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The Self-Made Man: Jeff Bezos

While looking up entrepreneurs to profile in future columns, I stumbled upon  this list of leadership lessons from Jeff Bezos, space-obsessed billionaire and chairman/CEO of Amazon.com. I was impressed that anyone as immersed in corporate culture as Bezos would even think to say things like “we are willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time” and “Everyone has to be able to work in a call center”  in 2012, as it displays a tendency towards long-term thinking that seems quaint in a world run by quarterly returns and momentary, artificial bubbles of growth.

The great Bezos!

Granted, I have the same mixed feelings about Amazon that a lot of writers do (the shadow they cast over modern publishing has turned a lot of us into sharecroppers, basically), but Bezos is an interesting guy for sure, and a welcome change of pace from leaders who use bureaucracy to shield them from their own incompetence (Carly Fiorina, anyone?).

It is weird that so many tech success stories are obsessed with space, though. I mean sure, they’re nerds, but between Blue Origin wanting to build hotels and amusement parks in space and Planetary Resources—another space start-up funded by tech money—figuring out how to mine asteroids, it seems to go beyond even that. Weird.

Anyway, back to Jeff. He was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico and grew up in Houston, Texas, after his mother married an Exxon engineer. Jeff was a techie from the start, dismantling his crib with a screwdriver as a toddler and turning the family garage into a makeshift science lab, but he spent many summers “laying pipe, vaccinating cattle and fixing windmills” at his grandfather’s ranch in southern Texas, which only helped his work ethic.

It might also explain why he left a perfectly good gig at D. E. Shaw to start Amazon in 1994; investment firms are great if all you want to do is get rich, but the kind of innovation that Jeff had in mind wasn’t possible in that industry. Besides, the Internet was growing and the Supreme Court had just ruled that online retailers didn’t have to collect sales taxes in states they weren’t based in. Jeff was so inspired that he drove from New York to Seattle, constructing his business plan in the car and setting up shop in a garage (which he was used to by that point) once he arrived.

If you ever want to give yourself a chuckle, go back and read the business community’s assurance that Amazon was a cute online bookseller that would be stomped into the dust by retail chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble once they caught wind of what he was doing. You’ll just laugh and laugh and laugh. And then you’ll make yourself sad, because Borders is dead and Barnes & Noble is only afloat because of its parasitic attachment to college bookstores.

But like I said, Jeff Bezos is a long-term thinker. He didn’t mind Amazon being unprofitable for a few years, and he doesn’t mind when current investments take a while to produce a return, because he has faith in his ideas and (to varying degrees) the people implementing them, and they’re more important than temporary drops in Amazon stock prices. His stockholders probably don’t agree, but given Amazon’s success over the past two or three years, they’ve probably learned to cope.

I’ll leave you with Jeff’s commencement address to the Princeton class of 2010, and with the question of how exactly he got hold of a screwdriver when he was young enough to still be sleeping in a crib.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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