromecast — except Amazon has a lot more video to distribute. Instead of YouTube videos, you could watch all of the shows in Amazon’s “Instant Video” library — everything from Duck Dynasty and The Daily Show to new movies (along with Amazon’s original programming). Amazon would instantly become “the new NetFlix”, and The Motley Fool is already arguing that Amazon “is in a better position to compete with Netflix for the 49 and up age group, which is where much of the remaining growth of streaming video will occur.” Plus, people wouldn’t even have to sign up for the new service (since most of them would probably have an Amazon account already). And this opens up a fascinating new possibility: TV shopping.
Imagine browsing Amazon’s site on your wide-screen, high-definition television set. Amazon’s already encouraging ontent providers to include videos for the products they distribute — which may suggest they’ve been thinking about video shopping. In fact, one Amazon page already points out that the products that see the biggest increase in sales tend to have “innovative or complex features” — and they give the example of several expensive pieces of technology. Customers may be more likely to purchase a product if they’d seen video footage about the way it works, which would mean even bigger sales for Amazon. It seems like they’d have to be intrigued by the prospect of an even better way to sell things to online shoppers, and for customers it’d be an exciting new 21st-century kind of expaerience — watching giant video demos of the products you want to buy.
And then completing the purchase with your remote!
January 14th, 2014
I love listening to the radio — and last month I heard a wonderful interview about the man who founded Amazon. Brad Stone has just written a new book about the company (after interviewing more than half a dozen senior Amazon executives). And it was really fun to hear him talking about what he’d learned with Kai Ryssdal, the enthusiastic host of Marketplace on public radio.
Amazon “is a force — maybe the force — in the retail economy today,” begins the segment. But soon the interviewer has honed in on a fascinating personal detail about Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. “There’s a thread that runs through this book — you mention it early, and you mention it often. It’s part of Bezos’s personality, I guess you would say. And since this is radio, we’re just going to hit you with a little bit of it here, and then I want to talk about it.”
And then he played the sound of Jeff Bezo laughing…!
” ‘Jeff Bezos’s laugh,’ you write, ‘precedes him down the hallway. You hear it in meetings, it will come after a volcanic outburst of temper. I mean, it’s this defining thing for him.’ ”
It’s a great way to start they’re discussion, and the author points out that Jeff’s laugh is unusual in another way. Brad Stone has personally spoken to Jeff Bezos, and “He’s not always laughing with you. It’s difficult to put your finger on, but one of his colleagues literally said, ‘He’s punishing you.’ It’s that his standards are so high, and his intellect is so fierce, that sometimes it’s you’re not catching up with him. And that is what he finds funny!”
I wonder what he talked about with Jeff Bezos (since reportedly the book is based more on his interviews with other Amazon executives). And the radio interviewer moves to a second observation — that for people who work at the company, it’s not always pleasant. “He doesn’t want it to be a country club for his employees,” the author counters, saying that the extra pressure is “by design… [Bezos] wants everyone giving the proverbial 110% percent.”
And there’s a good side to that too, the author points out in the interview. Besides Amazon’s slightly elevated turnover rate, “It also might be why this is a company that has achieved so much over the last two decades.”
But the most interesting part of the interview was about Amazon Web Services, the massive online platform which lets companies offer services and storage from “the cloud” — all hosted on Amazon’s own servers. “You say — and I agree with you — that [Jeff Bezos] has changed the world, and he’s done that just with Amazon.com, the retail shopping site, and he’s changed our behavior. But there are a couple of things that sort of have come from that that arguably have changed the world even more… This idea of us all living in ‘the cloud’ — which now we take for granted — started with Bezos and Amazon, in some degree.”
The author notes that NetFlix uses Amazon Web Services, but then brings up an even more impressing customer — the CIA! “Amazon just won a contract against IBM. The CIA will soon be running its operations on Amazon’s servers. A bookseller! And now they’re running the government!”
“Wow… Think about that for a minute,” the interviewer responds….
Next, their conversation turns to Amazon Prime — and both the author and the interviewer admit that they’re already subscribers. “It makes it really easy to buy stuff off of Amazon,” the interviewer says.
