It goes without saying that few founders have been as successful as Jeff Bezos for as long as Jeff Bezos. The now Executive Chairman of Amazon founded the company back in 1994 in a rented garage in Bellevue, Washington as an online marketplace for books. Now, it’s the second largest company in the world by both revenue and number of employees (behind only Walmart in both categories) and the fifth largest by market capitalization, and it does much more than just sell books.
Under Bezos’ leadership, Amazon has branched out to cloud computing with Amazon Web Services, autonomous vehicles with Zoox, satellite internet with Kuiper Systems, and computer hardware R&D with Amazon Lab126 — not to mention its many subsidiaries, like the home security company Ring, the live video streaming service Twitch, and of course Whole Foods Market.
It should be noted that Bezos is not just the successful founder of a single company. He also founded Blue Origin, an aerospace company that plans to send a lander to the moon next year and which officially made Bezos an astronaut when he was part of the first crewed mission in 2021. In addition, he founded Bezos Expeditions, a venture capital firm with over $100 billion in assets under management that has made key investments in companies like Uber, Twitter, Google, Remitly, Workday, and Airbnb. And he owns the Washington Post.
It takes a unique person to grow a business from a single employee in a Washington garage to more than 1.6 million employees across all 50 states and around the world. Often, boards of directors will bring on experienced leaders to fill top C-suite roles as they grow, but this was not necessary with Amazon, thanks in part to Bezos’ leadership acumen.
From the beginning, Bezos emphasized two keys: long-term growth and a relentless focus on customers. He knew that bearing these two ideas in mind would stand the company in good stead regardless of what challenges it faced.
Bezos knows that the world wants people, and thus companies, to be typical, and in a thousand ways it tries to pull them down to this level. But distinctiveness and differentiating one’s company from the competition is critical to success. So, Bezos and Amazon early on laid out 14 leadership principles to get it to the top and keep it there. As Amazon itself says of this set of principles, “It is just one of the things that makes Amazon peculiar.”
These 14 principles for leaders include an obsession with customers, which is demonstrated by working vigorously to earn and keep their trust; hiring and developing the best; thinking big; being frugal; and delivering results.
But Bezos has been particularly successful as an individual thanks to his own core set of principles that inform everything he does, parts of which naturally echo Amazon’s 14:
The Bezos Principles
- Long Term Thinking: Bezos has emphasized this from the beginning, but it bears repeating. The current fifth-richest person in the world knows that it’s okay (maybe even necessary) to take a loss on something in the beginning, if you believe you’re really onto something big. For a long time, it didn’t make financial sense to offer Prime memberships, which include various perks like free delivery (two-day, one-day, and same-day delivery options), streaming, shopping, and reading benefits. But Bezos knew that it would attract customers, and once a critical mass of subscribers had been reached, it would be a complete game changer for the company.
- Operational Excellence: There are many ways Bezos has strived for excellence in operations with Amazon, from making it easier for customers to shop with one-click buying; to single-threaded leaders (individuals who are wholly dedicated to solving one business problem); to thinking backward, or outside-in, starting with the desired customer experience and working backward to make it a reality. Perhaps the most uniquely Amazonian key to operational excellence is “two-pizza teams,” which essentially means that teams should not have more members than can be fed by two pizzas. The more people you pack into a meeting, the less productive the meeting will likely be, and most will end up agreeing with each other rather than voicing their own opinions and ideas. Thus, by limiting teams to around eight people, more ideas are expressed, and entire days aren’t wasted on unproductive meetings.
- Continuous Invention & Innovation: Leaders should constantly be asking themselves two questions: “What is the best decision for the customer?” and “Is there a way to invent our way to a solution?” Customer happiness and inventiveness are inextricably linked, and continuously striving for new, better ways to delight customers is essential to growth and success. Of course, not every new idea will be a winner. Bezos has said that you cannot have innovation without failure. But this failure must be taken in stride and overcome, and new inventions and innovations must be developed and implemented to keep customers happy and stay ahead of the competition.
- Staying Optimistic (The “Day 1 Philosophy”): As Bezos wrote in his 2016 Letter to Shareholders, “Staying in Day 1 requires you to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see customer delight.” While the internet has existed for decades, and Amazon is approaching its 20th birthday, Bezos believes it is just the beginning. Once companies achieve scale, leaders tend to default to optimizing processes rather than ensuring they are driving the right results for their customers, which could mean a major overhaul of processes, not just a small tweak here or there. Leaders need to approach every aspect of their businesses as though it is still day 1, and constantly evaluate processes to see if they need to be radically changed or even replaced.
- Customer Obsession: According to Bezos, too many companies focus on their competitors as opposed to their customers. If companies instead focus on optimizing customer delight, not just satisfaction, it won’t matter what their competitors are doing. As Bezos explained to a Congressional Committee in 2020, "customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and a constant desire to delight customers drives us to constantly invent on their behalf." Leaders should be focused not just on satisfying customer needs, but going past that to legitimately delighting them. They should be anticipating what their customers want and working to provide those experiences to customers.
As Bezos said in his letter to shareholders way back in 1997, “I believe high standards are teachable. People are pretty good at learning high standards through exposure. High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high-standard team, and they’ll quickly adapt.” And Bezos has run Amazon with this in mind ever since, aiming to hire the best and maintain a culture of excellence through the implementation of his key principles.
Companies can certainly survive without adhering to the principles Bezos has used to lead Amazon since its inception. But the kind of remarkable growth, success, and staying power it has achieved requires exceptional leadership, not ordinary, run-of-the-mill leadership. Companies cannot be revolutionary, cannot capture the customer base and customer loyalty that Amazon has achieved, without breaking away from the ordinary and choosing to govern themselves according to principles that put customers first, emphasize constant innovation and the pursuit of excellence, and keep one eye firmly set on the future.