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Jeff Bezos at Wired Disruptive by Design conference

Jeff Bezos is very quotable. Listeing to Steve Levy interview him at the Wired Disruptive by Design event in New York, I was furiously taking notes. Here are the quotes I managed to capture:

“We’ve co-evolved with our tools for thousands of years,” he says, explaining how ease of Kindle buying changes behavior.

“Reading is an important enough activity that it deserves a purpose-built device….It’s a myth that multi-purpose devices are always better…. I like my phone… I like my swiss army knife too, but I’m also happy to have a set of steak knives.”

“I get grumpy now when I have to read a physical book….The physical book has had a great 500 year run, but it’s time to change.”

“If you’re an incumbent in any industry, and rapid change is underway, you’re uncomfortable, even if long term it’s going to be good.”

“I want to be able to provide every book ever published, in any language, in sixty seconds.” Steve Levy then asks him about the GBS settlement, but Jeff declines to comment. But adds nonetheless: “That settlement needs to be revisited, and is being revisited….It doesn’t seem right that you can get a prize for violating a large set of copyrights.”

Steve Levy: Going back to disruptive internet companies from 1990s – “could an established company have understood how to build a great internet company?” Bezos: “One of the statistics I saw in 1994 that encouraged me to start Amazon was that net usage was growing 2300% a year. But it was still tiny….One of the biggest problems with big companies doing clean sheet innovation is that even if you see it, you have to be a really long term thinker, because for a long time it will be a tiny slice of the company…. The key thing is to be willing to wait 5, 7, 10 years. And most companies aren’t willing to wait ten years.”

Steve asks him about how he survived the years in which everyone doubted his strategy. Jeff replied: “There were two things: the business metrics, and the stock price. After the bust, the stock price went down, but the business metrics continued to improve….We had some very harsh critics during that time, but we always noticed that our harshest critics were among our best customers. Having a team that is heads down focused on building product makes you more resilient against outside opinion.”

During the 1999 stock bubble, Jeff says he kept telling employees “Don’t feel 30% smarter because the stock is up 30% this month, because you’ll have to feel 30% dumber when it goes down.”

“One of the differences between founder/entrepreneurs and financial managers is that founder/entrepreneurs are stubborn about the vision of the business, and keep working the details. The trick to being an entrepreneur is to know when to be stubborn and when to be flexible. The trick for me is to be stubborn about the big things.”

He also talks about basing business strategy on things that aren’t going to change: “I know that ten years from now, customers are still going to want low prices. I know they are going to want fast delivery. I know they are going to want the biggest product selection.”

“There are a few prerequisites to inventing…. You have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to think lng term. You have to be willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time. If you can’t do those three things, you need to limit yourself to sustaining innovation…. You typically don’t get misunderstood for sustaining innovation.”

“At the end of the day, you don’t end your strategy because other people don’t understand it. Not if you have conviction.”

“These new businesses are very energizing. We don’t ‘stick to the knitting’…I wouldn’t even know how to respond if someone said ‘Jeff, this isn’t the knitting.’ But we do make business decisions in a very deliberate way: we work backwards from customer needs, and we work forwards from our business skills.”

“You’ve got to be willing to learn new skills if your customers need you to have those skills.”

“18 months ago we launched Kindle with 90,000 titles. It’s 300,000 now, and it’s accelerating.”

“We’ve made many errors. People over-focus on errors of commission. Companies over-emphasize how expensive failure’s going to be. Failure’s not that expensive….The big cost that most companies incur are much harder to notice, and those are errors of Omission.”

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  • http://www.restorativeresources.org/ Amos Clifford

    Great notes, and spot on. The same things apply in the non-profit/social service sector also. The same old “tried and true” methods have in many cases outlived their usefulness. In fact, many of these methods haven’t worked very well at all, but are nevertheless well entrenched.

    Funding sources tend to be conservative, so it’s hard to sell approaches that are visionary. But I feel it’s critical to the well being of our society that we do so…successfully. Bezo’s words are inspiring and encouraging.

  • http://friendfeed.com/hymanroth hymanroth

    I liked the error of omission angle, very astute.

    Better to fail conventionally, etc..

  • http://www.alexandertolley.com Alex Tolley

    “”I get grumpy now when I have to read a physical book….The physical book has had a great 500 year run, but it’s time to change.””

    That’s just talking up his own, ahem, book.
    Cory Doctorow has far more insightful things to say about paper vs electronic books. I certainly don’t get grumpy holding a real book, but I do see the value ob being able to interact with the information more fully, something that needs a digital copy, but much more than a Kindle offers.

  • http://proxearth.com David Loughry

    Bezos has said some of the same things in Charlie Rose interviews. See the Charlie Rose site.