“It turns you into an Amazon addict,” the author responds (to which the interviewer agrees). “I think it’s a little CostCo, in a way, buried inside Amazon. CostCo magically has this business model where you have to pay to shop there — a good business, if you can get it. And now the same is true of Amazon. You’re paying $79 a year for the luxury of spending even more money on all these add-on services!”
The interviewer actually mutters, “Now you’re making me feel stupid, man.”
And the author just replies, “Well, I pay it too…”
The book is called The Everything Store:
Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
November 14th, 2013
Amazon’s gearing up for the big holiday shopping season — and they’ve just made two surprising new announcements.
Your Own Photos on Kindle Cases!
You can now upload your own favorite photo to Amazon, and they’ll make it into a case for your Kindle! You can also convert the photo into a Kindle skin — a thin, rubber wrap-around protector. And Amazon’s also got their own selection of designs to choose from, including illustrations of Snoopy and the other characters from Peanuts. Amazon’s press release promises they can even put images from Star Trek and other popular TV shows and movies onto your Kindle’s cover — and even characters from Breaking Bad!
Unfortunately, they’re only supporting Kindles from the last three years — as far back as the Kindle Touch, but not as far back as the fourth-generation “Kindle” (or the Kindle Keyboard…) But that still leaves a lot of Kindles that are now eligible for customer covers. “With this new service, we’re making it possible for customers to dream up virtually any design and seamlessly turn it into a Kindle cover — at no cost…” explained one Amazon Kindle executive. “We’re excited to bring this all-new technology to Kindle accessories and we can’t wait to see what customers come up with.”
This holiday season, some people may wind up receiving some very creative gifts! And Amazon’s also announced another new service that will make it even easier to finish your shopping…
Sunday Delivery of Packages!
I couldn’t believe it, but Los Angeles and New York City are now both getting packages delivered from Amazon on Sundays! And Amazon plans to expand the service to more cities in the next year, including Phoenix, New Orleans, Dallas, and Houston! “We’re excited that now every day is an Amazon delivery day…” announced Amazon’s vice president of worldwide operations and customer service. (It’s only available to members of Amazon’s Prime shipping program, which offers one year of free two-day shipping for a flat fee of $79 – and as a bonus, includes free access to Amazon’s online library of movies and TV shows on the web and with your Kindle Fire tablet)
To make this happen, Amazon’s teamed up with the U.S. Postal service. One business site pointed out that the post office could use the money, since traditional paper letters have been declining, now that more people communicate with e-mail. The post office actually beat out Federal Express for the right to deliver Amazon’s package, as well as U.P.S., but in the long run, the real winner may be Amazon. A business analyst at The Motley Fool points out that people who join Amazon’s Prime program ultimately use Amazon for the majority of their online shopping, and end up spending more than twice the amount spent by non-Prime members. In fact, on average prime members spend $1,200 a year on Amazon’s web site.
So it’s no wonder Amazon’s willing to try Sunday deliveries as a way to attract even more Prime customers. And The Motley Fool predicts that soon, Amazon may be offering Sunday delivery service to the entire country!
October 23rd, 2013
Sometimes I’m just a big kid — and I love how Amazon’s created a special page with their “top picks” for new holiday gifts. (For a shortcut, just point your browser to tinyurl.com/AmazonToyList ) And last week Amazon finally announced their 2013 picks — adding that for the first time ever, it’s including toys that were voted on by “Amazon Moms”, a free program that offers discounts to parents on supplies from their children. Amazon’s goal, of course, is to create what they’re calling “a one-stop destination for holiday shoppers.” But it’s still fun to browse through their selections…and window shop for all the fun toys!
