Inside the Amazon

December 21, 2011
What do smoked-salmon gift baskets, toy dump trunks, toilet paper, and cigars all have in common?  They all make great holiday gifts that you can buy online. That’s right.
the real amazon

Not this Amazon, the other one.

If you’re like most other adult humans, you’re shopping via the web this holiday season, part of a steady trend over the last decade. And chances are, you’ve spent some money with the big boys of eCommerce. The marketplace. The empire. The leaders of the online shopping channel. The Amazon.

From both a business and technology perspective, Amazon’s story is a compelling one. Once known for peddling books over an emerging medium, retail is now only part of what they do (though a big part). A recent interview with Jeff Bezos in Wired.com is a must-read, revealing the extent of the company’s reach, their role as one of technologies biggest players, and their vision of the future. Check it out – then go wrap up your holiday shopping in a new browser window.

We’ll wait.

For kicks, below is a short essay I wrote a while back on the company a when asked to describe a ‘company I admire’. Sort of an elementary-school exercise that was oddly refreshing. How I miss school sometimes…

Amazon is an admirable company. Not just because they are the class of online retail or because I occasionally find great deals on boots there. But because of where they came from, what they’ve done, and where they’re going. It started as a great American business story: an entrepreneur headed West in his car into the unknown, armed with a vision of selling books over an emerging channel known as the internet. It has since evolved into a true empire, growing steadily and remaining on the cusp of high-tech innovation. And all while having a direct and meaningful impact on so many customers’ lives, as well as the successes and fortunes of new businesses along the way.

Amazon’s business model has pushed the limits of capitalism and how we thought about an open marketplace could work. But as a company, it has become far more than a commerce hub of ‘anything you need.’ It has continually introduced new patterns of technology into our lives. It created a custom recommendation engine based on user data, delivering recommendations – sometimes quirky, often helpful, but never overwhelming – to returning customers that many others have since tried to emulate. It evolved into a discussion platform for products of all types, bringing a democratic element to shopping. In this sense it single-handedly brought “social” shopping into the digital age, pairing conversations and reviews from the masses with products themselves. This bottom-up approach to evaluating a marketplace, its participants, and its content, changed how merchants thought about key factors such as pricing and quality. And as a website, Amazon.com has evolved, adapted, and remained usable — an impressive feat for an interface with such a complex ecosystem supporting it. As they grew, they iterated quickly, making interface changes often, and ignoring many web and usability experts who criticized the site for being too busy, too big, too confusing, or simply not sustainable.

Most notably, Amazon had the foresight to expand on its successful business model and dive into hardware by designing and releasing the Kindle. Beyond being an innovative product — a novel design and medium that consumers gobbled up (e-ink, anyone?) — it was a move that challenged the way we consume literature and the written word, threatening to make books obsolete. And that Amazon itself had its roots in books speaks to the vision and fearlessness of their company and leadership. To challenge their own heritage with the Kindle and adapt to the changing times was both a bold and poetic move. They saw a consumer need and went after it, regardless of how their company was positioned at the time. That they continue to expand their businesses is a testament to their successes and a great example of the power of what bold innovation can do for business in today’s world. And it’s admirable. Very admirable. (Profitable too.)


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