Review: Book reveals roots of Amazon’s spectacular success

“Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets from Inside Amazon,” Colin Bryar and Bill Carr (St. Martin’s Press)

This book reads like a how-to guide, which perhaps is by design — Bryar and Carr both were long-time Amazonians and their vantage point is that of an enthusiast rather than a critic.

To be sure, Amazon offers much to admire.

The company is approaching 1 million employees, a stunning rise from the 600 in 1997, the company’s first year as a public company.

Bryar and Carr’s book derives its title from Amazon’s practice of designing a business segment starting with the desired customer experience.

Well, that’s not so different, you say.

But Amazon excels in part because it has created rigorous procedures for everything it does.

Rather than using widely used presentation slide series for example, where the information is distilled into graphics and phrases, Amazon culture calls for a six-page report, believing the demands of such narratives sharpen thinking.

It’s hard to argue with Amazon’s success — operating income totaled $6.9 billion in the fourth quarter of 2020, up from operating income of $3.9 billion in fourth quarter 2019.

Pay and bonus plans are focused on long-term success rather than the annual reckoning common with other companies. Amazon wants its people to think over the horizon.

Some Amazon standards are givens — earn trust, hire and develop the best; other standards are bolder — a bias for action — and these separate the company from timid competitors.

Can Amazon’s practices simply be installed at other companies, sort of a tonic for success? Absent the adoption of Amazon’s up-tempo and meticulous company culture, probably not. And for a critical analysis of the company, the culture and it economic impact, we must go elsewhere.

Studying Amazon could become a full-time job. Several books have been written about the company and founder Jeff Bezos in the last year alone according to a survey of titles offered on… Amazon. Among the those recent publications: “Selling on Amazon for Dummies.”

How sturdy and lasting Amazon’s practices and culture will be may be coming into view soon. Earlier this month, Bezos said he is transitioning from chief executive to executive chairman.

It’s a safe bet Amazon’s core principles and practices will remain essentially intact, not because Bezos will be watching from the executive suite but because Bryar, Carr and legions of current managers at the company believe in the Amazon way.

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