For example, did you know that a large Kindle Fire HD (with an 8.9-inch screen) now costs just $229? It’s one of Amazon’s top gift suggestions in their “Electronics” category (of course) — though it’s competing with nine different Furbies. But the coolest electronic gadget is, strangely enough, a new digital Barbie Doll from Mattel. She’s wearing a dress with real flashing LED lights, “combining fashion, sound-activation and on-trend technology” (according to Barbie’s web page on Amazon.) Little girls can punch in their own rhythms, or use one of Barbie’s built-in light shows — and here’s a sentence I never thought I’d hear. “Barbie doll’s black dress uses a 4.5 square inch resistive touch panel and 114 tri-color LEDs…”
Amazon’s also selling — and I’m not kidding — an Angry Birds Advent Calendar. There’s little gifts behind each square, and the game comes with little Angry Birds that you can actually shoot at stacks of little blocks — using a real-life version of that catapult from the Angry Birds phone app! “Now you can bring the Angry Birds experience from your smartphone to real life,” explains the web page at Amazon, which identifies it as one of the best gifts for children of 2013. It’s also an Amazon exclusive, and according to at least one reviewer on Amazon, “If you are a fan of Angry Birds, you absolutely MUST have this set. It is so adorable!”
Amazon’s also selling a speaker that you can plug in to your Kindle Fire that’s shaped like Minnie Mouse! It’s got a standard speaker jack, so it works with any audio source, and its web page on Amazon promises a “size-defying sound”. There’s also one shaped like Iron Man from the Avengers — or Captain America, and even Spongebob Squarepants.
And I thought it was cool that now you can even buy your daughter a pink journal that’s protected by digital technology. It only opens when its owner speaks a password into a microphone — and the journal even uses voice-recognition technology to make sure that the password was spoken by the right person! It’s manufactured by Mattel, and the Password Journal also comes with an “invisible ink pen” — so girls can write messages which can only be seen when they’re light up with the journal’s built-in ultraviolet light. And behind the journal (built into its pink plastic case), there’s a hidden “secret compartment” which has its own second password. Girls can even record a greeting, which is played back every time they open it up!
But the most exciting thing about Amazon’s “Holiday Toy List” is the fact that they’ve incorporated one of my all-time favorite Amazon features — the “Lightning Deals”. Every day for a few hours, they sell a small quantity of a specific item at a big discount. Amazon tracks exactly how many seconds are left for the offer, and what percentage of the item has already been sold! (Right now they’re offering a 40% discount on Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles — a hardcover book giving you all the backstory on your that little Yoda “minifig” from Lego — and with 20 minutes and 43 seconds left to go, they’ve already sold off 47% of them.) Like I said, sometimes I’m just a big kid — especially when it comes to cool, cutting-edge toys.
And now Amazon’s collected them all together into one place — and started selling them at a discount!
September 10th, 2013
We’ve had a lot of fun laughing at the funny fake reviews people have posted on Amazon. And I was really impressed when Amazon joined in the fun last month, posting their own list of their favorite funny customer reviews. But this month, it’s taken an even stranger turn. Because customers are now leaving fake reviews on works of fine art, which are being sold on Amazon for millions of dollars!
“Is shipping extra?” joked one review. “Not expensive enough,” joked another — one of many reviewers pretending to be the kind of people who could actually afford to purchase a $4.5 million painting. “I was debating between this and a Minnie Mouse poster for my daughter’s room,” joked another reviewer located in San Jose.”Bought this one and put it up.
“I don’t think she quite likes it, so I will probably have to still buy the Minnie Mouse poster…”
The $4.5 million painting is by Norman Rockwell, and Amazon describes it as a recently discovered oil-on-canvas — part of a series of paintings about a young U.S. soldier named Willie Gillis. (“According to the Wall Street Journal, it ‘hung in the headquarters of an undisclosed local company since 1968, when heirs of the painting’s original owner gave it to the corporation during a merger’…”) The Journal notes that it’s rare when a new painting by the artist actually becomes available for purchase. But it’s probably even more rare for them to be sold through Amazon.com.
“After years of living with this ugly crack in my basement wall I finally found the right size painting to cover it!” joked another fake review of the $4.5-million painting. (It was voted “Helpful” by 17 out of 27 reviewers…) And it’s not the only expensive painting which is drawing some sarcastic comments about its price tag, since Amazon’s also selling an original painting by Andy Warhol for $1.45 million. “Pick up two or three if you can get your hands on them,” suggested one reviewer. And another reviewer even told a longer story about “improving” the painting with a bottle of Lysol.
