As an e-commerce consultant, I spend a remarkable portion of my day reading. Reading email. Reading industry newsletters, articles, white papers and blog posts. Reading my own recommendations and reports before they go out to clients. But, as much as I love to read, it’s a sad reality that I rarely have the time to read a book. Fortunately, that’s what vacations are for (at least for me), and on a recent 2-week escape to Hawaii, I voraciously consumed nine books and started a tenth.
Coincidentally, this past weekend, The New York Times Book Review featured a slew of technology books, both fiction and non-fiction. In looking through the list of books covered, I was happy to discover that two of the selections were on my vacation reading list, so I had the opportunity to compare notes with the reviewers. As it so happens, my reactions to both books were very similar to those of the Times. While I recommend that e-commerce pros read both of these books, there’s no question that in this case, the non-fiction choice far surpasses the fiction choice, and in the case of the fiction choice, there’s a movie (documentary, ironically enough) that showcases the topical issues in a more entertaining and intelligent format.
First, the “real world” of non-fiction.
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, written by Brad Stone, is, no doubt, on every e-commerce executive’s reading list, if not on their nightstand.
Already the book has sparked controversy. Just yesterday, Bezos’ wife, MacKenzie, posted a paltry “one star” review of the book, citing factual inaccuracies that she found to be outside of acceptability for a work of non-fiction. Author Brad Stone, a credible journalist who has covered Amazon for years and did extensive research for the book, responded as gracefully as one can under the circumstances. Since then, Amazon’s first employee, Shel Kaphan has published his own “four star” review, praising the book. Oh, the drama. There will probably be more to come from Amazon insiders, and ironically it will play out in the reviews section of the Amazon site, all leading to better sales of the book and benefiting (you guessed it) Amazon.
Regardless of the quibbles over what appear to be very minor inaccuracies, the book is well worth reading, especially for those of us that make a living in the e-commerce industry. Our customers (and we, as customers) love Amazon. As retailers and manufacturers, we find ourselves torn between respect, fear and resentment for the company. Determining if Amazon should be thought of as “friend or foe” has become an essential strategic decision in many a boardroom, and this book will only escalate that debate.
As I’ve reflected on my experience reading The Everything Store over the last couple of weeks, here are my big take aways:
a) How far we (and they) have come. If like me, you’ve been involved in e-commerce since the chaotic early days, you have probably lost some perspective about how much change has occurred and how quickly it has occurred. The chapters of Amazon’s early days are a head shaking trip down memory lane for anyone who lived through the energy and insanity of e-commerce’s debut. They also cast a mildly frightening spotlight on how fast fledgling e-commerce companies have had to grow up, many before they were truly “ready”, before their business models were proven or before they taught their employees how to behave like adults. By the mid point of the book, I found my head spinning in the ticker tape parade of the company’s accomplishments and had to continually remind myself that this is a company that didn’t exist 20 years ago.
b) Risk taking, tenacity and luck all matter – a lot. As the story of Amazon’s rise from scruffy startup to to behemoth plays out, it’s clear that this has not been a game for the mild of heart. In example after example, Bezos’ rabid determination to win, his never ending torrent of hallucinatory ideas and his delight in taking enormous risk reveal themselves to be the true “secret sauce” of the company. It’s also clear that in many cases, Amazon just got lucky and, in some cases, fell on its face. Readers expecting a cookbook recipe for success won’t find it here,and in fact, that’s the point. For Amazon, it’s more about making lots and lots bold expensive moves and hoping that they work (or forcing them to work) than it is about methodical well laid plans. It’s messy.
c) Disruption has a dark side. What stuns all of us about Amazon is that a company with no prior publishing or retail experience has managed to disrupt these long established industries in a little more than a decade. For Amazon, getting big fast and changing industry norms has been done more with daggers and missiles than with partnerships and handshakes. Many early employees burned out (quite literally, in the case of warehouse employees working in a heat wave without air conditioning). Acquisition targets were dealt a hostile hand, leaving them no choice but to be swallowed by Amazon. Suppliers were strong armed and tricked, and competitors left spinning in the dirt. But, customers are happy. It’s likely that most readers will find themselves squirming in their seats (as I did) about what at times have been very unsavory business practices on the part of Amazon. Yes, the company that presents itself as all smiles, goodness and light to customers eats bullets and nails for breakfast. Are we really surprised?
d) Brace yourself. It really is still “day one”. While there is more than enough material here to pack a 350+ page book about Amazon, in some ways it seems odd that the book was written given Amazon’s relative youth. For all that’s been accomplished in the last 15 years, Amazon is still investing enormous amounts of money to drive growth and has yet to deliver a meaningful profit. One can’t help but feel like this is just the preface to a much longer and even more interesting book, one in which all of us will likely be characters and hopefully not victims.
Now, for the fiction.
Dave Eggers’ book The Circle is the story of a social network by the same name; a hyped-up cross between Google and Facebook with some Amazon thrown in, complete with a theme park campus, a hoody wearing cult figure, and a workforce of egotistical 20 somethings. The story’s heroine, Mae Holland is a new hire at the company who is quickly pulled into the lure, giving up every aspect of her life and privacy to The Circle, which has managed to create a world in which every action, word and thought become part of its transparent data set. As you might expect, Mae’s corporate orientation winds up being our portal to the inevitable troubling issues of surveillance, personal privacy and technological ethics.
I recommend the book but with strong caveats. As a story, it’s not a good one. Characters are poorly developed at best. Mae is so naive and agreeable that I found my eyes rolling more than moving left to right as I read. The plot is so predictable that I actually wondered if I had read the book before. That said, I found The Circle relevant and important on numerous levels.
Many of the technologies and practices portrayed in The Circle exist today, or have the likelihood to exist in the very near future. The willing enthusiasm with which most of us have embraced participation in “free” social networks has become an expected societal norm. (In that sense, we’re almost as naive and agreeable as Mae) Yet, the implications of such transparency and massive data collection are highly complex and potentially devastating. Given the rapid advancement and adoption of these technologies, the dialogue about how to address the political, ethical and personal impact seems to be lagging behind. Thus, reading the book is a good idea, if for no other reasons than to awaken brains, start dialogue and open eyes.
For those who are interested in the very real rich topics that are covered in this work of fiction, I highly recommend the documentary film “Terms and Conditions May Apply”, which I reviewed this past summer and is now available via most movie rental services. As you will see, in this case the truth is just as strange, more interesting, scary and yes, way more entertaining than The Circle’s fiction.
As for the other sixteen technology books covered in the New York Times, hopefully I’ll get to them before my next vacation rolls around.