Speed Read

10.11.13

Jeff Bezos’s Dad Was a Circus Performer and 5 More Juicy Bits From the Tell-All Book

The Amazon founder and new Washington Post owner sends his employee ominous questions marks, rants about ‘stupid pills’ in office emails, and has a unicyclist father, according to a new book.

For his upcoming book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Bloomberg Businessweek writer Brad Stone was refused an interview with his subject, the Amazon founder and now Washington Post owner—but he still managed to cobble together an exhaustive history of the online marketplace by talking with "hundreds of current and former friends" of the enigmatic leader. From tracking down Bezos's birth father to spilling the businessman’s best insults, here are the most revealing bits from an excerpt released on Thursday. 

The Question Mark 
In between running one of the largest Internet companies, exploring space travel, and now guiding a legacy news organization, Bezos still has time for your problems. In order to ensure customer concerns are paramount in company culture, he has a habit of forwarding complaints he receives on his public email to appropriate employees with one extra character: the foreboding single question mark. Those on the receiving end have a few hours to solve the issue, explain their reasoning through various supervisor chains, then have it presented to Bezos.

These meetings are often confrontational and effective. Amazon terminated email marketing for certain health and personal care products after Bezos learned customers browsing for personal lubricants were receiving emails with similar products. Bezos, normally able to control his temper after a few moments, got uncharacteristically enraged, telling the responsible manager,  “We can build a $100 billion company without sending out a single f-‍-‍-‍-‍-‍- e-mail.” He later took the e-mail marketing division into his care.

Bezos Is a Ruthless Leader 
Bezos can be brutal, and some employees speculate he has no empathy. "As a result, he treats workers as expendable resources without taking into account their contributions," Stone writes. The book compiles some of the greatest insults he's launched at employees. From “If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself” to “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” to “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?” The worst part: employees say his remarks are nearly always accurate and deserved.

They Threaten Other Companies 
Amazon is home to a secret team called "Competitive Intelligence," which purchases large quantities from other online retailers to ensure no one is outperforming Amazon and to catch rivals quickly. One such rival was a company called Quidsi, which Amazon was so impressed with it offered to buy. But after the founders refused to sell, Amazon dropped its prices for similar products up to 30 percent, and Quidsi soon realized Amazon had pegged its sales to their products, pushing them lower and lover. After bleeding out the smaller company, threatening to continue doing so, and pushing Wal-Mart out of a deal to buy, Quidsi finally agreed to sell to Amazon—"largely out of fear."  

The Culture is Very Confrontational 
Amazon corporate employees are indoctrinated with three values: Have Backbone, Disagree, and Commit. Those willing to argue their beliefs and not back down often rise in the ranks of what one employee dubbed a "gladiator culture." Supervisors grade their subordinates, firing the lowest scoring few. Many, Stone writes, last less than two years at the high-pace company.  

Amazon Is Pretty Cheap 
Compared to generous benefactor start-up employers like Google and Facebook, Amazon comes across as frugal to a fault. Employees get mostly reimbursed for parking at the company's offices in Seattle, vending machine goods can be purchased by credit card, and workers also pay to eat in the cafeteria. The goods given to new hires—including a laptop dock and power adapter—must be turned in when they leave the company.

Bezos's Father Was a Circus Performer 
Stone dives into the father figure rarely discussed in previous profiles of Amazon's leader: his absentee father. Growing up with his mother and step-father, Bezos last saw Ted Jorgenson, his birth father, when he was a toddler. Doing some digging, the author found that Jorgenson was a circus performer and a prominent unicyclist in Albuquerque. After marrying Bezos's mom at 18, he worked at a department store for $1.25 an hour, but his drinking habits and lack of direction led his wife to divorce him when Bezos was just 17 months old. Stone tracked down Jorgenson behind the counter of his bike shop, and discovered Bezos's birth father had no idea what had become of his son. "Is he still alive?" the man asked.