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When Jeff Bezos visited India: Amazon founder on invention, experimentation and failure

A personal account of a reporter's interaction with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos who steps down today

July 05, 2021 / 06:45 PM IST
Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon

As I walked in to meet Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for an interaction in 2014, the Sheraton Hotel in Bangalore—yeah, it was still called Bangalore­—where the Amazon founder was staying, resembled a fortress. There was a number of Amazon staff around to usher me in but what I noticed the most was the security. I haven’t ever been to the White House but it made me wonder if I was about to meet the American president.

On my way in, a gentleman, who was about Bezos’ height and nearly as bald, came up to me and shook hands. Not sure what came over me but I blurted, “Hi Jeff?”

“How I wish,” was the reply. Embarrassed, I pretended I never asked the question.

I could hear Bezos’ legendary loud guffaws from a distance. It was apparent that he was in the next room. He soon came out and energetically greeted me and my colleague.

“So how are you guys?” he asked. This was not his first media interaction of the day—probably fourth or fifth—but there was no way I could feel that. He was talking with the kind of energy and zeal I have never seen in a founder.

Of course, he was not just another founder. He was Jeff Bezos.

Also read: Jeff Bezos leaves enduring legacy as he steps away as Amazon CEO

Bezos’ visit to Bengaluru in 2014 had come at a time when homegrown e-tailer Flipkart was taking the battle to Amazon. Flipkart had raised $1 billion at the end of July that year. The heat was on Amazon India and the very next day it announced an investment of $2 billion. Amazon had launched its services in India in 2013 and it seemed the American giant wanted to get even with its rival who had a head start.

Bezos’ visit was in this context and the entire e-commerce industry was looking forward to what the Amazon chief had to say.

Also Read | Once almost fired & now CEO, Amazon’s Andy Jassy faces uphill battle in India

The cash pile, Bezos told me, would be spent on building performance centres, upgrading logistic services and developing the mobile platform.

“There are unique opportunities in India,” he said, looking straight into my eyes, his steely gaze reminding me of his so-called ruthless personality.

“One of the things that is very unusual about India is the number of small (kirana) and medium-size businesses that you have,” he said, and I could see him get excited just talking of the opportunity. “We want to make it easy for small and medium businesses to reach out to customers in this digital economy,” he said.

And I was thinking to myself, “He isn’t such a bad guy. He is fun”.

Then he left me with a quote I couldn’t immediately grasp. “Invention requires experimentation and experimentation implies failure,” he said, laughing when least expected. “If you know it’s going to work then it’s not an experiment,” he said. I nodded.

Bezos, however, dismissed notions that a significant part of the promised $2-billion investment would go into acquisitions. “Most of our growth will be organic. To be practical, acquisitions may be necessary but our basic strategy will be the same all over the world, which is to grow organically,” he added.

Bezos laughed again. His PR team closed in and signalled it was time to wind up the conversation. And before we left, he said, “Oh come on, let’s have a photograph together.”

It felt like “Day 1” at Amazon.

(The writer was Executive Editor with The Financial Express at the time of this interaction)
Darlington Jose Hector is a Senior Journalist
first published: Jul 5, 2021 06:45 pm