“I looked closely at it with a flashlight, but I didn’t see any numbers so they must just leave it up to the buyer to add his or her favorite colors wherever…”
Amazon entered the art marketplace just last month, announcing that “We’re thrilled to bring the excitement and emotional connection of art to our customers…” They’ve lined up more than 40,000 works of fine art from over 150 galleries and dealers, and more than 4,500 artists, according to Amazon’s press release. (“We are excited to bring one of the largest selections of fine art direct from galleries to our customers…”) Though it still makes me laugh when paintings with a multi-million dollar price tag are listed with the same buttons as other Amazon products — like “Add to Wish List” and “Add to Cart”.
Most of the paintings are actually listed for less than $10,000, so it’s not just millionaires who could consider a purchase. And to be fair, at least one of the galleries — Paddle8 Editions — actually sells their artworks solely to raise money for non-profits and cultural institutions, and they’re actually pretty excited about the opportunity to reach even more customers. But it’s hard to overlook the oddity of selling fine art on the same web site that sells rubber horse masks and educational uranium samples — and to let random shoppers leave behind their reviews. When they first launched their fine art page, Amazon was even offering a chance to purchase a Claude Monet painting — L’Enfant a la tasse — for $1.45 million.
“Very amateurish quality,” joked one reviewer who called himself Art Guy. “My 9-year old son could do a better job…!”
June 27th, 2013
There was a startling announcement on Monday. An Amazon employee is selling a book about their life at the company. But if you purchased it as a Kindle ebook, he’d also mail you a free print version of the same book! It’s the first time I’ve seen a print book relegated to the “bonus” give-away when purchasing a digital ebook — and it turns out he’s not the only former Amazon employee who’s come up with some new twists on Kindle ebooks…
This offer was described at unusualPromotion.com, and a press release claims it “marks the beginning of a turning point in the Book 2.0 evolution.” But there’s at least three other Amazon employees who have also done some extra thinking about books and ebooks – and the ways that we’ll find them!
21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com
In 2002, Mike Daisey released a 240-page memoir about his own time at Amazon. In fact, he’d already created a one-man theatrical show in Seattle about his experiences, according to a review by Library Journal, which jokes that Amazon may be haunted by their decision to hire Daisey back in 1998. (Daisey writes that “Amazon and I started in Seattle at about the same time,” and addds that “To give you an idea of how clueless I was, I had originally assumed that Amazon was a lesbian Internet bookstore, owing to the historical origins of the word Amazon along with the company’s reputation for being ‘progressive.'”) Daisey appears to have been one of the first few hundred employees at Amazon, and his book is a fast-paced and funny read, with lots of very entertaining gossip. Here’s how he remembers a presentation for potential new Amazon employees.
“The four Amazonians who came to speak with us had the clearest, cleanest skin that I’d ever seen… I would never see those people again in my entire time at Amazon. I assume they worked for a black-ops section that specialized in providing fake employees who are startlingly sharp, attractive, and painfully fit.
“We settled back and they began to talk about Linux tools and server uptime, and I suddenly realized that these people were geeks. Serious computer geeks who looked and smelled great…from the way the sexy tech workers talked about Amazon.com, it appeared I’d really missed the boat….
“These tech-savvy, attractive, and well-spoken workers appeared blissfully happy… The opportunity to be near them, surrounded by their coolness and learning from them while being paid, sounded like heaven in itself. If I couldn’t be a geek, at least I could be in their company. And what a company! Though I hadn’t known who they were until that day, I was convinced they were making history… I had a vague sense of riches, of future glory…”
But soon he’s talking about his inevitable disillusionment. (“Doing Time @ Amazon.com” was the book’s original subtitle, though it was later apparently changed to “A Cube-Dweller’s Tale.”) Library Journal calls his book “an eye-opening testament as to how truly dysfunctional a dot-com can get,” noting that Daisey describes his work environment as “gothic” and spills the beans on some unusual phone calls that came in to Amazon’s customer service. And they acknowledge that his insider stories about life at Amazon are all “quite funny.”
