The transcript from this week’s, MiB: Brad Stone on Bezos & Amazon, is below.
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BARRY RITHOLTZ, HOST, MASTERS IN BUSINESS: This week on the podcast, I have a special guest. Brad Stone is the Editor at Bloomberg News who covers technology and the author of a number of books. The one that just came out, “Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of Global Empire.” Really quite fascinating.
I had previously read his first book on Amazon, The Everything Store, and when that had come out, I think it was 2013, Amazon was still a successful company but not the dominant juggernaut it’s become. And this book really is the sequel to that that talks about how, from the low point in 2014, when Amazon actually had a pretty substantial negative view in the stock market down over 20 percent, all of these new drivers of revenue and growth were just teeing up and what ends up happening is the company just starts to hit on all cylinders and that’s before the pandemic.
And then the pandemic essentially doubled so many different sectors within Amazon. They were a company that was made for a work-from-home lockdown situation, perfectly positioned and took full advantage of it. Over the course of those years, Amazon became the second largest employer in the country behind Wal-Mart.
Bezos became the wealthiest man in the world and Amazon just dominates so many areas of our everyday lives from supermarkets and delivery of just about everything to Amazon Web Servers to — you just go through everything they do Amazon Prime and Amazon Video on it it’s just endless. They have changed the fabric of our society and our economy.
And Stone does a fantastic job telling the story of how that happened. I really enjoyed the book and I think you’ll really enjoy our conversation.
So, with no further ado, my interview with “Amazon Unbound” author, Brad Stone.
VOICEOVER: This is a Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
RITHOLTZ: My special guest this week is Brad Stone. He is the Senior Executive Editor for Technology at Bloomberg News. Previously, he was the BusinessWeek writer covering tech in Silicon Valley and before that, he was the tech correspondent for the New York Times and Newsweek.
He is the author of four books including “The Everything Store” Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” from 2013. His most recent book is “Amazon Unbound” Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire.”
Normally, at this point, I would say Brad Stone, welcome to Bloomberg, but since you work for Bloomberg, let me just say welcome to Masters in Business.
BRAD STONE, SENIOR EXECUTIVE EDITOR FOR TECHNOLOGY, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Thank you, Barry. Great to be here.
RITHOLTZ: So, I have to start off with the — the simple question and I know you define this in the earlier book. Bezos or Bezos? How do you pronounce his name?
STONE: It is Bezos. Yes. And I’ve encountered and I’m sure he has, as well, numerous alternative pronunciations. But indeed, it is Bezos.
RITHOLTZ: Interesting. So, let’s start out a little bit with your background. I mentioned you’re the Senior Executive Editor at Bloomberg News, you were a writer at BusinessWeek for 10 years, and before that, the New York Times and Newsweek, how did you start covering technology? What led you into that space?
STONE: Yes. Well, Barry, I was way back before the New York Times. I was at a once proud magazine known as Newsweek and I was a junior reporter, kind of just looking for an avenue, something that I could write about where I my articles would appear in what was a very competitive magazine at the time for journalists.
And this was the ’90s and the Internet was becoming more popular and I had used the Internet to become familiar with it while I was in college and I just started writing about it. And then they moved me out to Silicon Valley in 1998.
RITHOLTZ: Good timing. Just — just in time for the crash. So, I’ve read …
STONE: Exactly. Yes.
RITHOLTZ: I read a bunch of New York Times but they were YouTube and iPads and Google search. How did you ultimately happen on to Amazon as a subject matter?
STONE: I was covering Amazon at the time. It was — it was a little bit overlooked. If we go back to 2006, 2007, the eBay market cap was larger than Amazon for the time. It’s really remarkable to remember that. Then Amazon was thought as maybe haven’t picked the wrong business model for the Internet ag.
Google was a much more high-profile and interesting company, it seemed like. And, yes. I remember doing a couple of stories about the introduction of Prime and Fulfillment by Amazon and Amazon Web Services.
And I mean, I basically — I was — I would talk to Bezos when Amazon got into the fight with book publishers around Kindle pricing. He was — he was on the phone quite a bit arguing Amazon’s case.
And I was always fascinated by the company. I was fascinated by Bezos. And then when I went over to Businessweek and wrote a couple of stories about Amazon there, it was really just sort of opportunistic writing my first book. I felt like nobody had really done the great Amazon story and books have been devoted to the other big tech companies.
Of course, I had no idea what kind of juggernaut it was still to become, but it seemed to me that it has been a little bit overlooked.
RITHOLTZ: And that book really — I read it on vacation, I think, in 2017 or 2018. It was a good read and you had fairly decent access to Bezos prior to that. How cooperative was he for the 2013 book, “The Everything Store”?
STONE: Right. I can’t quite remember the timeline. But I went in there to meet with to pitch the book and he was very receptive. Amazon has this weird cultural ritual where they start every meeting with a — by reading a document. So, I brought him a document to read and …
RITHOLTZ: That’s good …
STONE: … the book. And, yes, he read it in sort of silence and then he said, you know it’s too early to write the Amazon book. I did talk to him a couple of times on news things while I was reporting on it and he allowed me to talk to his parents and friends and employees but he was pretty distant. It was limited access for the first book.
RITHOLTZ: That’s really kind of interesting. So, tell us a little bit about your research and writing process. The new book Amazon unbound is very much told chronologically, how do you go about putting together this monstrous …
STONE: Right. Right. Well, let me continue the story. So, after — after the last book, The Everything Store comes out 2013 and Bezos does not like it.
Barry, I don’t know if you recall this, but he had his wife at the time, MacKenzie, and some employees like in — including Andy Jassy, the new CEO. They all wrote one-star reviews.
RITHOLTZ: Right. I thought — I thought Amazon was a — wasn’t — aren’t they against people buying reviews? That — that violates their policies. Now, I guess …
STONE: Yes. Well …
STONE: Right. They genuinely bought and read it, I guess. So, anyway, there was a chill and a couple of years went by and then — I just — and then at some point, I realized that the books took off and had to be seen as kind of the definitive history of early Amazon, but I realized that so much had happened. Alexa and the global mark-up place and Bezos becoming the wealthiest person in the world but there were simply more story to tell.
And so, I went back to Amazon, probably just a little cheekily and just told them that I was going to do it. And this time, there was no meeting with Bezos, but they did allow — they did allow me to talk to more than a dozen senior executives, members of the senior leadership team, the S team.
STONE: Yes. And Bezos allowed me to talk to friends and so the access wasn’t all that different but the foundation of the book, of both books, really, were the employees who had been there, had participated in key projects, and then who had left or were there but were willing to sort of talk carefully, because obviously Amazon and most companies these days, they try to lock up former employees or current employees and nondisclosure agreements.
I like to say that Amazon has a lot of surface area, right? More so than a lot of other companies. It has so many things. And there’s actually very few people with any kind of a bird’s eye view over it.
