Writing books about fast-growing technology companies is a little like jumping from a highway overpass onto a speeding train. Sometimes you manage to hit the caboose and hang on for dear life, your work remaining relevant for a few glorious years. But other times, things change so rapidly that you miss the moment entirely, and your account is left to dangle as a historical curiosity, an account of an enterprise that no longer really exists in its current form.
In 2013, I published The Everything Store, a biography of Jeff Bezos and a history of Amazon’s first fifteen years. It was an attempt to explain a classic modern business story—how the impresario of online books fought off near ruin in the dot-com bust and upended not only retail but digital media and enterprise computing. After publication, I had a nice run speaking publicly about Amazon and the company’s disruption of online retail and book publishing.
But then a strange thing happened. In 2014, Amazon released the first Echo, a voice-activated speaker running the virtual assistant Alexa. The product was a hit, and over the next five years the company sold more than a hundred million devices. A few years later, Amazon opened its first prototype Amazon Go physical retail store in Seattle, using artificial intelligence and computer vision so customers could walk out of the store and be automatically charged rather than checking out with a human cashier. The company also expanded geographically, pushing into India, Mexico, and other countries, and into Hollywood via Amazon Studios, which yielded critical hits like Transparent, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Jack Ryan and a few notorious bombs.
While all that was unfolding, Amazon was reinvigorating its older businesses like the Amazon Marketplace, and in 2017 it acquired the organic supermarket chain Whole Foods Market, boosting its own ineffectual efforts to crack the food business. Amazon also remade its delivery operations, lessening its reliance on partners like UPS with its own network of vans and drivers that are now ubiquitous in many urban neighborhoods.
The Amazon that I had written about in The Everything Store was worth nearly $120 billion at the end of 2012. The company’s market capitalization surpassed a trillion dollars—eight times more valuable—first in 2018, and then for good in early 2020. My Amazon had under 150,000 employees. By the end of 2020, it had an astounding 1.3 million employees. I had written about the Kindle company, but this was now the Alexa company. Also, the cloud company. And a Hollywood studio. And it was moving to the center of an acrimonious political struggle about wealth, inequality, the safety of its warehouse workers and the sanctity of locally-owned businesses.
I realized early on that The Everything Store required a sequel and began researching Amazon Unbound in 2017. But while I was working on it, the train kept speeding ahead. During my reporting, Amazon initiated its infamous HQ2 search for a second headquarters, selected New York City and Northern Virginia, then ignominiously pulled out of Queens after fierce community resistance. As that saga reached its fateful denouement, Bezos announced his divorce from MacKenzie Scott, his wife of 25-years, and posted an extraordinary essay to the publishing site Medium about an extortion attempt by the supermarket tabloid The National Enquirer, with possible links to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And in 2021, while I was finishing the book amid the Covid-19 pandemic that had increased Jeff Bezos’s personal fortune by $70 billion, Amazon’s founder announced he would resign as CEO and turn over the position to a longtime deputy, Andy Jassy.
The locomotive had flown around yet another railway curve. Fortunately, I was able to incorporate all that news into Amazon Unbound, which is being published by Simon & Schuster on May 11th, 2021. It’s an account of Amazon’s remarkable last decade – how the everything store became the everything company, and how its gathering power and wealth came to worry a lot of smart people. I hope that you enjoy it.