Interestingly, that book isn’t available as an e-book on Amazon’s Kindle — though you can buy it as an audiobook.
Burning the Page
This book just came out in April, and it was written by Jason Merkoski, who was actually the program manager for the Kindle on the day that it launched. I thought it was fascinating memoir with some interesting insights into the future of reading. But more importantly, the author came up with some clever new ebook tricks to help make his book more appealing to Kindle owners.
On Twitter and Facebook, Merkoski revealed part of “the brave new world of what I call ‘Reading 2.0′”. At the end of the first chapter of “Burning the Page”, he’d included a link to a social app offering his readers a way of connecting to not only the author, but to other readers — plus “surprises all along the way.” He promised it would be a combination of a virtual book club, offering a chance to interact with the book’s author as he became “a thoughtful friend who brings you special notes and treats.” Each chapter ended with a new link, and when readers clicked on it, there was always another new surprise waiting. Once it was a link to an unannounced bonus chapter, and another time it was a personalized digital autograph. And Merkoski promised that when you finished reading his book, you’d receive a personalized message from the author himself.
Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut
James Marcus remembers interviewing for a job in “a low, inauspicious building south of the downtown, next to a barbecue joint whose vinegar-scented fumes I could smell the moment I hit the sidewalk.” Marcus was Amazon employee #55, back when Amazon’s yearly sales were just $16 million a year, and he provides “a captivating, witty account of how the fledgling e-retailer transformed itself,” according to Publisher’s Weekly. At the age of 37, he was the oldest person in the room when he arrived at what he describes as a book warehouse with offices, and the book opens with a fascinating description of how ambitious Jeff Bezos had likeably interviewed him. (“He had none of Bill Gates’s pasty paranoia…”) Marcus even tours the warehouse — snooping on individual customer orders. “Forget heterosexual, plain-vanilla porn (of which there was a great deal)… In cyberspace, I could see, there was no love that dare not speak its name…”
It’s an inspiring read, because even back then he could see that Amazon was intent on changing the world, and “Their sense of having grabbed history by the horns was almost palpable.” Publisher’s Weekly even noted a kind of nostalgia in his book for the early days of Amazon, as Marcus writes about their warehouse across from the world headquarters of Starbucks and the exhiliaration they seemed to feel. “It made them slightly giddy and enormously tired.”
And as he walks his future co-workers back to their offices, “The breeze had shifted and the barbecue fumes were again in evidence.”
Inside the Giant Machine
“Behind Amazon’s quirky smile logo lurks a cold and calculating giant machine,” claims the book’s description, promising an e-book filled with poetry that “makes us feel the vitality of the Hi-Tech worlds of California and Seattle.” The first section of “Inside the Giant Machine” is an e-mail the author had sent in 2002 to his friends, describing a late-night success at his own startup company. That company’s success leads to a merger, after which “we ended up with two VPs of Technology — which was one too many,” and soon he’s also looking for a new job in Seattle. This is the book that was “developed” from blog posts, though at times it feels like it might’ve been inspired (if not modeled) after some of the earlier books by Amazon employees.
In fact, one of the author’s most interesting revelations is that when he was hired Amazon actually mailed him copies of Daisey’s book “21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com” and James Marcus’s
“Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut” (along with three books about Seattle). This book was was written using a pseudonym (“Kalpanik S.”),so there’s no way of knowing for sure that it’s really by an Amazon employee. But he does sound like a true “Amazonian” when he writes that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos “sincerely believed that his cult was changing the world and I wanted to be part of this revolution, and change the world!”
It’s a short book — when I first bought it in 2011, the print edition was just 128 pages, and at times it felt a little bit skimpy. (The last 10% was just “back matter” — copyrights, “works cited,” a selection of “acclaim” for the book, and a list of the author’s other books (including an excerpt). There was also a “color interior” paperback edition with “approximately 80 color photographs, including several panoramic shots of Seattle!” I notice that the new version on sale today comes in at 220 pages.