Maybe, it really just Jeff Bezos. I mean, Andy Jassy and Jeff Wilke, the former head of the retail business, is certainly very extremely disciplined and careful in what — what they say. So, it’s really just — it was almost like aggregating enough interviews, enough conversations that I could start to piece together enough of a picture of this entire company and then also — by the way, Barry, not just Amazon but The “Washington Post”, Blue Origin, Bezos’ space company, is Bezos’ personal fight with the National Enquirer.
Like lots of different avenues to go down. So, it’s really almost just the sheer exercise and talking to as many people as I could.
And so, people went on the record even fairly inner circle people without giving you a lot of pushback, did you find this book was a little more challenging because it’s such a moving target compared to the first version? The version that you wrote in 2012?
STONE: Yes and no. It was easier and that The Everything Store was kind of a calling card. So, I could talk — I could reach out to hundreds of people and they instantly knew who I was and what I was up to, right? And in some cases, I had earned the measure of trust by what they saw as a — as an accurate retailing of the company’s early years.
But it was more difficult in that it was it post an enormous organizational and structural challenge. So, in The Everything Store, it was a very linear story. It was a group of — it was one guy in Wall Street and then a group of people in the garage in Bellevue with an idea to sell books on the Internet straight through — through the dotcom boom, almost cratering in the dotcom bust and that revival. It feels iconic that — that story, it in in a way.
And in this story is a sprawl of things happening at the same time. I mean, it’s Alexa and the entry in the India and Prime video and the marketplace and the grocery business and the logistics operation and ads and all the other stuff I mentioned.
So, it was an organizational challenge. But in some ways, this story was actually the better story. I mean when you think about it from a pure value creation point of view, the everything store covers the creation of about $80 billion in market capitalization and this — this story covers the creation of 1.6 trillion. So, in some ways, this was the more dramatic business story.
RITHOLTZ: Sure. Just the numbers are just mind blowing and we’ll talk about some of the numbers a little later. Any chapter stand out as particularly challenging to write or particularly fun to — to dive into?
STONE: I started this book in 2017. So, this is before HQ2, before the Antitrust Subcommittee report into the big tech companies. Before — obviously, before the pandemic. But the funnest and the most unexpected story was Bezos’ tangle with the National Enquirer and Medium post about Saudis and the Washington Post.
I had never expected — well let me step back because you’ll appreciate this. Most tech — most companies will draw — will build a fence around the private lives of their key executives, right? It’s seen as maybe a no-go area. And Amazon was fiercely — is fiercely protective of Bezos’ privacy and Bezos and is fiercely protective of his family’s privacy.
And so, for this thing to blow up at the end of 2018, as I’m writing the book, an alleged affair, a trashy tabloid newspaper, accusations of political interference by the Trump administration, a hall of mirrors of crazy characters and private detectives and unethical Hollywood characters and perhaps NBS. I mean, it was beyond anything that I had imagined.
So, in terms of like challenge and maybe entertainment value and I just — couldn’t sort of — couldn’t believe that this is where — not only this is where something that I had pried open but this is where Bezos had kind of led the world and led his own story was astonishing to me.
RITHOLTZ: Let’s talk a little bit about that empire and put some — some flesh on the bones in terms of numbers. I like the way you broke the book up into three sections and each section starts with four data points. Annual revenues, number of employees, the market cap of Amazon, and Bezos’ net worth.
And some of the numbers from just over a decade, they were doing 34 billion in sales in 2010 and then by 2016, it’s 136 billion and then by last year, it’s 233 billion. And along the way, they went from 33,000 employees to 350 to now they have about 650,000 employees.
And Bezos went from a mere 15 billion in net worth, today’s worth well over, in 2020, it was 125. Now, he’s coming up on 200 billion.
STONE: Right. And by the way, Barry, employees, it’s over a million now. So …
RITHOLTZ: Over a million.
RITHOLTZ: How can we …
STONE: After the pandemic, they just soared.
RITHOLTZ: So, that was the question I was going to ask is how much of the 2020 numbers are pandemic-related and how much of this is just an acceleration of all these trends at Amazon that were in place before last year even began?
STONE: I mean, I think it’s both. The pandemic was an accelerant. And that growth might have happened and the pandemic just moved everything forward. If people are wondering does it roll back because Amazon let people go, I don’t think so.
I think what the pandemic did is it — it made people more familiar with next Amazons’ next day delivery possibilities, Grocery shopping, it increased Amazon’s profits and what — what they always do with that is they reinvest it into more Amazon so it created fulfillment centers closer to major cities, closer to our homes, more trucks on the highway, more vans in our neighborhoods, more data centers.
And what that means is, Amazon spent the pandemic, basically capturing more advantages. The advantages of fulfilment centers closer to our homes and faster delivery. And it’s not going to unline that and it just means that shopping offline for food and for everything else is going to be more convenient. And that is probably frightening for offline competitors, supermarkets.
The other thing Amazon’s doing is creating physical retail stores so that’s still capturing 90 percent of all — of all retail. People shopping in actual stores and Amazon is now stamping out these Amazon fresh grocery stores. So, it had a productive pandemic.
You might — you might say it was sort of perversely lucky because it had all the advantages going into it but now it has even more.
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RITHOLTZ: So, we’re going to get to some of the acquisitions. We’ll talk about Amazon Prime and Whole Foods but before we do that, early in the book, you talked about sort of the 2010s low point for Amazon which was October 2014. They had kind of stumbled with the Amazon Phone and a lot of the — the big growth engines were just starting to ramp up.
I have to ask, who is possibly worse at assessing competitors than Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer? Is there anybody who is — I mean, if this guy — this guy missed everything from the iPhone to the iPod to and — and he was dissing Amazon in 2014 like they don’t make a profit. Who — nobody’s interested in those guys. I mean, I love you usage of him. What attracted you to using him as the — the patsy?
STONE: And as, I think, I call him the contrarian indicator. But let me give a little bit of a defense to Steve Ballmer in late 2014. He wasn’t alone, right? There were — they were investors like David Einhorn who were — who were adding Amazon to the bubble stock basket.
Analysts were — were mixed at the time. There was a lot of speculation about the underlying profitability of Amazon Web Services which the company was disguising out of the income statement at the time.
STONE: And yet, we have — you have to understand that Amazon is deliberately opaque and in a way that it’s sort of surprising the SEC or other regulatory authorities haven’t been more aggressive in getting the company to reveal more. But it is — he doesn’t want the world to know how profitable a business Amazon Web Services is and it’s not showing profit. It’s disguising its profits on its income statement by investing in more data centers, more fulfillment centers, expansion.
At that point, the expansion in India begins an it’s spending a billion dollars a year at that point on Prime Video. So, no one has any idea because Bezos is sitting there at the craps table, making new bets.
And Ballmer just happens to be a bit of a loud mouth and expressed it at exactly the wrong time because you can go back and mark the exact moment when Amazon has to finally reveal AWS’ financials and the things starts to take off.
