Jeff Bezos' annual letter to Amazon investors is always worth reading, a peek into the mind of arguably the most important CEO in the technology industry. In 2011, Bezos wrote a manifesto, positioning Amazon as a universal self-service platform, obliterating traditional gatekeepers and unlocking new sources of creativity. In 2012, Bezos plays his hand closer to the vest, returning to familiar pro-consumer themes, arguing that Amazon's continued investment lets the company anticipate customer needs and meet them, sometimes even before customers can articulate them. Amazon, Bezos says, is focused on its customers, not its competition or Wall Street or short-term profitability — a tricky proposition in a letter to investors who are, typically, worried about precisely those things.
As examples, Bezos cites AutoRip, monthly royalties for Kindle Direct Publishing authors, price guarantees, and Amazon Web Services' track record of adding new features while reducing prices. If the unifying theme of 2011's letter was self-service, the unifying theme of 2012's is speed and automation in customer service. Bezos would have you believe that Amazon's technology is faster, smarter, and more aggressive than anyone else's, and that this speedy intelligence is focused on surprising, delighting, and earning the trust of Amazon's customers.
"Long-term thinking squares the circle."
Much of this is well-trodden ground for Bezos and Amazon: some of the phrases (like going up "blind alleys" that turn into "broad avenues") are copied verbatim from past keynotes. So what's the goal here?
Bezos needs this letter to do two things. First, it must address the fact that Amazon lost money in fiscal 2012: a net loss of $39 million, or 9 cents per share. A loss is never good news for investors, even investors as sanguine as Amazon's. Without naming the source or author, Bezos quotes Matthew Yglesias' admiring characterization of Amazon as a "charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers." Bezos doesn't grant the premise, arguing that "long-term thinking squares the circle. Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align." Bezos needs to assure investors that he's playing a longer game here, one where money spent on infrastructure and customer loyalty now cements Amazon's position as the universal retailer of first resort for the foreseeable future, a license to print money next year and beyond.
Not everyone believes that Amazon is so good to its customers
The second goal of Bezos' letter is even more ambitious. After all, if investors were truly unhappy with little to no profits, they'd vote with their dollars and sell their stock. No. Bezos needs to reassure everyone — investors, the press, the public — that Amazon, the unstoppable monster of the tech industry, can still be nice.
A year ago, Amazon was emerging from a fierce fight for the future of book publishing as the undisputed winner. Now, like many other tech companies, it's seen as the Evil Empire. When Amazon bought the social portal Goodreads last month, many vocal Goodreads users were disgusted and terrified, promising to delete their accounts to deny Amazon their data, like Russian peasants burning their villages in anticipation of Napoleon's armies.
Amazon is done with radical disruption and moving on to radical surprises
Amazon, to many people both in and beyond the world of books and publishing, is the enemy, the same way Microsoft, Apple, Google, or Facebook have been the enemy in their respective fields. The only thing that keeps Amazon from being perceived widely as an enemy is the equally widespread belief that nobody offers a better experience than Amazon, whether in e-reading or online retail. It's essential that Bezos maintain the perception, the trust, that nobody delivers more for their customers than Amazon. If Amazon is a victor, it must be a benevolent victor: if Bezos is a king, greedily hoarding secrets and profits from investors, it must be because he is a river to his people — not because he is looking for more worlds to conquer. That's why he has no problem taking up the mantle of being "too good" to customers; the alternative is suicide.
So last year's Amazon, the radical engine of disruption, is gone. This year's Amazon is the company that loses to win, that seeks to use its unique position not to fleece its customers, but to surprise and delight them — and in delighting them, more fully conquer them forever.