But at least one reviewer at Amazon.com noticed the same thing that I did: that the book itself has a higher-than-usual number of typos. (Example?” Amazon’s young, sharp minds still want you prove to yourself to them.”) I was intrigued by the chapter titles (like “The hacker who loved me” and “things start to fall apart”), and some of his photographs (like the Seattle skyline) look very attractive on the Kindle’s black and white screen. But sometimes it felt like the author just re-published some of his old e-mails to friends.
I asked myself if I should ultimately see that as a bug or a feature. You could argue that it makes the book feel more like one man’s personal story — and it’s genuinely fun to read the moment when the former Amazon employee has a revelation, that “suddenly publishing a book was easily within my reach.
“All I needed to do was combine those various pieces, fill in the gaps, polish the material, and hire an editor!”
There were a few lines that made me laugh out loud, but the author’s first chapter about his startup also rises to a poignant conclusion. “We want to change the world, though, and that is never easy. The world is usually very reluctant to change, especially at the pace startups want it do so.”
And then another future book-author headed off for his fateful two-day job interview at Amazon.com…
June 21st, 2013
Amazon’s created a special web page reporting their best-selling Kindle ebooks of 2013 (so far). But what’s fascinating is how different that list is from Amazon’s other list of this year’s best-selling printed books. In fact, only two of the top 10 best-selling print books also appear on Amazon’s list of the best-selling Kindle ebooks.
The best-selling Kindle eBook of 2013 is Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks — a novel of love and intrigue by a best-selling fiction writer. Yet amazingly, it’s not even in the top 100 on Amazon’s list of the best-selling printed books! And the exact same thing is true for the #10 best-selling Kindle ebook of 2013. It’s Silver Linings Playbook: A Novel by Matthew Quick — and despite its massive sales as a Kindle ebook, it’s not even in the top 100 of Amazon’s list of print best-sellers. (Since both ebooks were recently made into movies, you might wonder if Kindle owners are more in tune with the fast-moving world of popular culture? Or maybe they’re just younger readers who go to the movies more often…)
Meanwhile, there’s more surprises on Amazon’s list of the best-selling printed book this year. It’s StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath — a non-fiction book that helps readers assess their personal talents and weaknesses. In fact, five non-fiction titles made the top 10 on Amazon’s list of the best-selling printed books of the year. How many non-fiction titles made Amazon’s list of the 10 best-selling Kindle ebooks of 2013?
Here’s Amazon’s list of their top 10 best-selling ebooks of 2013
Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks
Inferno: A Novel by Dan Brown
Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn
Hopeless by Colleen Hoover
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Hit by Will Robie
Wait for Me by Elisabeth Naughton
Alex Cross, Run by James Patterson
Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia
The Silver Linings Playbook: A Novel by Matthew Quick
And now here’s Amazon’s list of their top 10 best-selling
print books of 2013
StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
Inferno by Dan Brown
Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss
Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence by Sarah Young
The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia
The 5 Love Languages: The Secrets to Love That Lasts by Gary D. Chapman
A Song of Ice and Fire, Books 1-4 by George R. R. Martin
So the two books that both lists had in common were both works of fiction — Inferno: A Novel by Dan Brown (the author of The Da Vinci Code) and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But of course, Dan Brown’s books have always been phenomenally popular — and The Great Gatsby was released this year as a major movie picture. But then again, Safe Haven was also released as major motion picture in February, and became the #1 best-selling Kindle ebook of the year — while not even making it into the top 100 on Amazon’s list of the best-selling printed books!
So what’s going on? There’s another clue when you look at the ebooks which didn’t make it onto Amazon’s list of the top 10 best-selling printed books. For example…
#4. Hopeless by Colleen Hoover
One of 2013’s best-selling ebooks came from a self-published author living in rural East Texas — a 33-year-old social worker who published her first novel just 18 months ago. Thanks to the power of viral marketing — and Amazon’s Kindle Store — Colleen Hoover was able to find an appreciative audience online, and her books are now also available in print. But the print world is still struggling to catch up, apparently, since none of the print editions of Colleen’s novels have even made it into the top 100 of Amazon’s best-selling print books of 2013.