    I wonder if they are talking about things that leverage what business does well, yet acknowledge that business can’t solve some things. Hybrid solutions. That would be interesting.

  • http://sdj-pragmatist.blogspot.com Pragmatist

    Fantastic that you went to the trouble of transcribing these, thank you.

    I have to speak to some incumbents in the financial services industry in London tonight. A fellow panellist who preaches innovation has claimed that “for banks, Twitter is a stunt.” He says it’s uneconomic for a bank to produce relevant content in that medium at scale, and Twitter won’t be a “channel choice” for bank customers. I guess JeffB might say:

    “…One of the biggest problems with big companies doing clean sheet innovation is that even if you see it, you have to be a really long term thinker, because for a long time it will be a tiny slice of the company…. The key thing is to be willing to wait 5, 7, 10 years. And most companies aren’t willing to wait ten years.”

    “You’ve got to be willing to learn new skills if your customers need you to have those skills.”

    “There are a few prerequisites to inventing…. You have to be willing to fail.”

  • John

    “The big cost that most companies incur are much harder to notice, and those are errors of Omission”

    Like not allowing Kindle to be used by customers outside the US.

  • http://www.julianchappa.blogspot.com Julián Chappa

    Very interesting interview… I think Jeff Bezos should write a book for analyze this topic in depth. Thank you, best regards!

    Julián Chappa (an argentine editor in Barcelona)
    http://www.ediciona.com

  • http://www.julianchappa.blogspot.com Julián Chappa

    Very interesting interview… I think Jeff Bezos should write a book for analyze this topic in depth. Thank you, best regards!

    Julián Chappa (an argentine editor in Barcelona)
    http://www.ediciona.com

  • http://houndbee.com Kaustubh Srikanth

    Give me a format which comes with an assurance that it won’t be outdated for another 500 years(paper?), and I’m sold.

    What is the guarantee that my ePubs, Mobipockets, and the PDFs won’t be unreadable 10 years from now?(Remember Ami Pro?)

    I read a lot of my books in ePub on my iPod Touch at the moment, but if I want any of those to be on a bookshelf where my grandnephews can find it, I am going to the good old corner bookshop.

  • http://xavierbadosa.com Xavier Badosa

    Tim, thanks for the transcription!

    “Reading is an important enough activity that it deserves a purpose-built device…”

    Bezos has said this before. I guess he means “IMMERSIVE reading”. After all, we’ve been hyper-reading the web using non-dedicated devices all these years… and new products like tablet netbooks

    http://tr.im/oFZ5

    will help us doing that sort of active reading in the future.

    If current electronic ink technology wasn’t limiting in terms of color and refresh rate, I’m not sure Bezos would be saying that. Fortunately e-ink with LCD hybrid screens (Pixel Qi)

    http://tr.im/oGiP

    are around the corner.

  • bob

    “We’ve co-evolved with our tools for thousands of years” Give me one example?

  • Charles Rangel

    The plow, the knife, the bridle, agriculture in general, building, navigation, language.

  • bowerbird

    if i had said any (or all) of those things,
    i doubt you’d think they were “quotable”.

    i know if _you_ said them, _i_ wouldn’t…
    and i don’t think so when jeff says them.

    indeed, compared to the brilliance of the
    maneuver he executed — combining the
    inventory of amazon with a physical tool
    via the immediacy of wireless download
    – these quotes pale to chatter…

    -bowerbird

  • http://http.//xavierbadosa.com Xavier Badosa

    Thanks for the transcription!

    “Reading is an important enough activity that it deserves a purpose-built device”

    Bezos has said this before. I guess he means only IMMERSIVE reading. After all, we’ve been happily hyper-reading the web with non-dedicated devices for quite a long time…

    I wonder if he would say this if E-ink technology wasn’t limiting in terms of color and refresh rate. The combination of tablet netbooks like the Eee PC T91 with hybrid screens like Pixel Qi’s seems promising.

  • bowerbird

    xavier said:
    > Bezos has said this before.
    > I guess he means only IMMERSIVE reading.
    > After all, we’ve been happily hyper-reading the web

    i would put it like this: jeff is talking about
    reading the types of things that he is selling
    in his store, and not the types of things which
    exist quite happily on the web for free.

    but, of course, this isn’t the real decision-fork
    between “purpose-built” and “general” devices.

    that fork occurs when “general” devices become
    as good as, and cheaper than, “dedicated” ones.

    and yes, you’re absolutely correct that this fork
    will be caused by the pixel qi screen technology.

    the thing is, amazon can switch over quite easily.
    (and will.) in the meantime, their installed base
    gives them real-world marketplace experience…

    -bowerbird

  • bob

    @Charles Rangel

    Language is an interesting answer but I don’t see how the others affected our evolution. Did those more adept at using the plough have more offspring than those that didn’t? It isn’t the use of any one tool per se that improves propagation but a general intelligence. Tools are the outcome of bigger brains, not a selector for them.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com/ Tim O'Reilly

    @bob -

    Re co-evolving with our tools, I think you’re reading it as a narrow statement about genetic evolution rather than a broader observation about cultural and social evolution (though with biological overtones).

