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In 2004 I got the opportunity to work with Jeff Bezos to develop the original Kindle. It was Amazon’s first foray into hardware and I learned a ton from my interactions with Jeff. Here’s some of the stories and lessons that I took away from that experience:
1/ Learn and adapt. Amazon’s second largest business was decimated when Apple digitized the music industry. CD sales had been important to Amazon, but they were dwarfed by book sales. Jeff took the lessons from iPod/iTunes and applied them to Kindle.
2/ Ignore the “institutional no”. Amazon’s core retail business was pummeled after dot-com crash, and we were still pulling out of the tail spin in 2004 when Jeff started the Kindle team (same year he started AWS team). Everyone told him it was a distraction, he ignored them.
3/ Cannibalize yourself. Steve Kessel was running Amazon’s media business in 2004 (books/music/DVD’s). Books alone generated more than 50% of Amazon’s cash flow. Jeff fired Steve from his job and reassigned him to build Kindle. Steve’s new mission: destroy his old business.
4/ Don’t assume something can’t be done, just because others have tried and failed. 2 start-ups had already failed with ebook readers. Sony had a reader in the market that wasn’t getting any traction. These failures emboldened Jeff’s determination.
5/ Just because it ain’t broke, doesn’t mean you can’t make it better. Jeff told us “Physical books are one of the greatest inventions ever and there’s nothing wrong with them. How do we make the reading experience even better?” Our answer: lighter, portable, easy to sync.
6/ Invent. Failed eBook readers had used LED screens, we embraced e-ink (first commercial use). iPods used cables to sync, we used WiFi and cellular. We added a keyboard for search (this was a mistake, but it was worth a try). We invented a novel way to digitize books. Etc
7/ Set unrealistic expectations. Jeff wanted 100k books in store at launch for $9.99 each. This was my job and it seemed impossible. Publishers whaffled between fear and indifference. But Jeff wouldn’t take no for an answer. Those were some of the toughest meetings of my career.
8/ Make magic. Syncing over WiFi without cables was innovative, and our team was proud of it. But Jeff didn’t think it was magical enough. He insisted on syncing over cellular, and he didn’t want to charge the customer for data. We told him it couldn’t be done, he did it anyway.
9/ Hardware is hard. Every software/internet platform eventually builds hardware. And they learn the same lesson every time, it’s much harder than building software. Slow iteration cycles, atoms vs bits, etc. The only way to learn is to ship. It took 3.5 years to ship Kindle v1!
10/ Be inspired. It would have been impossible for a professional CEO to build Kindle (or AWS) in 2004 at Amazon. I remember sitting in so many meetings where people questioned why we were doing this, right in the middle of a turnaround in the core business. I was inspired.
PS - Jeff almost died in a helicopter crash around the time of these stories. If he hadn’t survived, the world would look very different.
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