Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Bezos: The "Inseparable Twins" of Failure and Invention

Here's what Jeff Bezos had to say in the latest Amazon (AMZN) shareholder letter:

"This year, Amazon became the fastest company ever to reach $100 billion in annual sales. Also this year, Amazon Web Services is reaching $10 billion in annual sales … doing so at a pace even faster than Amazon achieved that milestone.

What's going on here? Both were planted as tiny seeds and both have grown organically without significant acquisitions into meaningful and large businesses, quickly. Superficially, the two could hardly be more different. One serves consumers and the other serves enterprises. One is famous for brown boxes and the other for APIs. Is it only a coincidence that two such dissimilar offerings grew so quickly under one roof? Luck plays an outsized role in every endeavor, and I can assure you we've had a bountiful supply. But beyond that, there is a connection between these two businesses. Under the surface, the two are not so different after all. They share a distinctive organizational culture that cares deeply about and acts with conviction on a small number of principles. I'm talking about customer obsession rather than competitor obsession, eagerness to invent and pioneer, willingness to fail, the patience to think long-term, and the taking of professional pride in operational excellence. Through that lens, AWS and Amazon retail are very similar indeed.

A word about corporate cultures: for better or for worse, they are enduring, stable, hard to change. They can be a source of advantage or disadvantage. You can write down your corporate culture, but when you do so, you're discovering it, uncovering it – not creating it. It is created slowly over time by the people and by events – by the stories of past success and failure that become a deep part of the company lore. If it's a distinctive culture, it will fit certain people like a custom-made glove. The reason cultures are so stable in time is because people self-select. Someone energized by competitive zeal may select and be happy in one culture, while someone who loves to pioneer and invent may choose another. The world, thankfully, is full of many high-performing, highly distinctive corporate cultures. We never claim that our approach is the right one – just that it's ours – and over the last two decades, we've collected a large group of like-minded people. Folks who find our approach energizing and meaningful.

One area where I think we are especially distinctive is failure. I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it's going to work, it's not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there."

One of the more challenging aspects of investing is judging the value of qualitative factors. When the focus is only on the quantitative some of the most significant elements of intrinsic value can be missed.

It's worth noting that qualitative factors do not necessarily only materially add to value; they can and often do subtract in a big way.

Adam

No position in AMZN

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Amazon, Apple, and Intrinsic Value - Part II
Amazon, Apple, and Intrinsic Value
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Amazon, Apple, and Margin of Safety
Amazing Amazon
Barron's on Bezos: Time to Reign in Amazon's CEO?
Amazon's Jeff Bezos On Inventing & Disrupting
Amazon Sells Kindle Fire Below Cost
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