If you take away nothing else from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ annual letter to his shareholders, just remember this:
Jeff Bezos writes about Amazon to enhance its value to its shareholders, employees, and customers. Business rock star though he is, Jeff Bezos cannot prescribe the right medicine for your company. As the CEO of the most successful retailer and cloud computing provider the world has ever seen, he almost certainly doesn’t have the time or the energy to care.
I’m not saying that his letter has no value if, like most people, you neither work for Amazon nor own Amazon stock. Just be mindful that, like any capable marketer, Bezos has a primary target audience in mind. You’re probably not it.
So how should you digest his letter? Here are a few suggestions that have helped me extract value while maintaining perspective.
This is a prescription for playing offense, not defense: Bezos calls this letter “…a starter pack of essentials for Day 1 defense.” (Emphasis is mine.) Read these essentials carefully, though, and you’ll see that they are a recipe for playing offense, not defense. In a rapidly changing, innovating market, going on offense is the only way to play it. Put another way, if you spend limited company time and resources trying to protect your innovation or market lead, you’re just buying time before some disruptor will eat your lunch.
Bezos’ “essentials” are interesting – and inarguable: Try to take the anti position on any of the following of his four essentials: customer obsession, a skeptical view of proxies, the eager adoption of external trends, and high-velocity decision making. A company that is lazy about understanding its customers, relies entirely on proxies, ignores external trends, and embraces slow decision making – sounds just like Dunder Mifflin.
What’s your priority? Amazon could have emphasized all sorts of other worthy and indisputable essentials that didn’t make the cut. For example, how about hiring smart, adaptable, diverse talent, or emphasizing a culture of investment as opposed to spending? The far more interesting question for business leaders not named Jeff Bezos: what four essentials would appear in your shareholder letter? Let the debate begin.
How would you bring your essentials to life? With the exception of high velocity decision making, the details of which consume 38% of his letter, Bezos doesn’t reveal much about how Amazon makes its essentials a part of every day work. How companies bring their values to life is really interesting because the effort it requires is really hard. I’d love to know how Amazon learns enough about enough customers beyond surveys and research to make informed decisions. Wouldn’t it be really interesting to know how Bezos encourages his leadership to stay current on external ideas? He doesn’t let on, though, so we’re left to go figure it out ourselves. That’s a good thing.
Bezos’ letter is a brilliant display of personal branding, but it isn’t for or about you. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that startup founders held closed door sessions to figure out how their companies can embrace Amazon’s four essentials, even if those may not be the most essential priorities for most other companies.
Rather than emulate Amazon, think about what factors enable you to grab and hold the lead in your market. Debate how to lift them off the paper and into your culture. That’s the more interesting and important work you can do.