Of course, two of the 10 print best-sellers aren’t available as Kindle ebooks.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss
The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia
Maybe the lesson there is that some books just work better in print — like books with lavish illustrations and a complicated layout. But it’s interesting to note that all of the top 10 best-selling Kindle ebooks are also available in print editions. Is it possible that publishers now consider the ebook market to be the most important one?
Anyways, I’m finding it fascinating to compare the two lists. It’s like catching glimpses of two different universes, which exist side-by-side in this moment in time. And they offer hints about the way that we read — and how it’s starting to change…
April 12th, 2013
I’ve read some books by former Amazon employees, but this one is special. It’s written by one of the founding members of Amazon’s Kindle team, who “wanted to change the world,” according to the book’s first chapter — “and we did!” In fact, Jason Merkoski was actually the program manager for the Kindle on the day that it launched. This week he’s released a fascinating memoir titled “Burning the Page” with some interesting insights into the future of reading. And to celebrate the launch of his book, Jason’s also demonstrating some brand new ways to blur the boundaries between ebooks and the internet!
Merkoski’s describing his book as recollections of “the time I spent working on the front lines of the ebook revolution.” (On his first day on the job, he’d been treated to “an overhead projection of Jeff Bezos’s head welcoming me to work, telling me to have fun and make history.”) When he later ends up waiting for a meeting in Bezos’s office, Merkoski gazes out the window, and tries to imagine the way Amazon’s founder sees the world. (“He had a telescope in his office and pictures of his kids on the wall…”) At one point Merkoski even calls his book “the true story of the ebook revolution”, and there’s some fun details about life inside Amazon.
But he really digs into the meaning of reading. Merkoski writes at one point that “by crossing the chasms of culture and language [through ebooks], humanity itself becomes connected.” Later he even says boldly that “I think there’s really just one book, the book of all human culture,” and then he describes his own vision of a Facebook for Books, “where all books can interact and link to one another. But it’s not just talk, and over the last three days he’s actually put his ideas into action.
On Twitter and Facebook, Merkoski has already revealed some new experimental tricks that his ebook can perform online — part of “the brave new world of what I call ‘Reading 2.0′”. Friday afternoon Merkoski had a big announcement on Twitter. “Amazon dropped the price on my book – get it now for your weekend reading if you’re interested…” In fact, they’ve lowered the price to just $7.69 (a 23% discount). But it was later that I discovered that Merkoski has also found a unique new way to connect Twitter to his book.
At the end of the first chapter of “Burning the Page”, Merkoski included a link to a social app offering his readers a way of connecting to other readers and the author, plus “surprises all along the way.” He promises it’s a combination of a virtual book club, a chance to interact with the book’s author, and “a thoughtful friend who brings you special notes and treats.” Each chapter ends with a new link, and when readers click on it, there’s another new surprise. It could be a link to unannounced bonus chapters, a personalized autograph, or even “unexpected objects falling out from between the ‘pages’ of the book…” And Merkoski promises that when you finish reading his book, you’ll receive a personalized message from the author himself.
“I look forward to talking to you, because the greatest revolutionaries in the ebook revolution are the readers.”
When you click a link in the ebook, it takes you to your Kindle’s web browser, displaying a message about what your next surprise will be!
The book has some fun passages that make the story of the Kindle seem even more colorful. Later in the book he imagines the workshop where Gutenberg published the first book in 1453 as being a lot like the newspaper printing plant where his own father worked. And soon he’s wondering if Amazon’s Kindle project in the 21st century was also its own high-tech version of Gutenberg’s workshop, “an alternate, over-caffeinated, sugar-high universe.” But I think he sums up the whole experience nicely in one wonderful sentence.
“Yes, I did have fun at Amazon, and I made history.”
March 5th, 2013
America’s Parent Teacher Association includes millions of parents and teachers — but this year, they’re letting Amazon’s Kindle be the exclusive partner of a new program. To improve the reading skills of grade school students, the program will teach parents some fun ways to get involved in their children’s reading — and for the rest of the year, the program will officially be called The PTA Family Reading Experience, Powered by Kindle.
