Under Bezos’ stewardship, Amazon grown into a tech behemoth – but at times the billionaire has seemed convinced that Amazon is doomed to die. Bezos talked about the firm’s potential demise three times between 2013 and 2018, and in his final letter to shareholders in April 2021 he quoted a passage from scientist Richard Dawkins about “staving off death.”
This is extremely unusual for a CEO – with demanding investors looking over their shoulders, executives are normally unflinchingly positive about their firm’s prospects.
But it seems a fear of failure and stagnation propels Bezos on. Here are some of the times he has talked about Amazon’s “inevitable” death:
In 2013, Bezos said big companies only live for a “few decades.”
Bezos spoke to CBS show “60 Minutes” in 2013 to show off Amazon’s automated drone delivery division — a division that in November 2020 laid off dozens of R&D and manufacturing staff, according to a Financial Times report.
“Companies have short lifespans … and Amazon will be disrupted one day,” he said.
Asked whether that fact worried him, Bezos replied: “I don’t worry about it because I know it’s inevitable. Companies come and go, and the companies that are the shiniest and most important of any era — you wait a few decades and they’re gone.”
Bezos added that he would love for Amazon to out-live him.
In 2017, Bezos pondered an “excruciating, painful decline” in a letter to shareholders.
In a 2017 letter to shareholders, Bezos discussed his “Day One” philosophy — he always insisted it was “Day One” for Amazon.
In the letter, he answered a question from an all-hands meeting about what “Day Two” looks like.
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“An established company might harvest Day 2 for decades, but the final result would still come,” he added. He then talked about how a company can “fend off” Day Two.
2018: “I predict one day Amazon will fail,” Bezos told staff.
In a recording of a 2018 all-hands meeting obtained by CNBC, Bezos was still just as convinced of Amazon’s inescapable mortality.
“Amazon is not too big to fail … In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail,” Bezos said in reply to a staffer who asked about big businesses like Sears going bankrupt.
“Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years,” he said.
Bezos said it was his job to delay that date by as long as possible. Amazon turned 27 years old Monday, so it is fast approaching Bezos’s 30-year benchmark.
2021: “Staving off death is a thing that you have to work at,” Bezos quoted from Richard Dawkins in his final letter to shareholders.
In his last letter to shareholders as Amazon CEO in April 2021, Jeff Bezos concluded by quoting a passage from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ book “The Blind Watchmaker.”
Here is the full passage Bezos quoted:
“Staving off death is a thing that you have to work at. Left to itself – and that is what it is when it dies – the body tends to revert to a state of equilibrium with its environment. If you measure some quantity such as the temperature, the acidity, the water content or the electrical potential in a living body, you will typically find that it is markedly different from the corresponding measure in the surroundings.
“Our bodies, for instance, are usually hotter than our surroundings, and in cold climates they have to work hard to maintain the differential. When we die the work stops, the temperature differential starts to disappear, and we end up the same temperature as our surroundings. Not all animals work so hard to avoid coming into equilibrium with their surrounding temperature, but all animals do some comparable work.
“For instance, in a dry country, animals and plants work to maintain the fluid content of their cells, work against a natural tendency for water to flow from them into the dry outside world. If they fail they die. More generally, if living things didn’t work actively to prevent it, they would eventually merge into their surroundings, and cease to exist as autonomous beings. That is what happens when they die.”
Bezos said this passage was a “fantastic” metaphor for Amazon, saying it shows how companies need to constantly work at being distinctive, rather than settling for a comfortable stasis.
“The world will always try to make Amazon more typical — to bring us into equilibrium with our environment. It will take continuous effort, but we can and must be better than that,” Bezos wrote.
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