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Book review: Brad Stone’s Amazon Unbound is a brilliant, intimate portrait of a giant

Amazon seems to defy the laws of gravity and business. The bigger it gets, the more nimble it becomes. Amazon and its inventive founder Jeff Bezos have transformed our lives in the last eight years, arguably even more than it did in the decade before that. Bloomberg journalist sets out to answer the question, how did Amazon become this global empire? And is it good for everyone?

Mumbai / May 22, 2021 / 08:56 AM IST
The book traces the evolution of Jeff Bezos quite well, providing microscopic details and then zooming out to see what it all means.

The book traces the evolution of Jeff Bezos quite well, providing microscopic details and then zooming out to see what it all means.


In 2013, Bloomberg journalist Brad Stone released The Everything Store- a story of how Amazon and its billionaire founder Jeff Bezos came to be. It was richly detailed, asked probing questions and gave context to one of the most influential companies of our times.

Eight years on, Stone, Senior Executive Editor of Global Technology at Bloomberg News revisits the company to ask, what has Amazon done since 2013? On balance, is it still good for the world? The answer comes in the form of a superbly reported, tightly written account, where even those tracking Amazon closely over the years will find surprising and shocking details.

The Big Tech companies- Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon are renowned for their relentless innovation. Even in this list, Amazon stands out. Just in the last eight years, Jeff Bezos has pioneered voice speakers, built a formidable presence in countries it was late to enter (India, Mexico), upended its own retail business and rebuilt its logistics chain, introduced Prime- its service for quick delivery, movie streaming and music, and launched its own tech-led retail stores with no checkout lines. Not even Google, Facebook or Apple have innovated to such an extent in such a short period of time.

In these eight years, Bezos saw his personal wealth swell to $190 billion, and his company’s worth to $1.6 trillion.

Amazon Unbound tackles each of these projects chapter by chapter- the origins of Alexa, the thinking behind the surprise $13.7 billion Whole Foods acquisition, fighting complaints of dominance and monopoly from workers, unions, competitors and finally the government itself. Stone still has an eye trained on Bezos all through, and takes painstaking effort to link every project and initiative to Bezos, so the reader knows how actively he was or was not involved.

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Magnanimous personalities are arguably far more compelling book subjects than faceless large conglomerates. Therefore Stone also explores Bezos’ life outside Amazon in detail. Readers get perhaps the first and most comprehensive insider look at his space company Blue Origin, his acquisition of the Washington Post, and somewhat salaciously, his divorce from Mackenzie Bezos and and the resultant controversy involving money, sex, and leaked messages with new partner Lauren Sanchez. That chapter in particular is riveting, maybe because of the voyeuristic nature of the subject, but Stone connects the dots to show that it is more than just a gossip story. When the world’s richest person is publicly ridiculed by a magazine gleefully rubbing its hands in anticipation of said ridicule, everyone needs to sit up and take notice.

If you like to know what goes on inside the companies whose products you use daily, this is a riveting read. Stone has detailed accounts of senior leadership meetings, Bezos getting angry, Bezos coming up with a brilliant idea, and Bezos forwarding a customer complaint with a “?”- a common feature at the company. And while Amazon and Bezos are inextricable- you cannot fully understand one without the other- Stone also throws light on several other executives who have played a part in Amazon's journey.

Descriptions of these senior leaders, their interpersonal relationships and disagreements bring the book to life. Helpfully, the book also has all their pictures towards the end. Some instances, such as the Amazon Mexico head later being convicted of murder, appear from nowhere and elevates the book to far beyond your regular business biography.

Stone states at the beginning that he had access to many Amazon executives for interviews and follow ups for this book, but not Bezos. That access is visible, with descriptions of offices, rooms, texts and mails reproducted verbatim, et al. The downside, however, is that access sometimes curtails a reporter’s independence. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” is an adage that comes to mind.

Stone, however, has circumvented this with aplomb, pulling no punches and being fair but critical in Amazon’s treatment of its workers and its ruthless corporate culture that puts leverage above all else. The book uses an example of Amazon’s Flywheel- a strategy which uses customer obsession to grow ever more quickly and is a cycle- the faster it spins, the more profitable the company becomes, with other repercussions of course. This helps put the entire company and its mission in context.

Despite being rich in detail, Amazon Unbound rarely feels heavy or saggy. One part on logistics and how Amazon introduced fulfilment and competed with state-owned third party logistics firms drags a little bit, but that’s more to do with the logistics sector than with the reporting or writing.

The book traces the evolution of Bezos quite well, providing microscopic details and then zooming out to see what it all means. Bezos has evolved from a gawky hedge fund nerd to a chiseled Hollywood-hobnobbing magnate with wealth and personal connections everywhere. IUnlike the prequel, Stone did not have access to Bezos for this book (who was upset about how Stone tracked his birth father down for the previous book), but that does not stop him from profiling the man extensively, going the extra mile by asking all his sources to explain Bezos’ thinking, actions, mails, messages and clothes.

Stone also covers the COVID-19 pandemic, which wrecked the world and destroyed millions of lives, while Amazon’s profits and its CEO’s wealth hit a record- despite Bezos losing over $30 billion in his divorce the previous year. The pandemic is key to understanding Amazon- it shows why the company is indispensable for millions- providing safe delivery as people stay at home.

But, what about the warehouse workers who are putting themselves in front of the virus? What role does Amazon play there? Stone poses these questions, but there is no definitive answer to how Amazon will be held accountable for its hostile work culture and unceasing focus on profits at the cost of all else. But the biggest takeaway from the book is that it is crucial to keep asking these questions.

Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire by Brad Stone
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Available on Amazon
M. Sriram
first published: May 22, 2021 08:56 am

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