    Let me point you to the opening of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, where he recounts his conversation with a local in New Guinea, who asked him, essentially, “How come you guys have all the cargo?” considering that you’re so stupid that you’d die if you went off into the jungle for a few days.

    Our hearing and sight are generally less acute than those of our ancestors – I haven’t seen studies on nearsightedness, but I’d lay odds that it’s far more common than it was thousands of years ago.

    Or consider the printed book and the rise of literacy. Two thousand years ago, people were reciting the entire Iliad and Odyssey, and memorization of large texts was common until perhaps 150 years ago. Even in the 1850s, Longfellow (a poet) was the bestselling author in America because so much reading was done aloud.

    Jeff probably would have been better to say that we “adapt” to our tools than that we evolve.

    His point is that our devices change the kinds of cultural artifacts we enjoy, and how we enjoy them. He wasn’t talking about Homo Kindlensis or anything like that.

  • mcoffey

    “I get grumpy when i have to handle a printed book.”–jeff bezos

    god help us. and this guy calls the shots

  • http://www.ipublishcentral.com David Saracco

    I would be interested in hearing his thoughts on his long term strategy of pricing ebooks. I never seem to see much detailed discussion on that subject. How long is the current model sustainable? What is his vision for influencing publishers pricing models. Does anyone know of a detailed interview on this?

  • An author

    Bezos quote: “”I want to be able to provide every book ever published, in any language, in sixty seconds.”

    What if the author doesn’t want his copyrighted book published at all? What if he doesn’t want it published in way that means distribution by Amazon? What if he doesn’t want to see it translated (probably badly) into other languages? Or what if he disdains seeing his labors released in a crude ‘book in sixty seconds’ format? All are perfectly reasonable attitudes to have. All are attitudes Bezos ought to understand and respect.

    Is Bezos simply clueless about people? Does he illustrate all too well Oscar’s Wilde’s witticism about those who, “know the price of everything but the value of nothing”? Does he really think that all authors simply want to be paid and that, on being paid, become happy? Is he that empty of any deeper values and the complexity and variety of humanity? For his sake, I hope not.

    As an alternative, could he be described by a tongue-twisting term like “crypto-techno-fascist?” Is Amazon going to hire thugs who tell unwilling authors, “Ve have ways to make you publish”? Will authors who still refuse die under suspicious circumstances, leaving behind cowed heirs who are more willing to sign on Amazon’s dotted line?

    For if neither of these is true, how is Bezos going to get the rights to publish “every book ever published.” He seems to have the same indifference to consent that characterizes the Google’s equally grand scheme. And in the end he may find himself facing the same outrage that begun to be directed at Google.

    Tim O’Reilly thinks Bezos is very quotable. It might be more honest and, in the long run, more charitable if O-Reilly would warn Bezos that he has the mind of Tolkien’s Saruman, whom Treebeard described this way,

    “He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except insofar as they serve him for the moment. “

    Or consider what George Orwell said about H. G. Wells in his 1941 “Wells, Hitler and the World State.”

    “If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism,aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene; on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses.”

    A healthy world is a human world, one in which gadgets and technology play a distinctly subordinate role to all the muddled and confusing inefficiencies that make us fully human. A healthy world often prefers paper to silicon. It enjoys waiting for weeks for a old, tattered, and much-read book to arrive from a distant bookseller. It doesn’t fret that a book in sixty-seconds download took 90 seconds. Planning and efficiency isn’t the end of all existence.

    In his youth, G. K. Chesterton wrote in a poem, “There is one sin, to call the green leaf grey.” Life is to be enjoyed and savored rather than simply consumed. Bezos would turn our entire world as grey as the screen of a Kindle. For that he is to be pitied.

  • Basant Nair

    “One of the differences between founder/entrepreneurs and financial managers is that founder/entrepreneurs are stubborn about the vision of the business, and keep working the details. The trick to being an entrepreneur is to know when to be stubborn and when to be flexible. The trick for me is to be stubborn about the big things.”

    VERY TRUE

  • http://jeffmcneill.com/blog/ Jeff McNeill

    Excellent quotations. I went googling for Bezos and Oreilly because in the past the videos I’ve seen of you two are insightful and entertaining. Thanks for keeping these things around. Not to give him too much credit, but Bezos sounds even more like the genius inventor now than two years ago. His clarification on different types of innovation is incisive, not to mention the two dozen other tidbits.