RITHOLTZ: It’s interesting that it was such a strategic advantage to not discuss Amazon Web Servers for so long and they were able to get away with that because of it wasn’t more than 10 percent of the revenues, is that- was that the rationale for hiding that?
STONE: I think that’s right. That the — they could. Another business, another CEO, is going to want to show that off. Is going to want to impress investors particularly because if you look at the stock performance in 2014, I mean, my recollection is that the stock went down and — or at least it was embattled.
And another CEO is going to say, well, it’s going to like cater to their own ego and to their recruitment needs of the company, into the image and want to release that. But Bezos, across the 10 years of this — of AWS’s growth, he thinks long term. He thinks competitively. He didn’t want to tip off competitors to how good of a business this was and he kept it hidden.
I mean, that takes a little bit of a remarkable active CEO patience and bravery to do that but they felt like they had a gold mine there and they wanted to mine it for whatever it was worth.
RITHOLTZ: Let’s see. In 2014, let’s see what’s the stock price looks like. Bear with me one second while I pull this up.
In 2014 — no, this was a — this was not a good year they were down 22 percent for the full year. And you’re right, the bottom — well, there was a low over the summer in May and then there was another low in October. But, yes, that doesn’t surprise me that Ballmer nailed the bottom. But a lot of people were pretty skeptical in an otherwise pretty decent year for the market.
RITHOLTZ: Right. Right. And when you look back at 2014, it’s so remarkable that there was such skepticism because that’s — that is the year that Amazon introduces Alexa. It is the year that they start preparing to introduce the financials of AWS.
I think — I think that might have been the first year that Amazon Studios Originals start to come out, so the first batch of TV shows that weren’t all that good but I think it marked the transformation of Amazon Prime into more of a content service. So, and then — and then the expansion into India really begins in earnest in 2014.
And so, they’re placing a lot of bets there and to the public market and to investors, everything looks kind of dire but it’s really the beginning of probably the most impressive wealth creation, maybe, even in the history of business. I mean just — it’s such a — pressing alongside Apple, the kind of scale that we haven’t really seen before.
RITHOLTZ: Right. Right. So, let’s talk about some of the big winners that are driving that growth. Amazon Prime, this really turned out to be quite a game changer, not only making clients stickier but really taking Amazon to a whole new level.
STONE: It really has evolved. So, back in 2005 when they conceived it, Bezos wanted to kind of take shipping charges off the table. Like he knew Amazon could compete with selection, it could be competitive with prices, but the convenience just wasn’t there to take many days for people to get their packages.
RITHOLTZ: Right. And at the time, Amazon had maybe a dozen fulfillment centers in the U.S. So, taking shipping off the table, trying to offset it with — what was the $79 a year charge, it may — it made a lot of sense and then you wrap people up into the Prime ecosystem and they spent more.
And then you fast forward five, seven years and Bezos sees that maybe shipping isn’t going to be that much of a differentiator anymore in a world where Amazon has hundreds of fulfillment centers around the country where one-day or two-day shipping might be possible even without Prime membership.
And so, he kind of surprises all of the executives by saying we’re going to put free TV shows and movies into this. And now, today, I would say that’s probably more — more important to the Prime — to Prime membership, the fact that you get access to Prime Video, Prime Music. I mean, they’ve got — I think the Amazon Music, the Kindle Club. People dont even know what it gets you and maybe that’s part of it, there are for this hazy ambiguous task …
RITHOLTZ: It’s a lot of things.
STONE: … could be — it’s a lot of things and people tend to maximize the value — if you want to maximize the value of any club they belong, so it’s a sort of neat psychological trick and the center of the Amazon operating model.
RITHOLTZ: And then related to the expansion of groceries, but as well as coming up with physical locations near, I think, it was 90 percent of Prime members was the purchase of Whole Foods which you discuss in the book. Remind me a little bit of the Google-YouTube purchase.
RITHOLTZ: The increase in stock price essentially made the purchase free. Tell us about the Whole Foods purchase.
STONE: So, I devote a whole chapter to Amazon’s adventure/misadventures in groceries and it’s really interesting because this is one area where Bezos wasn’t as farsightedness as some of his executives. So, he have people advocating for an expansion in the grocery delivery as far back as 2007.
He thought that this would be an opportunity that would be there for Amazon. And executives were writing papers and I quote, some of them in the book. I love the one that was called Amazon future is crap because it stood for can’t realize a profit and what’s a lot of basically consumables in groceries or items.
And it wasn’t Google introduce Google Express and Instacart kind of comes under the scene and starts raising torrents of money that he starts moving faster.
And the challenge with fresh food is you need a whole different fulfilment network. Refrigerated and rapid deliveries. Mainly, people want to be at their homes when they — when they get their deliveries. And then nothing Amazon that Amazon was trying and is working very well.
There’s Prime Now and Amazon Fresh. And so, Whole Foods comes along in 2017. It’s a distressed asset. John Mackey is beset on all sides by activist investors clinging to his organic selection in an age of broader selection and prevalent junk food in supermarkets.
And Bezos buys it. now, it’s interesting because Amazon’s future in groceries isn’t necessarily Whole Foods. They’re creating these Amazon Fresh Supermarkets. But I think they realized or Bezos realized that he was going to need to learn a lot about the grocery business if Amazon was going to fill its potential there.
RITHOLTZ: So, let’s talk about some of their products that were winners. We’ll talk about Kindle, Echo, and Alexa and Fire TV. It’s kind of amazing to think a CEO said I have an idea for a reader and we’re going to build this from scratch. Tell us a little bit about the genesis of Kindle and what it meant for Amazon whose roots were in bookselling?
STONE: Right. Right. So, we’re going back out to some of the material I covered in The Everything Store. This is probably about 2004 and Bezos is basically watching Apple vaporize his music business with the iPod and iTunes store. And he understands that a digital transformation is coming from media and that Amazon’s brand is still very tightly intertwined with the book business.
And concludes that if Apple was — were to every move into digital books, that Amazon would be vulnerable. And so, he basically tells his leadership team, the S team, the S team, that they’re going to build an e-reader. At the time, Sony had tried to do it and had sort of failed with the Sony reader.
And there’s also some objections because what does Amazon, at the time, know about building devices and …
STONE: … Bezos says I know it’s hard, we’re going to do it.
RITHOLTZ: And it’s a three-year process. It’s actually very similar to the Alexa story which I tell in “Amazon Unbound.” But he drives the initiative, he sponsors it, he authorizes all sorts of investments. He gets his sales folks to go to New York City and harangue the book publishers into unlocking more of their catalogs for the — for e-book business. They had been very hesitant because it wasn’t a major business for them.
Amazon Youth has its leverage and strength with the publishers to basically get them to digitize their books and then they announced it in 2007. And that is the beginning, that is the beginning of Amazon in devices. And it leads to everything from Alexa to the failed Fire phone to the Fire TVs, to all sorts of things we haven’t seen yet.
