Amazon’s rise to the top of the tech world is remarkable. A company that started out selling books online from Jeff Bezos’ garage has turned into a behemoth now valued at nearly $600 billion, with shares up 50 percent in the past year alone. Bezos meanwhile just had his net worth reach $100 billion for the first time.
That’s why I found it fascinating to watch a 60 Minutes segment about the company from 1999 and see how the 22-year-old company has changed — and hasn’t — over the past two decades.
A lot has changed since then, of course — to Amazon, and to Seattle (in many ways due to the company’s growth). The episode kicks off with the late 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon walking along Pike Street near Amazon’s downtown office at the time, pointing out “a pawn shop and a porno parlor” that have since been replaced by a Hard Rock Cafe.
Today, Amazon occupies 8.1 million square feet across 33 buildings in Seattle and has transformed the city’s urban core.
Simon also notes how Amazon operates five warehouses in the U.S. and Europe — Amazon now has 70 fulfilment centers in the U.S. alone.
But perhaps more interesting are the ways in which Amazon and Bezos haven’t changed, showing the values that have helped propel the company to success.
For example, Simon points out the famous “door desks,” one of which is in Bezos’ office. “You can afford a better desk than that,” he tells the Amazon boss.
“It’s a symbol of spending money on things that matter to customers, and not spending money on things that don’t,” Bezos responds.
“Frugality” and “customer obsession” are two of Amazon’s 14 current leadership principles.
Sitting with Bezos and his office PC, Simon is impressed with how Amazon’s website welcomed him by name and recommended what books he might be interested in based on past purchases. “This is really scary,” he says. “I’ve read a lot of these books and bought many of the others.”
Simon asks Bezos why the company collects “350 floppy disks worth of data” on customers every day.
“That’s the data that allows us to predict, or try to predict, what books and videos and music that you would like, that you haven’t discovered yet,” Bezos responds.
“Recommended items” or “related items” are two long-standing phrases still very much prevalent across Amazon’s retail website and services. The company continues to collect hoards of data on customer preferences; despite potential privacy concerns, Americans still trust Amazon over other tech juggernauts.
The segment also shows some of Bezos’ own personal mantras that still hold true today. He tells Simon about his decision to leave Wall Street and travel across the country to start Amazon, noting that he used a “regret minimization framework.”
“I want to have lived my life in such a way that when I’m 80 years old, I’ve minimized the number of regrets that I have,” Bezos explained. “I think actually a lot of people do that — even if they don’t call it something as dorky as regret minimization framework, they behave that way.”
During an on-stage interview earlier this month when Bezos was interviewed by his younger brother Mark, the Amazon chief talks about this same concept when asked how he made the startup leap. From the interview:
“The best way to think about it was to project myself forward to age 80,” Bezos explained. “I said look, when I’m 80 years old, I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have. I don’t want to be 80 years old in a quiet moment of reflection thinking back over my life and cataloging a bunch of major regrets. Our biggest regrets, in most cases, turn out to be acts of omission. It’s paths not taken, and they haunt us. We wonder what would have happened — I loved that person and never told them, and then they married someone else. That’s the frame of mind I put myself in. Once I did that and thought about it that way, it was immediately obvious to me. I knew that when I’m 80, I would never regret trying this thing that I was super excited about and failing. If it failed, fine. I would be very proud of the fact when I’m 80 that I tried. I also knew it would always haunt me if I didn’t try. That would be a regret; it would be a 100 percent chance of regret if I didn’t try, and basically a zero percent chance of regret if I tried and failed. That’s a useful metric for any important life decision.”
Even though he’s now worth $100 billion — the first billionaire to build a 12-figure net worth since 1999, when Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates hit the mark — Bezos doesn’t exactly exude flashiness. During the 60 Minutes clip, Simon asks him “what’s up with this Honda?” as Bezos drives around in his green Accord. “This is a perfectly good car,” the CEO says.
“It was clear that Maseratis and yachts didn’t mean anything to him,” Simon told CBS in 2013. “He didn’t have an extravagant lifestyle. He just wanted to be able to think his thoughts and see where they would lead.”
Simon also speaks with someone from a global investment bank about how Amazon had a higher valuation than some longstanding retailers, and wonders if the company could impact the shopping mall.
“A couple of geeks who sketched out some software could destroy Sears Roebuck,” he notes incredulously. Sears closed 28 stores this summer and its stock has fallen more than 70 percent in the past year.
The latest reminder of Amazon’s impact on brick-and-mortar retailers came during this past Black Friday weekend, as shoppers seem to be opting for buying items online — Adobe Analytics reported a record $5.03 billion spent online in the U.S. on Black Friday, up 17 percent year-over-year — versus going to actual stores. Amazon now accounts for upwards of 50 percent of all online sales in the U.S. and the company likely pulled in billions in sales this Thanksgiving weekend.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) November 25, 2017
At the end of the clip, Simon asks Bezos if he has developed a fear of “losing it all” after achieving so much success in a short period of time.
“I know we can lose it all — it’s not fear, it’s a fact,” Bezos answers as he lets out his classic laugh.
You can watch the full segment here. Bezos later appeared on 60 Minutes in 2013, talking about the company’s drone delivery program. Since its humble days as an online bookseller, Amazon has grown into so much more — these days, it’s a powerhouse in entertainment, cloud computing, devices and logistics, and various other verticals.
What will Bezos and Amazon’s next appearance look like on 60 Minutes, 10 years from now?