Sometime around 2010, Amazon embarked on an ambitious project: The e-commerce giant wanted to build its own smartphone. Over the next four years, the company would invest heavily in the project, to the tune of a thousand employees and over a hundred million dollars.
The Amazon Fire Phone finally made its debut in June 2014.
It was an epic failure.
At least, the phone seemed like a failure. But there's more to the story, and it involves another, far more successful Amazon product that has its roots in the Fire Phone: Amazon Alexa.
The story hinges on a conversation between Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Ian Freed, the executive who was charged with overseeing both the Fire Phone and Alexa.
Interestingly, Amazon launched Alexa alongside its smart speaker, the Echo, just four months after the release of the Fire Phone. Around that time, the company also announced that it was taking a $170 million hit in connection with its new phone.
In a recent New Yorker article, writer Charles Duhigg revealed what Bezos told Freed at the time:
"You can't, for one minute, feel bad about the Fire Phone," said Bezos. "Promise me you won't lose a minute of sleep."
In two short sentences, we find a powerful lesson for company leaders--or anyone interested in building a culture of continuous growth.
Rising from the ashes
First, a little on Alexa's backstory, and how it actually sprung from the Fire Phone's beginnings.
Early in the phone's development, Freed presented Bezos with a prototype that included new software capable of voice recognition. Bezos was amazed at how you could ask the phone for a song, and it would immediately start playing. Enamored of the potential of this new technology, Bezos started to think big.
Bezos wanted to jump the curve, to bring something to life that would knock the socks off consumers. Within days, he gave Freed an additional $50 million budget and a team that got up to 200 people, with the request that Freed help Bezos build a cloud-based computer that would respond to voice commands, "like the one in Star Trek."
Freed & co. then hired speech scientists and artificial-intelligence experts to help them create the new software. They designed it so it could understand a variety of accents. They gave it the ability to do all sorts of tasks--from telling you the weather to helping you write a to-do list, to answering questions using information on the internet...and yes, even playing your favorite song.
Today, you know that cloud-based computer as Alexa--Amazon's ubiquitous virtual assistant.
Earlier this year, Amazon announced that it has already sold over a hundred million Alexa-enabled devices. It's a product that single-handedly transformed how modern consumers interact with technology in their homes--and forged Amazon's role as a leader in the field of artificial intelligence.
But things could have turned out a lot differently.
What's emotional intelligence got to do with it?
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions--in both yourself and others.
One of the reasons Amazon has been so successful is because of Bezos's ability to keep a typical emotion like fear at bay. It's this ability that allows him to take risks, to embrace failure when it happens--because with failure comes learning and growth. The same willingness to grow that inspired Bezos to push forward with the Fire Phone also caused him to go all in with Alexa.
In other words, the same mindset doesn't always bring the same results--in the short term. But it's the long game that matters.
The key is to inspire your people to think the same way.
If Bezos had chided Freed and his team for not doing more to make the Fire Phone a success, he would have hindered their ability to take similar risks in the future--in essence squashing the growth and learning that accompanies those risks. Instead, by showing his people that he had their backs, Bezos helped them always be forward thinking.
So, if you're in charge of a team, or simply interested in encouraging a culture of growth, show your colleagues that you trust them. Encourage them to share their thoughts and ideas. Don't get upset when they question why the company does things a certain way. And if they think they can improve, why not give them a chance to try?
The worst thing that can happen: They're wrong, and they fail miserably.
But that's your chance to really make a difference: Because by choosing to encourage and build up instead of dishearten and tear down, you motivate them to keep trying. Keep learning. Keep growing.
And it's only a matter of time before effort like that leads to something great.