And it’s a great illustration of Bezos really inventing his company at every turn and thinking ambitiously and in an unbound way of how what Amazon could become. It wasn’t just a retailer, it wasn’t a bookseller, it wasn’t just an enterprise software company and its cloud business. He doesn’t — he doesn’t place any limits, it doesn’t seem to me, on what — on what Amazon can be.
RITHOLTZ: And that kind of tees up the Echo which is its own product category. If this was a standalone product from a new startup company that had sold hundreds of millions of units, they would be a really successful company. Tell us how — how did the Echo come about?
STONE: Well, it’s interesting, but you see, Barry, I don’t — I don’t know if it would be — Amazon probably sells those units at close to cost.
STONE: And this will get to the origin. It — the brains of Alexa are in Amazon Web Services.
STONE: And I’m sure it gets a wholesale rates on that and that’s where Bezos started with this. He sent an email to his colleagues in late 2010. We should build a computer whose brains are in the cloud, that’s completely controllable by your voice because he’s thinking, at the time, how does he exploit Amazon’s advantage in cloud computing and how does it create consumer-facing applications?
And he’s a big science fiction fan and he’s totally engrossed with the possibilities and improvements in voice search at the time. And that’s — that email spawns Alexa. And very much like the Kindle, he gets in the weeds and the sponsorships and he authorizes the hiring of all sorts of impressive voice scientists and they bring it out in the world and collect data in a very surreptitious and interesting way.
And now, it’s so tightly interwoven into the Amazon Empire that we don’t know if that — if it makes money. I don’t think it’s been as revolutionary as maybe they — they have hoped. It’s certainly not a conversational computer or really a useful every day assistant in the way that they hoped and it’s not really a productive app ecosystem as there is with the iPhone.
So, it’s interesting. It certainly has helped to change Amazon’s image and they market the thing and I think it helps their — image as an innovator.
RITHOLTZ: Alexa, what’s the title of Brad Stone’s new book?
ALEXA: Sorry, I don’t have an answer for that.
RITHOLTZ: I guess Bezos is not too happy with you these days.
STONE: I didn’t hear it what did it …
RITHOLTZ: Sorry, I don’t have an answer to that.
STONE: All right. We’re going to have to — I’m going to have to — get it to fix it. Did you see in the new book, I slipped out the identify of the voice of Alexa?
STONE: I was very proud of that.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. That was really interesting. It’s a woman who’s a voiceover artist in Colorado, is that right?
RITHOLTZ: What’s her name?
STONE: Right. Name Nina Rolle. And I’d recall that the identity of Siri had been unveiled a couple years ago. And so I was very curious, OK, who’s voice is springing from Alexa.
RITHOLTZ: And before we move on from the section of what’s been driving Amazon’s growth, I mean, Amazon Web Services is just a monster, isn’t it?
STONE: It’s — there’s a — I think it’s a $50 billion run rate with — it’s a 10-year-old division inside Amazon. It’s — yes, and it’s changed the way companies and universities and governments compute and run their businesses.
It’s created massive new business opportunities from Microsoft and IBM and Google. It is — and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
So, when you — when you think about Bezos who really had some of the initial ideas and Andy Jassy’s success running it over the past 10 years, yes, it’s been remarkable.
RITHOLTZ: Earlier, we were talking about some of the drivers of growth of Amazon. There are two other areas that help drive growth but not without some problems and let’s talk about both of them.
The first is the third-party market, sort of turning Amazon into a quasi-eBay in some ways. Tell us a little bit about what did opening Amazon up to basically anyone who wants to sell goods on their site?
I would say in the first years, it was pretty positive. I mean, creating a third-party marketplace added selection and added product categories that Amazon wasn’t going to touch itself. Create — it minted a lot of success, particularly in the West.
And the key turning point in the story that I’m telling in the book in the chapter devoted to marketplace, is when Amazon quite consciously, in about 2015 started pursuing the global selling opportunity. Bezos saw companies like Alibaba, with AliExpress, and a start-up called wish.com. Basically, conducting it from a geographic arbitrage allowing sellers and manufacturers in China and other — other parts of the world that sell in the west.
And to lower — we lower prices and increase selection. And they — they pursued path in a very Amazon-like way, building system and self-service systems and translation tools, aggregating inventory and lowering the cost of ship and then suddenly, the mark-up place tilts in favor of overseas seller and you have a lot of disgruntled sellers in the west and explosion selection, lower prices, and all kinds of chaos, counterfeits, fraud, exploding hoverboards, and perhaps a real depreciation in the quality of products that are sold on Amazon (ph).
RITHOLTZ: Right. That’s where I wanted to get to is that, look, my first Amazon purchase was when my — a college roommate gave me a gift certificate in ’98 and actually hunted down what that first purchase was in December 1998. Burn Rate was the book.
But I’m kind of surprised at after working so hard to maintain quality and to guarantee lowest prices and to guarantee a very high level of customer service, suddenly there’s just fakes and stuff that’s poorly made and falls apart. You mentioned the hover board.
A number of houses had burned down and half of the — you write in the book, half of the houses that burned down, due to hoverboard fires, they were purchased on Amazon. How did the company respond to — to this problem?
STONE: Well, in terms of the hoverboard challenge, I mean, they stopped selling them a little -a little bit too late and now they’re involved in endless litigation. And in terms of the overall problems of fraud and counterfeit and fake reviews, they’ve been a very Amazon and Silicon Valley-type way, they’ve created systems. They’ve tried to use technology to an artificial intelligence that — to weed out fraud and to increase the level of the quality of sellers on the platform.
RITHOLTZ: And …
STONE: With, I think, some mixed results.
RITHOLTZ: On a related issue to that, I recall sending an email to Bezos after — I’m trying to remember which Michael Lewis book it was that had come out — maybe it was “Flash Boys” or the “Big Short” and I was — it had to be after the Kindle because there were all these one-star reviews of a Michael Lewis book because the Kindle release was set by the publisher to take place like three months or six months later.
It was — it was …
RITHOLTZ: And after the book published. It was kind of insane that these Kindle fan boys were one-starring reviews. Since then, we’ve had like a much bigger problem with reviews, fake reviews, purchase reviews. How is Amazon responding to that? My takeaway, I just can no longer rely on reviews. I just assume most of them are nonsense.
STONE: That’s true. And I — as an author whose sales are taking place predominately in Amazon, again, it has the — I just — I just saw a, I think, it was a two-star review because somebody felt that there were fingerprint smudges on the cover. It was like, you got to be kidding me.
But, what is Amazon doing?
RITHOLTZ: That’s amazing.
STONE: Yes. I mean, I think they’ve done a couple things. They prioritized actual purchases. There are reviews from people …
RITHOLTZ: Verified reviewers, right.
STONE: Yes. Verified reviewers. But this also, I think, lowered the significance of reviews. And when — when you think back a couple years ago and this leads into to advertising, the search engine was this taxonomy of the useful products that a very secretive amazon algorithm would order and one of the big variables was that the number and the quality of reviews that a product got.
