Where is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos headed next?
IT HAS THE largest windows in space. Six reclining seats. And blue edges that passengers can grab hold of as they float weightlessly more than 100km (62 miles) above Earth. If that is not rarefied enough, imagine if one of the fellow passengers were Jeff Bezos, gazing down onto a planet that is spanned by his digital conglomerate, Amazon, and of which he is the richest inhabitant. When the time comes for Mr Bezos’s private venture, Blue Origin, to send paying tourists into space, its proprietor will almost certainly be among them. “I suspect that he will be—and is, indeed, eager to be—one of the first private citizens to blast himself into space,” writes Walter Isaacson, a biographer, in an introduction to the collected writings of Mr Bezos. Already you shudder to think of Mr Bezos’s peals of laughter ringing through the heavens.
It is easy to assume that for the 56-year-old man who has (and sells) everything, space tourism is the ultimate vanity project. He launches rockets from his ranch in West Texas. He has a rippling physique. His bald head resembles that of his idol, Captain Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek”. He is fulfilling a childhood dream. In 1982 he told his schoolmates: “Space, the final frontier, meet me there!”
Yet dismissing his space quest as a combination of mid-life crisis and money to burn would be underestimating the missionary zeal that drives Mr Bezos, and which “Invent & Wander”, a collection of 23 years of letters to Amazon shareholders and other musings, illustrates. His work on Earth is not yet done. Covid-19 has brought him back squarely to Amazon’s helm. But the book, which is mostly backward-looking, leaves a tantalising hint that you need to peer into the stratosphere to see what comes next. What that means for the future of Amazon is left frustratingly vague.
On the surface, his twin obsessions are a puzzle. It is difficult to imagine more different ventures than retailing and rocketry. Revolutionary as both firms are, there are few more hard-headed ones than Amazon, and few more dreamy-sounding concepts than space colonisation. Amazon is a utilitarian monument to the consumer, worth $1.6trn. It promises relentlessly lower prices, speedier delivery and greater variety—as well as faster cloud computing power in the case of Amazon Web Services (AWS). Blue Origin’s vision, funded by the sale of Mr Bezos’s Amazon stock, is Utopian. It is “to enable a future where millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth”. It hopes to achieve this by making launch vehicles that can land and be fully reusable. New Shepard, its suborbital spacecraft, has completed more than a dozen flights. Yet it is years behind schedule for flying tourists to space. For now, Blue Origin’s main customer is the government.
The two companies operate with different degrees of transparency and velocity, too. Amazon has been a public company since it was three years old. Its founding motto was “get big fast” and its obsessive quest to innovate includes a willingness to fail. Blue Origin was kept secret for years after its birth in 2000. It calls itself a tortoise not a hare. Its motto is Gradatim Ferociter, or “Step by step, ferociously”. As Mr Bezos has said, “If you’re building a flying vehicle, you cannot cut any corners.”
Or take their approach to rivals. Amazon, which dominates e-commerce and the cloud, treats them with the haughtiness of a trailblazer. Mr Bezos tells employees to be terrified of customers, not competitors. Blue Origin is a laggard. It is trying to catch up with SpaceX, the rocketry business of Elon Musk, another space-mad plutocrat. Other rivals include Virgin Galactic, the listed venture of Richard Branson, a British tycoon. Aerospace stalwarts such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are both collaborators and competitors. Boeing is a mighty incumbent.
Yet at Amazon, Mr Bezos has proved he can run businesses as diverse as one famous for brown boxes, and another for cloud computing. As he wrote in 2015, Amazon and AWS may look different, but they share similar underlying principles on which they act. The same may be true of Amazon and Blue Origin.
Stairway to heaven
Their visions are communicated by a simple narrative. Amazon’s is a focus on customer satisfaction, behind which employees, suppliers and shareholders fall into line. Blue Origin’s core belief is that reusable rockets will lower costs so that access to space is made possible for many. These mantras are endlessly repeated.
Second, the two businesses share breathtaking ambition. From the Kindle and AWS to Echo smart speakers and Alexa, their soothing machine-learned voice, Amazon has frequently given customers more than they ever thought they needed. With Blue Origin, Mr Bezos hopes that he can unleash entrepreneurial activity allowing others to follow his “road to space” and create a new era for business along the way.
Most important, both firms are imbued with Mr Bezos’s devotion to the long term. In his missives about Amazon, he repeatedly reaffirms his intention to invest to win market leadership in a variety of industries, rather than prioritising short-term profits. Blue Origin’s horizons are measured in decades, if not centuries. Both benefit from Mr Bezos’s knack for burying himself in the day-to-day detail, without losing sight of the big picture.
What his fixation with the heavens says about Mr Bezos’s future at Amazon remains a vexing question. The book does not hint at controversies such as the online empire’s treatment of third-party sellers, the hollowing out of high streets, or its quashing of unionisation efforts. It repeats the cliché that it is “day one” for Amazon, even though it seems late in the day as competitors in e-commerce and the cloud up their game and political heat rises. It gives no sense of whether AWS, its most profitable division, should be spun off, or of when Mr Bezos may step down. But it makes clear that Blue Origin, as Mr Bezos put it last year, is “the most important work I’m doing”. One day it may take him not just into orbit but away from the mother ship. ■
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Jeff Bezos’s final frontier”