From the Archive
The Secret History of Alexa
Wired Magazine has the second excerpts from Amazon Unbound, on the inception of Alexa, its early challenges, and the secret identity of the actress and singer who lent her voice to Amazon's disembodied artificial intelligence. Here's Jeff Bezos's first ever whiteboard sketch of an Alexa device, circa early 2011.
The Strange Tale of Jeff Bezos and the Single Cow Burger
From Chapter 8: Amazon’s Future is CRaP
As Amazon continued to experiment and trial different ways to deliver fresh food and groceries, it faced a mounting problem: fledgling grocery services like Amazon Fresh and Prime Now didn’t offer anything unique, often charged higher prices and weren’t retaining their customers. If Amazon wanted to arouse excitement and loyalty for these programs, it needed something else entirely—like a unique product that customers were passionate about. Well, Jeff Bezos had an idea for that as well and it was just as bizarre.
In August 2015, the Washington Post published an unappetizing article about how a single hamburger might contain the meat of up to a hundred cows. Sourcing a burger from just a single cow could theoretically produce a superior-tasting patty but that “would be hard and expensive,” a meat distributor told the paper.
That caught Bezos’s attention. He seemed to have increasingly adventurous tastes, later sampling an iguana, for example, at a meeting of New York City’s Explorers Club. In another brainstorming meeting with senior vice president Doug Herrington, he suggested they find a ranch to produce a “single cow burger” and make it a unique item that customers could only buy from Amazon. “I really think you should try this,” Bezos told Herrington, who recalled thinking at first it was a joke. “How hard can it be?”
The project was assigned to a new culinary innovations team inside Amazon Fresh and immediately established as an S-team goal—a high-priority benchmark monitored closely by Bezos and the leadership council. A product manager named Megan Rosseter was then charged with finding a way to actually produce it. The meat vendors she initially contacted told her that such a thing was totally impractical and would in fact be disruptive to their operations. “I felt like I was always getting crazy daunting goals that seemed almost impossible,” she said.
Somehow, Rosseter and her colleagues found a ranch in San Diego County, near the Mexican border, that could produce the burger. They worked with the ranch that spring, devising ways to freeze the meat for transport and designing packaging that wouldn’t leak when it was defrosted. In June 2016, Amazon splashed Single Cow Burger promotions on the Fresh website and smartphone app, advertising half-pound Wagyu beef burgers with 80 percent lean meat and 20 percent fat. The company also prepped Alexa with an answer should anyone ever ask it for a definition: “Single cow burger: a beef burger made with meat from just a single cow.”
The initial feedback from customers was promising. “These burgers are HUGE, JUICY and DELICIOUS!!!” wrote a reviewer on the Amazon website. But a few months later, Bezos sent an email to Fresh executives. He felt that the packaging was too difficult to open and complained that the burger was so fatty that dripping fat had caused his grill to flame up.
Rosseter believed that premium Wagyu beef should be cooked in a cast iron skillet and not on a grill. But she was not about to give unsolicited cooking advice to her CEO. She was also astonished that Bezos seemed to care so much. “It was definitely one of those ‘I can’t believe this is actually happening moments’ in my life,” she said.
So Rosseter went back to her supplier, who subcontracted the work to another ranch in Georgia that could produce Heritage Aberdeen Angus beef burgers with 91 percent lean meat and only 9 percent fat. After repeated trips to taste-test variations, Rosseter had a second single cow burger, with easy-to-peel packaging, ready to go by January 2017. The Fresh team sent a sample to Bezos’s office, and word came back a few days later that he was satisfied.
The project once again represented a different style of innovation within Amazon. Employees didn’t “work backwards” from their idealized customers, who had never asked for such a creation. They worked backwards from Bezos’s intuition and were catering to his sometimes-eclectic tastes (literally) and boundless curiosity. Bezos was right a lot, particularly when it came to cutting-edge technology. But in the end, the single cow burger and other culinary innovations introduced within Amazon Fresh generated little buzz or increased business.
Rosseter stuck it out for a few months but felt her efforts were not being recognized. She called the work environment “stressful and unhappy.” So she prepared to leave Amazon Fresh, right as a bomb was dropped on top of it.
A True Story: I won $10,000 in Whole Foods Gift Cards
Out of the blue in 2019, I got a call from Amazon. The person on the line informed me I had won $10,000 in Whole Foods gift cards, part of a sweepstakes I was entered into by using my Amazon credit card at the organic grocer. Obviously, I figured it was a scam. I called an Amazon PR rep, who was initially incredulous. Then later he texted me back and told me it was real. What are the chances? I didn't accept the free grub, but I did write about it.
Jeff Bezos to Step Aside as Amazon CEO
When Bezos announced in February 2021 that he would cede the CEO chair to deputy Andy Jassy, I wrote this opening essay for Bloomberg Businessweek.
Excerpts from The Upstarts, Volume 2: The Real Origins of Uber
The ride-hailing company Uber Technologies was invented by a Canadian and originally coded in Mexico. An excerpt from the book on Uber's origins in The Guardian, published just as the world is taking a new look at Uber's character amid charges of complicity with the Trump administration.
Excerpts of The Upstarts, Volume 1: The Secret Weapons of Uber and Airbnb
Excerpts of The Upstarts are out today in Bloomberg Businessweek. This includes material from the introduction and chapters four and eight. And more is coming soon!
Silicon Valley Reckons with its Political Power
Technology’s transformation of society seems to be speeding up. And now we know where it all leads: to the 25th floor of Trump Tower, and a central spot in the national dialogue over an evolving economy, with all its accompanying winners and losers. My opening essay in the 2016 year end issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.
The Uber Slayer: the True Story of China’s Didi
Didi was one of dozens of ridesharing startups that sprouted in China in early 2012. Here's a Businessweek cover story on how it out maneuvered them all and then went head to head with Uber.
Welcome to Larry Page’s Flying Car Factories
A summer 2016 cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek on Larry Page's secret flying car skunkworks with my pal Ashlee Vance.