STONE: And, of course, that just opens it up to third-party sellers gaming the system, buying fake reviews, generating their own and that variable ended up being less useful. And now, it’s basically — the Amazon search results are essentially pay for play from people by search ads to appear there and reviews are no longer supported.
RITHOLTZ: The advertising is a little bit of a fail also because I was searching for a lithium battery the other day. It’s number 3450. And up pops Duracell and I click it and buy it and it’s only after it arrives that I realize this isn’t the 3450. This is the 3023. Why would that show up in a search for a very specific — and so I’ve kind of learned be aware of sponsored results.
And really, it’s best to start your search off of Amazon. I never approach Amazon shopping that way. Now, it’s look for what you want to get and then if Amazon has it, great. But don’t begin your search on Amazon. I wonder are they trading off advertising revenues for sales?
STONE: I’ve come with a story of the evolution of the ad business inside Amazon and the decision to move sponsored search results up to the top — sponsored listings to the top of search results was a very specific decision made by Bezos. And I think he understood how profitable the search business could be inside Amazon and simply wanted the cash to go — to make his investments in Prime Video and satellite Internet access and the other ambitious plans that he has. They saw that it would lead to a decrease in customer satisfaction.
I believe that this might even be seen as a turning point in Amazon’s history.
STONE: He judged that the impact on customer satisfaction would have to be so large as to outweigh the benefit that Amazon would be getting. I call this the gold mine in the backyard. But I do think there are some costs.
And I just did a lithium battery search, the one, Barry, that you just described and it’s a mess. How could you ever …
RITHOLTZ: Yes. No. It’s a debacle. Absolutely.
STONE: Yes. It’s all sponsored in private label brands and I have just absolutely no idea here what …
RITHOLTZ: Right. If you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, the Amazon search is, as often as not, unhelpful. Let’s talk about two of the biggest failures and I’m going to use those terms loosely, a new one and an old one, the latest debacle, HQ2, I mean, how tone deaf was that? That was just such an avoidable self-inflicted wound. How did they blow that so badly?
STONE: So, it’s interesting, I have a chapter in the book about HQ2 …
STONE: … and one, I think, easy answer is that the political environment kind of drastically changed under them as they embark on this search, which lasted much longer than they thought. And it starts with a kind of political earthquake in Seattle, the city council turning hostile.
STONE: Amazon being blamed for all sorts of ills and Bezos think looking at Elon with the Gigafactory in Nevada and Foxconn in Wisconsin and thinking this process is going to underscore who wants us.
And in that year plus as they do this, Amazon hit the trillion dollars in the market cap. Bezos becomes the wealthiest person in the world, AOC gets elected but progressive political movement gathers in and the techlash begins.
And as they announced New York City and Washington, D.C., they realize that it’s not just going to be expression of who wants us, it’s going to be verdict about the role that tech companies and even big companies are playing in our communities. So, that’s a much different discussion than the one they wanted to have.
RITHOLTZ: So, two things about that, I’m going to push back a little bit.
RITHOLTZ: First, techlash had been ramping up for a good couple of years before HQ2. Remember, 2016, Bernie Sanders almost beat Hillary Clinton to be the nominee.
So, issues of wealth inequality and income inequality and the haves and have-nots, I mean, that’s been an ongoing discussion for at least since the great financial crisis.
RITHOLTZ: It certainly accelerated. But the other thing is when you look at when they started the search, they were already a giant and wildly successful company. It just seems — and kudos to Scott Galloway at NYU who basically said, all these things are affronts and the areas that are going to win are going to be where the CEO has a home or wants to live.
STONE: He was right.
RITHOLTZ: And he literally said it would either be New York or D.C., and lo and behold, it was both. So, the question is why not be — are they just at — at a certain point, you become so wealthy, you’re just out of touch.
RITHOLTZ: Why not say, hey, we’re going to come in and here’s what we’re going to do for the community and we’re going to build a waterfront park and we’re going to help expand mass transit and we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that. This looks like it was just sold so poorly.
STONE: Yes. And I want to actually agree with you that were some quite clear and visible signs the political climate have shifted. But I think it’s a function of how reclusive and maybe self-absorbed Bezos and other Amazon executives were. So, they just kind of failed to see it.
STONE: And the fact that they wanted to be wooed by communities but I think you’re making a pretty good point, which is that they actually are going to be the ones that would have to do the wooing and seeing 230 regions prostate themselves — I’m sorry, prostrates themselves in front of Amazon, a big wealthy technology company just unseemly …
RITHOLTZ: I think you had it right the first time.
STONE: Exactly. Exactly. Yes.
RITHOLTZ: It’s amazing. And then the other failure I have to talk about which is kind of shocking is Blue Origin has just been a mess. From day one, it was preordained to fail. How could you say we’re going to set up a private company to reinvigorate space travel but we’re going to do it on the cheap? It just — it’s so opposite of the Amazon approach. What was he thinking?
STONE: Yes. Well, this is — he sets up Blue Origin in 2000. He is a relative pauper by today’s standards in terms of his wealth and there’s the old saying in the space business that the quickest way to become a millionaire is to start off as a billionaire.
So, I think he went into it knowing that building rocket is not for the faint of heart.
STONE: And so, right, he sets out that constrained the investment to keep the headcount small. He’s going to privately fund it and he’s going to think long term, all the sort of Bezos hallmarks. And what happened is Elon Musk comes in and literally search going quickly, raising money from venture capitalists, funding SpaceX with government contracts and Bezos’ approach seems kind of meager and tame in response. Then Bezos changes gears and starts selling $1 billion worth of Amazon stock every year to fund it and sees a lot of dysfunction at the company.
RITHOLTZ: Right. Yes. The dysfunction was ongoing. This data point you mentioned in the book that was mind blowing, Elon Musk’s SpaceX wins a contract for $440 million. But like so many Defense Department and government contracts, there are some price overrides and he ends up, according to an inspector general, getting paid $7.7 billion went to SpaceX, which makes every time he complains kind of laughable …
STONE: Yes. I mean — right. I think that’s more that that first – that was the first installment to have a contract than then kind of continued to evolve and that Bezos was looking back and go, we should have bid on this. He was ultimately, I think, jealous, probably a strange position for Jeff Bezos to be in, that Musk was getting paid to play.
STONE: They have similar dreams in space and here, the government is funding SpaceX and its ambitions and helping Elon scale the company and Bezos was still shelling out personally for Blue Origin.
RITHOLTZ: Amazing. And our final discussion on failure, they had an internal process of reviewing employees called stack ranking that led to what you described as a, quote, “informal cruelty” unquote, that is definitional for the company’s corporate culture. Explained what that was about and why they ultimately have to change it.
STONE: Right. And different companies have experimented with different versions of this. Bezos, early on, never wanted Amazon to become a country club, a place where employees got comfortable. He was particularly worried in the fulfillment center and said if people stuck around for too long, they could be susceptible to organizing efforts from unions.
