When famed Kleiner Perkins investor John Doerr first visited Amazon’s small Seattle headquarters in June 1996, he was surprised to see office desks made from wooden doors.
“It’s a deliberate message,” Bezos explained. “Everyone in the company has them. It’s a way of saying that we spend money on things that affect our customers, not on things that don’t.
Convincing people to do the impossible is possible, but it requires every device in your communication toolbelt. Symbols are powerful and just one of many communication devices that fueled Amazon’s growth.
For my book, “The Bezos Blueprint,” I interviewed more than two dozen CEOs, entrepreneurs, investors, and Amazon partners who Bezos inspired with his long-term vision, extraordinary communication skills, and intentional strategies to align teams around a common mission.
1. Use metaphors to simplify complex ideas.
Symbols are often physical manifestations of metaphors. A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things to highlight their similarities.
Bezos, a student of storytelling and communication, understood the power of simple metaphors to explain new or complex ideas. For example, he named his company Amazon after the South American river. The Amazon isn’t just a large river. It’s the biggest river in the world by volume. It was a perfect metaphor for Bezos’ vision to expand beyond books and offer customers the world’s largest selection of products.
For over two decades, Bezos put his thoughts in writing through annual shareholder letters, nearly 50,000 words in all. Few business leaders use metaphors as skillfully as Bezos demonstrates in his letters. He built flywheels to power Amazon’s growth. He planted seeds that grew into massive business enterprises. He created two-pizza teams, explained why failure and invention are inseparable twins, and hired missionaries over mercenaries. And those metaphors are just the tip of the iceberg.
2. Build a writing culture.
In July 2004, Bezos made a decision that shocked his leadership team. He banned PowerPoint. He replaced PowerPoint with written memos, Amazon’s now famous ‘six-pagers.’
Bezos made the switch after reading a paper by Edward Tufte, a pioneer in the field of data visualization. Tufte argued that bullet points on slides are poor decision-making tools. “Sentences with subjects and verbs are usually better,” according to Tufte.
Narrative is to Amazon what an engine is to a Ferrari. Of course, a Ferrari is instantly recognizable for its gorgeous design, but what makes it special is what lies under
the hood. In the same way, narrative writing isn’t solely responsible for Amazon’s outward success, but it powers the engine of innovation.
Almost every groundbreaking Amazon product or feature started its life as a written document: AWS (cloud computing division), Amazon Prime, Amazon Studios, Echo and Alexa, and the Kindle e-reader, among others.
The process of pitching ideas in fully-formed narratives allows you to refine, clarify, and articulate the story you want to tell.
3. Shine a spotlight on the mission.
It’s very difficult to succeed in any endeavor without a very clear vision of what you hope to achieve. In business, it’s called a mission statement.
Mission statements are worthless if employees and teams don’t hear it and live it. A successful mission requires a repeater-in-chief who explains and amplifies the mission at every opportunity.
At Amazon, Bezos played the role of repeater-in-chief, the keeper of the mission. For example, Bezos wrote about the “customer” 506 times across 24 letters, an average of four times per letter.
In his first shareholder letter in 1997, Bezos said Amazon is “obsessed” with the customer. It was the first step in crafting what became the company’s mission in 1999: Amazon is earth’s most customer-centric company.
Remarkably, that mission remains consistent today. Bezos closed his last letter as Amazon’s CEO in 2021 with the reminder, “We have always wanted to be earth’s most customer-centric company. We won’t change that. It’s what got us here.”
Your mission will be different from Amazon’s, but every company needs to stand for something, a purpose beyond its products. Since anything worth building requires a team, you’ll need to attract the best and the brightest. So make your company’s mission irresistible and keep it center stage.