Amazon acquired Whole Foods on Friday in a blockbuster deal that sent the online retail titan’s market cap soaring by $9 billion and left its competitors into a tailspin. Time will tell if that movement is temporary, but one permanent fixture of Amazon’s success is founder Jeff Bezos. The C.E.O. was working at a quant hedge fund in New York when he got the idea for an online book retailer that turned into a worldwide phenomenon, which he explained in this man-on-the-street style interview in 1997 that Digg dug up today:
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Bezos’ early vision is astounding. He identified the web as an “infant technology” then with significant shortcomings that made traditional commerce more viable for most products. He realized an early e-commerce business could only thrive if it did something that could not be done offline. Amazon, which started out selling 3 million different books when bookstores offered a few thousand, nailed this.
But his prescience goes beyond that. “Attention is the scarce commodity of the late 20th century,” he said, as my eyes flicked to my phone to check Twitter, “and one of the ways you can do that—and it’s the way we did it—is by doing something new and innovative, for the first time, which actually has real value for the customer.” With that, he explained, growth comes naturally, as newspapers write about your product and news of its genuine value spreads by word-of-mouth. He also had a striking grasp of the role of tracking customers from their natural online activity through to a sale on his website—a model that has become ubiquitous in e-commerce, for better or worse.
You can see why Amazon has enjoyed some success over the years, even if it hasn’t always sounded like the best place to work.