Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire
Brad Stone is a Bloomberg Journalist who has previously written The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. In this sequel he charts the continued growth of Amazon as its founder becomes the richest man on the planet and the company becomes the world’s most valuable retailer worth over a trillion dollars with over a million employees on the books. The work is more a historical narrative divided both chronologically and through the different facets of Amazon’s expanding empire. It is not a critical investigation however, and although Stone touches on issues around globalization and labor rights he tends toward a lighter touch review of how Amazon got it where it is today.
This review is very much an outsider’s perspective. Stone is unable to secure facetime with Bezos himself and is reliant on former Amazon employees or “Amazonians” as they refer to themselves to reflect on the mega business. This can sometimes read a bit too much like an insider baseball tale as while the senior leadership of Amazon are looked at briefly, Bezos is the dominant figure. Rightly so as he’s a fascinating character whose personal story intrinsically reflects on how Amazon has developed.
Bezos is also eminently quotable. His ethos of “don’t spend a lot of time on analysis and precision. Keep trying stuff,” sees the business go in so many directions that it’s hard to track. Stone writes that he invested Amazon’s winnings “like a crazed gambler at the craps table in Las Vegas.” From taking personal ownership of Washington Post for $250m cash, pushing the expansion of Amazon Web Services (which generated $45.4bn in 2020) to Alexa (sold tens of millions) to acquiring Whole Foods for $13.7Bn to taking on Hollywood with Amazon Prime to his separate passion for space manifest in “Blue Origin.”
Bezos has got to where he is, according to Stone, by being the maker of big bets. His “jeffisms” are often highly experimental and don’t get the traction that his famous successes are renowned for. Examples include the “Fire Phone” and the “single cow burger,” but as Bezos himself reflects; “every interesting thing I’ve done, every important thing I’ve ever done, every beneficial thing I’ve ever done, has been through a cascade of experiments and mistakes and failures.” He now has a personal wealth that is bigger than the GDP of Hungary and as the book tracks, has moved from being a “geek” to a well-built celebrity whose new relationship status and ease with the Hollywood elite reflect on his incredible journey.
Stone definitely leans to narrative over analysis. In telling the story of how Amazon’s size got it increasingly into trouble with anti-monopoly lawmakers, or those concerned with its labor standards, he opines that people don’t understand how the “various components interlock” within the ecosystem that Amazon has created. The company is very much a driver and a creature of modern globalization, some 49% of top 10,000 Amazon sellers are based in China and the section on the company’s attempts to “win” in India is fascinating but probably deserved a book themselves.
Likewise, the story of “Blue Origin” and Bezos’s childhood obsession with space is only lightly touched on. The potential and inspiration about Bezos’s dream to have an enduring human presence of up to a trillion people in space is enthralling, yet you’ll not walk away from reading this book knowing much about it. Bezos goes further, pledging to “go to space to save earth,” but again you’re left with more questions than answers.