The uncomfortable truth about Brad Stone's Amazon bookJanuary 2, 2014: 9:27 AM ET
It's big, bold, and pulls no punches -- just like the company and founder it portrays.
FORTUNE -- I think I know why MacKenzie Bezos hated Brad Stone's book about her husband and his company. It's not because of the "numerous factual inaccuracies" she says are in the book, though she names only one, a mistiming of when Jeff Bezos read a certain influential novel, and shame on Stone for giving her that opening. No -- Mrs. Bezos gave a one-star review to Stone's outstanding book, The Everything Store, because it will make anyone who reads it, regardless of how much they love being an Amazon (AMZN) customer, feel icky about themselves for just how much they enjoy buying things at Amazon.
I published a book about Apple almost exactly two years ago, when one of the most successful non-fiction books of our time, a biography of Steve Jobs, was topping the charts. Stone's book on Amazon and Bezos accomplishes everything I tried to do with my book as well as what Walter Isaacson did with his biography. I had next to no cooperation from Apple; Isaacson had near total cooperation from his subject. Stone's experience falls squarely in between, and it shows. Though Bezos wouldn't give Stone an interview, the Amazon CEO allowed numerous people in his world, including multiple key Amazon executives, to talk to Stone. The result is an authoritative, deeply reported, scoopalicious, nuanced, and balanced take that pulls absolutely no punches.
That brings me back to the ickiness that Amazon's customers -- and let's face it, who isn't an Amazon customer? -- will experience reading this book. The portrait that Stone paints of Amazon's founder and his company is of a ruthless, disingenuous, slave-driving mentality, where pretty much any kind of legal behavior is tolerated in the name offering customers lower prices. Stone portrays Bezos, known to viewers of Charlie Rose or Jimmy Fallon as the amiable businessman with the exuberant honk of a laugh, as an ogre given to "nutters," the name his executives give to his frequent temper tantrums. Stone describes a business culture where partners are expendable, where companies foolish enough to take investments from Amazon come to regret the control they handed over to the retail monolith, and where competitors big and small are mere pawns on Bezos's elaborate chessboard.
If you've ever wondered why you love shopping at Amazon so much, the answers are all here. Amazon figured out early on how to create software that scours the web for price information from the competition and to automatically match the lowest available price. For years it avoided collecting sales taxes, deploying preposterous legal denials of its physical presence in multiple states in order to justify its actions, which resulted in customers paying lower prices. (Bezos said his company didn't benefit from local services in states where he didn't want to collect sales tax -- as if the roads leading into his warehouses appeared magically and didn't benefit Amazon.) It routinely disregarded retail-industry conventions on minimum pricing, provoking games of cat and mouse with manufacturers who loved access to Amazon's customer base but hated Amazon.
No one is more aware of the potentially damaging aspects of Amazon's culture than Jeff Bezos himself. In the most shocking revelation in his meticulously reported book, Stone gets hold of a memo Bezos wrote for his management team titled "Amazon.love." Bezos sought to analyze why some companies, like Apple, Nike, Disney, and Google, are loved and others, including Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and Exxon Mobil are not. Stone publishes an entire spreadsheet in which Bezos listed some of the qualities that drive these perceptions, such as "Defeating tiny guys is not cool," and "Defeating bigger, unsympathetic guys is cool." The list and the entire exercise are fascinating because they show Bezos's ultra-rational and analytical mind in action. The document also lays bare Bezos's implied conclusion: Amazon needs to figure out how to appear to embrace the cool qualities that will allow it to be loved and not hated. He ends by suggesting that a "thoughtful VP" study the matter.
Not everything in this book paints Amazon in a negative light -- just the juiciest stuff. The rest of the book is a thorough explication of how Bezos built the company, his strategic and tactical methods, his approach to hiring, how Amazon navigated Wall Street, and how it approaches new markets. It shows Bezos to be a sponge for information, and a fearless inquisitor, approaching even seasoned competitors to soak up knowledge from them. (This is one of the many qualities Bezos shares with Jobs, and reading this book is another opportunity to lament that Jobs isn't still around so that we could watch these two gladiators go after each other.) Whether or not they want their companies to emulate Amazon's culture, entrepreneurs and managers from any industry will want to read this book. If you aren't up to speed on the Bezos playbook, then you aren't current with what it takes to start or run or a business.
Not everything in this book will be new to the careful student of Amazon. In a Fortune cover story in 2012, I wrote about the six-page narratives that Bezos requires Amazon executives to prepare for meetings and that are then read, in study-hall-like silence, at the meeting's outset. Peter Elkind's exhaustive article about Amazon's tax-collection dodging, also in Fortune, is more detailed than Stone's. And Stone's own employer, Bloomberg Businessweek, scooped some of the choicest revelations about Bezos's biological father in a long excerpt from his book.
In its totality, however, Stone's book delivers so much more on the man and the company than can fit in even many magazine articles. Bezos may be ruthless, but he also is charming and genuinely kind-hearted, according to Stone's telling. Amazon is a tough place to work, yet Stone describes many employees calling their time there the most rewarding of their careers -- another echo of the Steve Jobs/Apple experience.
Amazon has become one of the leading companies of our day and Bezos one of the most outstanding business leaders. The company and man -- each of which have years of productivity ahead of them -- now have a book that equals their achievements.