The world was a very different place 20 years ago. The internet was new and experiencing exponential growth. Google was only a year old and relatively unknown. And as countless "internet companies" rushed to cash in, they created an infamous bubble that eventually popped, resulting in billions of dollars of lost value.

But even amid this confusing cloud of startups and dot-coms, one company stood out. It had a smart, confident CEO who quickly became known for his relentless focus.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos.

CNBC recently published a rarely seen interview of Bezos from 1999, and it's completely fascinating.

I highly recommend watching the whole interview. If you do, you'll notice Bezos emphasizes Amazon's relentless focus over and over. 

At one point, he sums it up in a single sentence:

If there's one thing Amazon.com is about it's obsessive attention to the customer experience, end-to-end.

Fast forward 20 years to today. It's that intense focus on the customer that's led Amazon to become one of the most successful companies in the world.

One thing that I love about this video is that the interviewer, who takes an adversarial position, doesn't pull any punches. But while he repeatedly attacks Amazon and its business model, Bezos doesn't get offended.

Instead, he demonstrates emotional intelligence. He calmly and confidently addresses the interviewer's charges, one by one.

Here are some of the highlights:

On whether or not Amazon is an internet company

Bezos: "It doesn't matter to me.... What matters to me is, do we provide the best customer service. Internet shminternet. That doesn't matter."

Interviewer: "Well, but it does matter to your investors to know whether they're investing in a company that is..."

Bezos: "No, they should be investing in a company that obsesses over customer experience. In the long term, there is never any misalignment between customer interests and shareholder interests."

Interviewer: "Well that's the same argument that somebody at Walmart would make as well, wouldn't they?"

Bezos: "I don't see why not. I think they should make that argument. It's a correct argument."

On the cost of Amazon's grandiose plans

Interviewer: "So, you'll open as many square feet of physical space as you have to, hire as many employees as you have to..."

Bezos: "To service customers, absolutely. And we'll do it as rapidly as we can."

Interviewer: "That's a very cost intense proposition."

Bezos: "Not compared to opening an equivalent network of retail stores.... Look, when we open a distribution center, we're opening places where we may pay 30 cents a square foot for a lease. instead of paying seven dollars a square foot--which you might pay in a high traffic retail area. So when you compare those things, they're not the same. You can't compare a big chain of retail stores to half a dozen distribution centers.

"It's just not, you know...it's bad math."

On Amazon's strategy (and its chances for success)

Bezos: "I think that if we're not one of those important, lasting companies born of the internet, we will have nobody to blame but ourselves and we will be extremely disappointed in ourselves. But there are no guarantees. It's very, very hard to predict.

"But I believe that if you can focus obsessively enough on customer experience, selection, ease of use, low prices, more information to make purchase decisions with, if you can give customers all that plus great customer service...I think you have a good chance. And that's what we're trying to do."

On Amazon's arrogance

Interviewer: "Isn't it to some extent a certain amount of, with all due respect, corporate arrogance to assume that you can come into these businesses which you have no experience in and virtually overnight...become the best in those businesses and the market leader in those businesses?"

Bezos: "I don't think so. So, you know, when we first started selling books four years ago, everybody said, 'Look, you're just computer guys and you don't know anything about selling books.' And that was true. 

"But we really cared about customers. And now we know a lot about books. And when we first started selling music, people said the same thing. But we hired the right people. So, we don't do this in a vacuum. We go out and hire the best industry experts in each of these categories.  

"We take this very seriously. We take the commitment to the customer very seriously."

And once more, for good measure

Interviewer: "Whichever side of the argument you believe you're making what it seems to me..."

Bezos: "There's only one side--which is obsess over customers."

Published on: May 22, 2019
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