Each year around this time, Jeff Bezos drops his annual letter to Amazon shareholders. Thousands or even millions try to discern its wisdom.
This year marked letter number 23. By now, Bezos has written 44,000 words.
That's enough for a short book, so I took the full text of all 23 letters over the years, combined them into a single document, and ran the file through a word cloud generator (which also revealed word frequency).
The takeaways are stunning. Right off the top, here are some of the key things I found. (I think I like the first, second, and last items the most.)
Customers, customers, customers
If there's one truism I expected to find in these letters, it's Bezos's repeated admonition that successful companies--or at least Amazon--should obsess about their customers, not their competition. The numbers backed this up to a degree that was quite astonishing.
"Customer" (or "customers") appears 443 times, which makes it the most common word in all 23 letters by far (omitting common but uninteresting words like "and" or "the" for example). By way of comparison, the word "Amazon" appears 340 times.
Statistically, you could literally pick any word at random in this document, there is about a 1 percent chance that the word you choose will be "customer."
- "From the beginning, our focus has been on offering our customers compelling value," Bezos wrote in 1997.
- "Obsess over customers: our commitment continues," he wrote in 2002.
- From 2008: "In this turbulent global economy, our fundamental approach remains the same. Stay heads down, focused on the long term and obsessed over customers.
- 2013: "We have the good fortune of a large, inventive team and a patient, pioneering, customer-obsessed culture..."
In these shareholder letters, "customer" is to "competition" as ying is to yang.
"Competition" and its derivatives appear just 28 times across 23 letters. And quite a few of them aren't really referring to competitors; they're some variation of "Amazon's competitive advantage is..."
It's not quite true to say the takeaway is that you shouldn't pay any attention to competitors. In fact, Bezos threw cold water on this idea , but it's not actually what he says:
As regular readers of this letter will know, our energy at Amazon comes from the desire to impress customers rather than the zeal to best competitors. We don't take a view on which of these approaches is more likely to maximize business success.
There are pros and cons to both and many examples of highly successful competitor-focused companies. We do work to pay attention to competitors and be inspired by them, but it is a fact that the customer-centric way is at this point a defining element of our culture.
But still, the word count tells an interesting tale: 443 to 28.
Prime, AWS, Kindle, and Alexa
These aren't big surprises, as they're giant products for Amazon.
But their frequency -- "prime" appears 131 times, "AWS" appears 81 times, "Kindle" appears 66 times, and Alexa and Echo for a combined 34 rimes -- is interesting.
It's especially interesting given that Prime was only introduced in 2005, AWS rolled out in 2006, the Kindle was introduced in 2007, and we first heard of Alexa and Echo in late 2014.
So, these are four of the most-used words you'll find in the 23 shareholder letters, but they refer to products that didn't even exist for the first half or more of the company.
Here, we'll combine the instances of words like:
- team (62)
- people (54)
- employees (39)
- hiring (10)
- associates (9)
It all works out to 176 instances. Almost every company I've ever written about has some kind of line about how "our people are our real assets."
I mean, these are investor letters, right? Shareholder and shareholders get a total of 53 mentions. Add investor and investors, and it's another eight. I'm not really sure what to make of this, except that the letters always have this undercurrent of selling investors while simultaneously being very self-conscious of the fact that Amazon doesn't really need to sell investors.
This last one is my favorite, as I'm on a tear about this lately: antitrust.
I think Amazon recognizes antitrust as the number-1 existential threat to the company now. It's not that someday Amazon could decline. A half-century ago, it would have seems foolhardy to think that Sears would ever go anywhere; a quarter century ago this summer, the idea of Amazon itself seemed unlikely.
Yet, how many times does antitrust come up in the shareholder letters? Zero. Not once.
I can't predict the future. But I'm pretty darn confident Amazon would like to keep that strike going.