Will We Ever Know the Real Jeff Bezos?

Despite his storied career and 25-plus years on the public stage, the soon-to-be-ex Amazon CEO remains a cipher

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Jeff Bezos’ surprise announcement last week that he will step down as Amazon CEO, transition to its executive chairman, and focus on newspapers, rockets, philanthropy, and, perhaps, finding more outlets for that explosive laugh, leaves a hole in the digital realm.

Bezos has gone from being one of the most admired CEOs in America to someone looked upon by some sectors of the general public with deep distrust. I know people who are so worried about what data Amazon gathers about its customers and about its labor practices that they’ve tried to pull back on Amazon purchases, though the pandemic and stay-at-home orders have made this damn-near impossible.

I remember a 2013 meeting with a small group of tech journalists (myself included) for a product launch where Bezos was asked if he was the next Steve Jobs. Bezos seemed flattered but quickly noted that Jobs, who’d died two years prior, had his own unique approach and vision (and by implication, so did Bezos), and “no one would ever be the next Steve Jobs.”

Despite his side gigs in building a giant millennial clock and Blue Origin, his private space company, I contend that Bezos isn’t a Jobs-like design and big ideas guy. Bezos has less in common with Jobs (who died at 56, the same age as Bezos is today) than he does with the supply chain, production, stack maverick Tim Cook, Jobs’ successor and the current CEO of Apple. Bezos is a business and process person, with an almost oracle-like gift for knowing which levers to push and pull to further incentivize consumer purchases of virtually any kinds of goods imaginable on his massive, online retail store.

In that same 2013 product launch, an animated Bezos took some time to explain the business strategy behind Amazon’s virtual “sold-at-a-loss” gadgetry, defining the Amazon “stack” as the combination of services, cloud, key apps, OS, and hardware. He added that the goal was to make money when people used their devices, not when they bought them. By implication, this meant that every piece of hardware Amazon sold was a gateway to more purchases on Amazon.com.

Where Cook and Bezos diverge, though, is on the upgrade cycle. Apple’s revenues still rely heavily on the 12-to-24-month upgrade to the latest and greatest Apple iPhone hardware. On the other hand, Amazon continues to sell cheaper and cheaper hardware — smart speakers, for example — most of which continue to work with Amazon services six or more years after you purchased them.

The first time I saw Bezos in person was at the 2009 Kindle 2 launch. Pacing on stage in a slightly ill-fitting sports jacket, Bezos lacked Jobs’ stagecraft and the event became most memorable for Stephen King’s reading of “UR,” a short story he’d written expressly for publication of the Kindle 2.

Unlike Jobs or Bezos’ chief space enterprise rival, the always unpredictable Elon Musk, Bezos’ personality wasn’t always on display. He transitioned from nerdy wunderkind to swole CEO while honing a tightly wound and almost sphinxlike public persona. That facade fractured a bit when his personal life spilled out on the pages of a tabloid, though we never saw a sorrowful, regretful, apologetic, or really angry Bezos on the public stage (he did, however, write about the incident on Medium).

The last time I saw Bezos in person, in September 2019, I was shocked to see him wade into a scrum of technology reporters who’d gathered for a post-product launch event inside Amazon’s Seattle Spheres. Unscripted and seemingly unchained, Bezos answered question after question lobbed at him by a hungry tech media hopeful for real news to happen in this unlikely event.

Bezos tends to be scripted in his answers and can, except when he unloads one of his trademark bark laughs, seem detached. But on this day Bezos was relaxed, voluble, and relatively unguarded (other Amazon executives gathered around him looked decidedly less so). I wonder, now, if his candidness stemmed from the fact that he’d already formulated a plan to exit this stage.

With Andy Jassy taking over in Q3 and the exploding AWS cloud business possibly taking center stage, Amazon is entering a new, Bezos-less phase. I’m, of course, interested to see what Amazon does next, but I’m also a little frustrated because I still don’t think we know the real Jeff Bezos. Maybe that’s part of his second-act plan: introducing the real Bezos to the world.

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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