Besides ebooks, “The progam also encourages use of real books,” notes Fast Company magazine, “but it’s definitely a PR coup for Amazon, whose rival Apple has also been moving to increase its e-book educational appeal.” Amazon’s even created a special web page identifying themselves as “the official e-reader of the National PTA”. The page argues that the Kindle “was designed to make great books as accessible and engaging as possible, and kids say their enthusiasm for reading increases with e-books.”
“Parents love to see their children inspired to read more, especially with a device like Kindle that’s focused solely on reading.
It’s fascinating to see the way Amazon has now started marketing their e-readers as a family-friendly educational tool, with a pitch that the Kindle is “the perfect complement to children’s print books.” (Their web page also notes the Kindle’s storage capacity of over 1,000 books, “making heavy backpacks lighter,” and that each Kindle has a built-in dictionary which “supports real-time vocabulary development, while adjustable fonts and text sizes make each book just right for a child’s eyes and reading ability.”) Amazon’s even titled their page “Kids and Parents Love Kindle,” and they’ve also lined up an enthusiastic quote in the press release announcing their endorsement. “National PTA is honored to work with Kindle to provide parents with proven techniques for improving their child’s reading fluency, comprehension and passion…”
But the real question isn’t just whether this will help Amazon sell more Kindles, but also whether it help them sell more ebooks. So to that end, Amazon’s also created a new web page of “PTA Family Favorites”, which also touts their relationship with the new organization. “Kindle and the National PTA are working together to help families get more involved in their children’s reading and enhance their emerging interest in books, Amazon writes at the top of the web page. “These featured titles were most frequently cited in a survey of PTA members as books they love to read together as a family.”
I admit I enjoyed browsing the selection, to see if there were any books I recognized from my childhood. Amazon’s highlighting their ebook versions of “PTA Family Favorites”, separated into ebooks for different reading levels, with The Magic Treehouse series recommended for first and second graders (along with the Junie B. series and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day)). For third and fourth graders, the page recommends the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, along with Beverly Cleary’s books about Ramona. Their selection for fourth and fifth graders includes C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and their older-reader selections include The Lightning Thief, The Hobbit and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.
I could think cynical thoughts about how Amazon’s involvement with the PTA is just another new way to promote the Kindle and Amazon’s Kindle Store. But mostly I’m just glad to see children being encouraged
to read some very good books.
February 15th, 2013
it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Amazon has already been testing same-day delivery in 10 cities since 2009, according to the Christian Science Monitor, and last month they reported rumors that Amazon might be expanding the program. And meanwhile the post office is already offering same-day delivery capabilities to businesses — at least in San Francisco. For the last eight weeks, the post office has been quietly testing this service (as a way to offset the money they’re losing from deliveries of traditional mail). It’s expected to raise up to $50 million after its first year just in San Francisco, according to an article in the Associated Press., which reports that “If things run smoothly, the program will quickly expand next year to other big cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York.”
The post office has noticed that package deliveries are actually increasing at a rate of more than 10%, according to the article. (Maybe because people are ordering more things online?) And it also notes that Walmart — a major competitor to Amazon — is already offering same-day deliveries. Meanwhile, Amazon has been building more and more distribution centers in more and more states. Are we looking at the beginning of a war, to see which retailer can deliver packages the fastest?
But Wired asks a more interesting question: who’s going to be doing the delivering? FedEx and the other delivery services seem to insist on an intermediate step where all the packages are first collected together at their own distribution centers before being re-routed back out for deliveries. “To make same-day work, the orders must travel straight from the distribution centers to customers,” Wired notes — adding that post office seems to have a lot of carriers now with fewer and fewer letters to deliver.
To get a definitive answer, Wired even called a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal service, who seemed enthusiastic when he agreed that “We already have the existing infrastructure in place. That’s what sets us apart.” He wouldn’t speculate about whether the post office was going to end up offering same-day delivery services for Amazon’s packages, but he did hedge that traditional mail carriers can offer an attractive choice for companies who are exploring the same option. And to that possibility, he had one more hopeful thing to say.
“We’d never close the door on ways to expand our revenue.”