And the review process really encouraged managers to evaluate and then dismiss the lowest performers. And this is a management practice that has wreak havoc everywhere, Microsoft, the General Electric, et cetera.
STONE: There were — there was one element that led to I think this sort of negative evaluations at Amazon’s culture. That was the theme and the never-ending story that was a high-profile “New York Times” article in 2015. And, yes, I think after the Times article, they reevaluated it.
I still get reports periodically that a form of it still exists and Amazon so big of a company right now, there are lots of different pockets of employee experiences and reviews.
But I think this is part of the Bezos’ philosophy. He wants people to come to Amazon to have the most productive years of their career, to move at breakneck speed and when they slow down, to move. He doesn’t mind that. Even the compensation systems are certain geared towards avoiding people becoming extraordinarily — so extraordinarily wealthy that they stop being motivated.
And, yes, it is interpreted as a kind of informal cruelty among some people and it’s why disgruntled former Amazon employees are not a rare species.
RITHOLTZ: To say the least. Let’s talk a little bit about some really fascinating things with Bezos, including one of my favorite memes circulating Twitter is a photo of him in 1998 sort of bookish-looking with glasses and then there’s a photo from I think it was Sun Valley where he’s kind of jacked in a vest and shirt strolling confidently towards the viewer and it was Amazon Prime and that was everywhere for a while. Tell us about the transformation of Bezos from a sort of Wall Street geek into an overlord.
STONE: Right. Well, the physical transformation is only the most obvious part of it, right? The guy has been working and getting in shape. And in the first book, I ascribed that from a former friend to his interest in one day going to space and so he was trying to stage it.
STONE: Now, I think it’s more — I suspect it’s more the billionaire fixation with longevity and health. But, again, that’s only part of it. His eyes have opened up to a larger world beyond Amazon and that, via his ownership of the “Washington Post” and participation in Washington, D.C. society …
RITHOLTZ: And Hollywood.
STONE: … the space company, Hollywood, right, throwing parties. He simply seems to enjoy the lifestyle, the extravagance that comes with his position much more than he ever did.
And the greatest symbol of this, I never thought Jeff Bezos, even 2010, would be a yacht guy, someone who’s spending time on big boats. And now, as I report in the book, he’s building this massive three-mast …
RITHOLTZ: Massive. Massive.
STONE: Massive. With its own support yacht with room for helipad.
RITHOLTZ: With a helipad.
STONE: And I think part of that, the influence of Lauren Sanchez, his partner, and part of it is simply him enjoying the world stage. He is human and the robot — the machine that created Amazon is susceptible to, I guess, some of this human involvement.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. So, you — we already talked MacKenzie Scott, his former wife, gave The Everything Store a one-star review. But her and Bezos’ new girlfriend, Sanchez, could not possibly be more different. She’s very social and outgoing. MacKenzie Scott is a little bit more of introvert and homebody. How much of the divorce comes from him wanting to step out a bit and literally, the wife wanting a quiet night at home?
RITHOLTZ: What’s the genesis of this? Because there wasn’t a whole lot about the divorce other than to say it was already sort of happening before Sanchez ever showed up on the scene.
STONE: I mean, Barry, the easiest answer is we have no idea, right?
STONE: I mean, who really knows what happens in the private confines of that marriage other than to observe what you just said, which is MacKenzie Scott is fiercely private. I think she’s done one interview around the publication of one of her novels. She speaks very carefully in the few medium posts that she’s written about her philanthropic contributions and she didn’t seem to enjoy as much going to the award shows or to the fashion galas as jeff Bezos did.
So, yes, their interest for public attention were diverging, that’s certainly true. In Lauren Sanchez, Bezos has found someone who’s extremely comfortable moving in those circles and yet who — I don’t think it’s ever possible to know what has really — what really happens in a marriage.
RITHOLTZ: To say the least. Let’s talk a little bit — you mentioned “Washington Post” Bezos really helped to drive a huge turnaround at the “Post” and I was kind of surprised to read that the tagline “Democracy Dies in Darkness” was that really a Bezos line?
STONE: Well, if you remember, Barry, that was a line in the speech that Bob Woodward had given quoting …
STONE: … a pre-Watergate era judge and then Bezos have heard that and when he asked Martin Baron and other executives to “The Washington Post” to go find a slogan for the paper, he suggested that it should be something like democracy dies in darkness. And then they spent about a year and probably thousands of — hundreds of thousands of dollars paying branding firms and coming up with ideas and firing them and they basically got back to democracy dies in darkness, which originally they had thought was kind of too dreary and then ended up being perfect for the age of Donald Trump.
STONE: So, yes, it was sort of Bezos’ inspiration but a little bit of, well, hard to call in that era luck but it certainly was for “The Post” right, because …
STONE: … even though Bezos did drive a remarkable turnaround there, they certainly did — they were fortunate by the revival of interest in political news that accompanied the Trump years.
RITHOLTZ: So, it’s interesting because as you read the book, it’s as much about Amazon, the company, as it is about Bezos like a bio of him. Was that the intention or did it just become clear you can’t write about one without writing about the other?
STONE: I think in both books I thought of them as, yes, as both. Since I’m working with limited access to Bezos, they’re predominantly about the company but Jeff is the main character, right, and you can’t — when you peel back the layers of the onion on most major inventions at Amazon, on most big strategic moves, you get to Jeff Bezos and the decision that he made.
And this this book, “Amazon Unbound” is about transformation. It’s the transformation of this company into this monolith that is dominating all of our lives now and our economic reality and then the accompanying transformation of Bezos, right, into the richest men in the world, into this figure on the public stage, the evolution of a tech geek into kind of a business superhero.
And so, yes, they’re really intertwined. I think in some ways they function as biographies for the company and for the man.
RITHOLTZ: So, there’s a quote of his in the book, quote, “You can invent your way out of any box,” unquote, which kind of raises the question, how does he see himself? Is he an inventor? Is he a business founder? Is he a CEO and a leader? What is his self-identified role?
STONE: Yes. That wasn’t easy to answer because he keeps insisting and he did so again in his latest shareholder letter that he’s an inventor. That is how he wants to be seen and it’s funny because I have a colleague at Bloomberg and we’re talking about that and she said, this reminds me a little bit of Taylor Swift who wants to be seen as a songwriter but the world kind of sees her more of a singer and as a performer.
And I think that’s true with Bezos, too. He wants to be seen as an inventor but by his admirers, he will largely be seen, I think, as an operator and entrepreneur, a creator of amazing business value, and by his critics, as a monopolist, right, and the verdict is still out on this. But as an aggregator of extraordinarily wealth and not yet really as a philanthropist whose contribution back has been commensurate with his accomplishments.
STONE: So, yes, he wants to be seen as an inventor and that might be the – the jury is out on that a little bit.
RITHOLTZ: So, when he looks at all of those accomplishments, what does he see as his lasting legacy? How does he want to be remembered with the caveat that he’s still relatively young man and he’s, what, early 50s?
