In just over two decades, Amazon managed to go from online bookseller to the largest retailer in the United States. Today, there's almost nothing Amazon doesn't sell... and if you can think of something, be sure CEO Jeff Bezos is trying to find a way to change that.
Of course, success like this doesn't happen overnight.
Every year, Bezos republishes his original 1997 letter to shareholders. The letter provides a glimpse into the extraordinary focus the famous founder has maintained through the years, along with some exceptional lessons for all who are pursuing organizational excellence.
Here are just a few highlights:
In 1997, Amazon was a very successful company. But Bezos knew this was just the beginning.
"Today, online commerce saves customers money and precious time," writes Bezos. "Tomorrow, through personalization, online commerce will accelerate the very process of discovery. Amazon.com uses the internet to create real value for its customers and, by doing so, hopes to create an enduring franchise, even in established and large markets."
I'd say Bezos did a pretty good job of predicting the future.
See the big picture.
It's all about the long-term.
That's the point Bezos has been emphasizing for 20 years, and it's clearly articulated in this initial letter to shareholders.
"We believe that a fundamental measure of our success will be the shareholder value we create over the long-term. This value will be a direct result of our ability to extend and solidify our current market leadership position. The stronger our market leadership, the more powerful our economic model."
"Because of our emphasis on the long-term, we may make decisions and weigh tradeoffs differently than some companies... We will continue to make investment decisions in light of long-term market leadership considerations rather than short-term profitability considerations or short-term Wall Street reactions...We aren't so bold as to claim that the above is the 'right' investment philosophy, but it's ours, and we would be remiss if we weren't clear in the approach we have taken and will continue to take."
Amazon's focus on strengthening its strategic position, at the expense of short-term profits, is well-documented. But this refusal to compromise has given the company purpose and direction--and has transformed Amazon from online bookseller to global retail empire.
Focus on providing value.
Too many companies today are concerned about maintaining slim profit margins, at the expense of keeping customers happy. (The airline industry, for example, seems to be in a race to see who can create the worst customer experience.)
Amazon, however, has always focused relentlessly on its customers.
"From the beginning, our focus has been on offering our customers compelling value," explained Bezos. "We brought [customers] much more selection than was possible in a physical store (our store would now occupy six football fields), and presented it in a useful, easy-to-search, and easy-to-browse format in a store open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day."
Bezos described his team's mentality as "a dogged focus on improving the shopping experience," and the fruits of their labor can be seen clearly today, 20 years later.
Never stop learning.
While proud of how far Amazon had come, Bezos acknowledged the road ahead:
"We now know vastly more about online commerce than when Amazon.com was founded, but we still have so much to learn. Though we are optimistic, we must remain vigilant and maintain a sense of urgency."
And by setting the right example, Bezos has inspired a willingness to continually learn and adjust, which has helped Amazon rise to the top.
What leadership looks like:
Speaking on the topic of leadership, Steve Jobs once said the following:
"There needs to be someone who is the keeper and reiterator of the vision.... A lot of times, when you have to walk a thousand miles and you take the first step, it looks like a long way, and it really helps if there's someone there saying 'Well, we're one step closer.... The goal definitely exists; it's not just a mirage out there.'"
Clearly, Bezos has kept Amazon's vision front and center, and inspired thousands of employees to do the same. He's been passionate that Amazon remain a "day one" company, always hustling, always focused.
At a recent all-hands meeting, an employee asked Bezos what "day two" looks like.
Bezos's response, as detailed in his most recent letter to shareholders, says it all:
"Day two is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death."
And that's why, for Bezos and everyone else at Amazon, it's always going to be day one.