Jeff Bezos has stepped down as CEO of one of the world’s largest companies by both market capitalization and quarterly sales. Amazon is one of the companies to be valued more than a trillion dollars and it notched up $125 billion in revenue in the October-December quarter, buoyed both by COVID-induced shopper reliance on e-commerce and the Christmas season. You should quit singing when your voice is still good, goes an old Malayalam saying. But Bezos is not a Carnatic vocalist. Why would he, only 57, quit now, and where does that leave the company? Does this hold out any lesson for Indian promoters, who hang on to their companies as long as they can?
Let us note, first of all, that the man who founded Amazon in a garage in 1994, touting it as the world’s largest bookstore, is not exactly going off to the hills to spend the rest of his life exploring the meaning of life. He is becoming executive chairman of the company, handing over the reins of day-to-day operations to long-time understudy Andie Jassy, who has been in charge of Amazon’s most profitable business unit, Amazon Web Services, originally set up as a forest of servers to manage the inventory and logistics of Amazon’s own e-commerce business, to evolve later as a new business category of offering cloud computing services, including storage, to other businesses. Whatever your brand of streaming entertainment, the chances are that it is served out of an Amazon cloud.
As executive chairman, he would or, rather, could still be involved in running Amazon, at least in the major decisions that are irreversible. He would be able to mentor his successor, help him ease into the role and help him out, were he to find himself in a tough spot. Amazon does have many fires to fight, ranging from unionization to anti-trust investigations by the US government. Bezos was one of the tech titans summoned to testify before Congress recently.
It is likely that Bezos realizes that, after running the company for 26 years, he would like to devote his attention to something other than e-commerce. Bezos would be following in the footsteps of other tech billionaires before him. Bill Gates left Microsoft to pursue do-goodery with his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Sergei Brin and Larry Page left Google in the hands of a professional CEO to devote more attention to moonshot projects in artificial intelligence, autonomous cars and quantum computing. Bezos has a minor ambition to colonise outer space, for which he has set up the company, Blue Origin, whose rockets have not been making as much news as Elon Musk’s but have blown up far fewer times than Musk’s have as well.
Bezos has a climate initiative, and acquired Washington Post as well, in 2013, when it was down and out. Donald Trump was good for America’s newspapers. The more he attacked fake news, the more outraged folk subscribed to mainstream newspapers such as New York Times and the Post. But even before the Twitterer-in-chief boosted its popularity, the Post had turned around. It became profitable in 2016, thanks to the decision to transform itself from a local print paper to a global digital news outlet that invested massively in the newsroom as well as in technology, under Bezos.
Bezos thinks long-term, and acts long-term. If there is one business that defies the notion that, for a company, to be listed on the stock exchange is to be condemned to the tyranny of short-term expectations about quarterly results, it is Amazon. One of the strong contenders for what to call the world’s largest bookstore in a garage had been Relentless. The url — relentless.com — still leads you to Amazon. Relentless describes Bezos.
Even if your are the richest man in the world, 57 is too early to hang up one’s boots. Especially, if you have been relentless all your professional life. So, it is safe to assume that Bezos is going to take the Innovation part of his new portfolio of responsibilities at Amazon quite seriously, apart from focusing on his Blue Origin to prevent Elon Musk’s Space-X, with its bustling satellite launches and fiery failures, pushing it beyond the visible range firmly into the ultra-violet spectrum.
Amazon is working on delivery drones and robots that can autonomously navigate themselves. There are interesting possibilities on the horizon when these machines link up with massive computing power capable of cutting-edge artificial intelligence. What makes 5G telecom different from its 4G predecessor is not so much the enhanced data throughput per second as the near-zero latency 5G offers. Latency is jargon for the gap between sending a signal to trigger an action and that desired-for action materialising.
True autonomous navigation calls for processing, in a jiffy, the information gathered by a host of cameras, sensors and gyrometers on board the driverless vehicle to generate the needed response and communicating that response to the vehicle. This process of analysing the data gathered can be split up: some can be done by the computers on board, and some in the cloud. This combination of edge-computing — computing on the edge of the network, locally—and big data analysis in the cloud is what will allow the next step-change in mobility.
Who knows what Bezos will come up with, when he directs his relentlessness and passion to putting new technological capabilities to new uses?
What can Indian promoters learn from Bezos? Most probably that if you have become the richest man alive, you can quit. That would be the wrong lesson to draw. What Bezos shows, as Bill Gates and the Google founder duo had shown before him, is that successful businessmen have it in them to do more than one big thing, provided they let go of that big thing.
Identify competent professionals to run the business, take a lateral step outside the ring of daily battle. Pursue other interests. And that need not be restricted to collecting stamps or wine or other intoxicants in the flesh. You could save the world, or a tiny patch of it, a la Bill Gates. Or you could start a new business or set up a school or invest in a technology to turn lignite into natural gas, split the gas into hydrogen and carbon fiber, or whatever.
The marginal utility of a successful businessman plugging away at what he has been doing is likely to be a whole lot smaller than that of the same competence and passion being deployed to tackle a new challenge. Relent, and then turn relentless, in a new direction.
(The author is a senior journalist based in Delhi)
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