STONE: Well, let’s see. It’s probably mid-to-late 50s, right? Yes, mid-50s right now. I think he wants to be seen as an inventor. I think that he wants to be seen — the last investor letter is really this interesting and impassioned defense of Amazon as a contributor, as a generator of value and he goes one by one talking about the gross merchandise value generated by third-party sellers, the salaries of the third-party workers, how much Amazon shareholders have benefited.
And he’s really trying to reframe the debate, I think, around his own wealth and Amazon’s own power and to shed light on how much value Amazon has created. So, I think he wants to be seen — he wants Amazon’s legacy to be one that has contributed to the economy in positive ways.
And the reason why he’s arguing that so precipitously is because the prevailing sentiment right now at least is that billionaires are bad and in some corners of society, of course, that they represent something untoward in the distribution of wealth in our society, the widening income gap and that big tech companies have come to dominate the economy and that snuff out opportunity for solid businesses.
STONE: And look, I mean, I tried to get into that debate in the book. I think that’s a little bit of a harsh view. Amazon has made some real positive contributions and Bezos has, I think, only beginning to grapple with the fact that his legacy right now is very much contested.
STONE: I mean, he’ll have to probably spend the next couple of years turning that around and making significant contributions and changing people’s mind.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. To say the least. I’m trying to remember where — which document of there is where the — they might have been in defense of something that Bernie Sanders had said. He points out, we employ over a million people with the second biggest job creator in the country, which actually is as good a time as any to talk about what he did with the $15 an hour increase.
This was just a brilliant jujitsu in response to, I think, Bernie Sanders haranguing Bezos. He figured out pretty quickly, hey, this is paying more money. It’s a giant competitive advantage to us. Tell us about how he raised the minimum wage at Amazon to $15 an hour
STONE: Right. And we should note, I mean, a lot of these moves by Amazon, as welcome as they are, are reactions and the fight for $15 an hour is something that started 10 years ago among big companies and fast-food chains. Employee strikes, lots of pressure.
And, yes, Amazon is growing by leaps and bounds over the past two years becoming a more and more prominent employer. The land of public scrutiny is on their relationship with their employees. And at a certain point, I think they realized that they’re going to have to get ahead of it and they do have the resources to get ahead of it in a way that perhaps some of its competition, Walmart and the like, do not.
And so, they raised their wage — I’m sorry, one other thing, Barry, is that as they’re hiring more and more people, hundreds of thousands of people in their fulfillment centers, at a time of economic prosperity and tightness in the labor market, I think they realized they need to sweeten the pot for workers to even just fill those fulfillment centers particularly during the holidays.
And so, $15 an hour, it’s a recruiting mechanism, it’s strategic weapon to bludgeon their competitors over the head who can’t match the rate and then it’s a little bit of a defense to the — for the activists and the politicians like Bernie Sanders who are criticizing Amazon’s relationship with their employees.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. He went away for a little while. Eventually, he started coming back, Bezos. But for a while, he was pretty satisfied. Let’s talk about another jujitsu that was so brilliantly played. Lauren Sanchez’s brother got access to a variety of texts and then went about selling them to the “National Enquirer.” He claimed that he had a nude selfie, quote-unquote, “below-the-belt selfie.” That turned out not to be so true and Bezos just completely upended what looked like being trapped in a box. Tell us a little bit about that incredible escaping act.
STONE: Yes. Right. This is one of those episodes that I couldn’t quite believe I was going to be writing about. Bezos has tangled (ph) with the “National Enquirer.” You mentioned Lauren Sanchez’s brother delivering those text messages to the paper.
He thought he was trying — well, the couple was sort of conducting their relationship out in the open and, for whatever reason, he decided that he wanted to try to get ahead of it. He was also paid quite well by the “Enquirer” for the information.
And it’s almost impossible to believe, Bezos — well, it’s a really complicated saga. I don’t know how far you want me to go back. But the “Enquirer” was very susceptible to accusations that they had political motives and Bezos and his representatives had been floating the possibility that they were doing the work for the Trump administration to embarrass Bezos as an owner of “The Washington Post.”
And in the negotiations, the “Enquirer” essentially was threatening Bezos with the release of all of these embarrassing photos saying, you have to stop accusing us of having political motives, it wasn’t politically motivated at all, simply good story, and then Bezos turns around and publishes all those emails and suggests that there were political motives and suggests that Saudis were involved and sympathy swing to his side. It was this brilliant move.
If people remember that episode at all, they probably think Bezos did the right thing. And as I untangled it, I sort of — at least I concluded that there weren’t political motivations that the Saudis weren’t involved.
STONE: They may have hacked Bezos’ phone, we kind of don’t know, but it was simply a sort of brilliant PR master stroke and the editor at “Enquirer” ended up getting fired. And I think we — there was my excerpt in Bloomberg BusinessWeek and the cover line was Bezos wins again and, of course, because he did, right?
STONE: And this is one where, by all measures, he should have been embarrassed and he kind of came out on top.
RITHOLTZ: The “New York Post” with another memorable headline, Bezos Exposes Pecker” referring to David Pecker who was the editor of the “Enquirer” and had already been under pressure because of the catching kill deals they had done to protect Donald Trump and where some of — I don’t remember what the problem was. I guess that’s a violation of campaign finance laws and he was sort of in limbo with the Southern District, is that what you placed there?
STONE: Right. Yes. They had an non-prosecution agreement with the Southern District of New York that required AMI, the company that operated the “National Enquirer,” to be a good citizen, to not break the law, to play by the rules.
And so when “The Washington Post” and Gavin De Becker, Bezos’ representative, started insinuating that the “Enquirer” was doing the work of the Trump administration to embarrass Jeff Bezos, that was sensitive for AMI.
STONE: And Pecker wanted Dylan Howard, the Head of the “Enquirer,” to kind of settle the matter.
RITHOLTZ: Right. That’s just an incredible story and I guess the lesson is if you’re in the business of challenging wealthiest people in the world with lots of resources, you probably don’t want to do it while you’re on double secret probation. It’s probably been the …
STONE: There’s a line from “The Wire” that I love in this context, “If you come at the King, you better not miss.”
STONE: And they came at the king and they missed.
RITHOLTZ: Before we get to our favorite questions, I have to ask you some recent news that came out after the book was published. What do you make of this $8.4 billion purchase of MGM? Is this about Amazon Prime or is this about Bezos getting to hang with Hollywood royalty?
STONE: Well, he can hang with Hollywood royalty without MGM.
STONE: It’s about intellectual property. It’s about the vault of franchises, the deep vault that MGM has, “James Bond,” the “Rocky” series, “Legally Blonde,” et cetera, “Robocop.”
Amazon is facing the likes of Disney Plus and Apple not just Netflix or Paramount, Peacock Network, and franchises are going to be a big differentiator. In addition, we talked about the advertising business and with MGM, Amazon gets its vault of this catalog of archival programming. They can funnel all that into Prime video and into another streaming service, IMDb TV, which is free to use, and is supported by advertising.
STONE: And this is like — these are cable stakes now in the new streaming where it’s being able to mince (ph) franchises and have very deep catalogs and libraries of archival programming.
RITHOLTZ: Really interesting. All right. For our last regular question, I’m just going to throw a curveball at you …
RITHOLTZ: … and say, congratulations on winning the Amazon Whole Foods sweepstakes.
STONE: OK. I love story. Yes, Thank you, Barry. I’ll just …
RITHOLTZ: $10,000, right, is that correct?
STONE: Yes. I’m working on this book and I got a call telling me that I won a Whole Foods sweepstakes and I had never entered any. But apparently, if you use your Amazon credit card at a Whole Foods, you got entered in and what are the chances, I won. And I thought it was a fraud.
RITHOLTZ: Right. It sounds like a telemarketing scam.
STONE: Totally. And I think, OK, I’m going to look into this because somebody is abusing the Amazon name. And I find out that it’s real and, of course, I didn’t accept it but it was just so peculiar. I mean, what are chances. I can be eating free at Whole Foods now but sadly, my journalistic obligations prevented me from accepting it.
RITHOLTZ: That’s pretty hilarious. All right. Let’s jump to our favorite questions that we ask all of our guests and let’s start with, and I asked this to everybody not just to you, what are you streaming these days, give us your favorite Netflix and Amazon Prime shows.
STONE: Interesting. Let’s see. We just started “Halston.” This is the Ewan McGregor …
STONE: … fashion thing on Netflix. We’re only one episode in. I’ll reserve judgment on that. The Michael Douglas series also on Netflix.
RITHOLTZ: “Kominsky Method.”
STONE: “Kominsky Method.” So, they just did Season 3. I love that show.
RITHOLTZ: The opening of the first episode at the funeral is just utterly hilarious.
RITHOLTZ: So good.
STONE: I haven’t been watching a lot of TV. So, those are the two right now.
STONE: I tried — I have young daughters, teenage daughters. I tried to introduce one classic film, “Rain Man” over the weekend, the great Dustin Hoffman film …
RITHOLTZ: Yes. Tom Cruise.
STONE: … and she wanted to stop watching halfway through. So, I don’t know, maybe it’s not as moving for the younger generation.
RITHOLTZ: My experiences is that the younger generation can’t enjoy the pacing, which is so much slower. I mean, unless you go to something like the front page or bringing up baby, the pacing of movies from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s are just so much slower than how rapid the jokes come and how fast explosions come today. It’s a different era and they don’t have the tolerance for that.
STONE: I think that might be true and then exactly the same way as I rejected the movies of my parents’ generation. I’m now on the receiving end.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. No. It’s everything — it’s accelerating. Let’s talk a little bit about your career and mentors, who helped guide and shape your career?
STONE: Well, I think probably the most influential was Steven Levy, a technology writer at “Newsweek” magazine.
STONE: He has written great books about Apple and Facebook and Google and seeing him work in the way he writes was always very inspirational to me. George Hackett was an editor of mine at “Newsweek” magazine. He was quite influential and is a great editor.
And then Josh Tyrangiel, the former editor of “BusinessWeek” who brought me over from “The New York Times” and the way he managed people and his story sensibility, the way he really refreshed “BusinessWeek” when Bloomberg bought it was wonderful to watch.
RITHOLTZ: What are some of your favorite books and what are you reading right now?
STONE: Let’s see. I’m reading “Caste” the wonderful book by Isabel Wilkerson just about how we view racial and income divisions in the United States. That’s been really eye-opening.
I feel like my reading has been eclipsed by self-promotion and book promotion over the past …
STONE: … few weeks. So, I feel like I’m really looking forward to this summer when I get to maybe read some of the other excellent books that have come out this year.
I read a novel “Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro which — who wrote “Remains of the Day.” He’s just such a wonderful author and this book is about — it’s sort of a science-fiction future where people can take home robots and it is such a moving novel. I actually read it and then immediately reread it. And so, that is a book I heartily recommend.
RITHOLTZ: What sort of advice would you give to a recent college grad who was thinking about a career in either investment finance or journalism or both?
STONE: Right. Well, I would have absolutely no advice on the investment finance side of things, Barry. That might be more your preview than mine. On journalism, after maybe waving my hands at them to get them to reconsider, if they were really determined, I would — anyway, I would encourage young journalists to kind of find their lane (ph), find something that they’re passionate about and interested in, go deep on into sort of master the expertism, and then to just be persistent.
In this business, it’s all about persistence and being there after everyone else have left and going a little deeper and asking about last question and digging into another box of files when you feel like you’re exhausted and want to drop. And that’s the key to this business, right? It’s not rocket science. We don’t need PhDs to do it, but often, it’s just sheer curiosity and persistence and absorption and obsession, right?
I mean, I have become, over the past decade, sort of obsessed with understanding how Amazon works and what drives Jeff Bezos and what’s good about it and what’s bad about it. And I think you need that kind of absorption and obsession and curiosity to succeed as a journalist today.
RITHOLTZ: And our final question, what do you know about the world of journalism today you wish you knew when you were first getting started 20 plus years ago, 25 years ago?
STONE: I mean, it’s just such a different environment. I guess I wish I had known how rapidly things would change. I spent the first 10 years of my career as I said earlier in the conversation at “Newsweek” magazine and “Newsweek” does exist and magazines, of course, exist. But that kind of media organization no longer does.
STONE: There was a whole class of journalists who labored in the salt mines so to speak not really reporting and writing and researching and performing support functions. And then every week would be a desperate competitive scramble to get your articles in the magazine.
And I actually think I learned a lot from that. But there’s no replacement for writing and publishing and repeating and reporting and getting out into the world, and those are the kinds of skills that are rewarded in today’s journalistic environment.
And so, I think I might wish that if I was able to foresee the way in which the media climate would change that I had been — that I would have been a little bit more productive in my earlier years where like success at a big magazine, just being at a big magazine like “Newsweek” seemed like a career accomplishment on its own.
STONE: But, of course, that world no longer exists.
RITHOLTZ: We have been speaking with Brad Stone. He is the author of “Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire.” Thanks, Brad, for being so generous with your time.
If you enjoyed this conversation, well, be sure and check out any of our previous almost 400 interviews we’ve done over the past seven years. You can find those at iTunes, Spotify, wherever you get your podcasts.
We love your comments, feedback and suggestions. Write to us at MIBpodcast@bloomberg.net. You can sign up for my daily reads at ritholtz.com. Check out my weekly column on Bloomberg.com/opinion. Follow me on Twitter, @ritholtz.
I would be remiss if I did not thank our crack staff that helps put these conversations together each week, Charlie Vollmer is my audio engineer, Atika Valbrun is our project manager, Michael Boyle is my producer/booker, Michael Batnick is my head of research. I’m Barry Ritholtz, you’ve been listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.