Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book review: One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com

For anyone born after 1990, Amazon.com is one of the givens of life. But when the company was started in 1994 there was no Internet commerce yet, and there was no guarantee CEO Jeff Beezos’ vision for an Internet bookstore would succeed. One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com seeks to answer the question of how Bezos not only succeeded but has come to dominate — and fundamentally change — the book business and shopping itself.

Author Richard L. Brandt begins by discussing the "1-Click" ordering method available on Amazon, which illustrates both Bezos’ genius and his competitive drive. The idea that the customer experience on Amazon should be as seamless as possible is Bezos’ brilliant motivating idea. The easiest way to buy would be to do so with one click of the mouse. Hence, 1-Click.

Bezos patented 1-Click, even though to many of his competitors it seemed obvious, and patents are not supposed to be granted for obvious processes. They tried to get the patent reversed, but Bezos won and used it to sue others, Barnes & Noble among them, to keep any other online retailer from allowing buying with just one click.

One Click visits Bezos’ childhood to find some answers about how he came by his success. Although he learned self-reliance on his grandfather’s ranch in Texas, Bezos was a nonetheless a geek. He took computer science early on and honed his skills at Princeton. His first jobs were in computerizing Wall Street processes in the late 1980s, where he succeeded fantastically, more due to his intellect rather than his people skills. Bezos always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur, however; he was just gaining experience and waiting for the right opportunity.

The opportunity arrived with the Internet. What follows in One Click is a fascinating look at how Amazon got started and grew making use of the money available during the Internet bubble, pursuing Bezos’ early watchwords: “get big fast.” In doing so, he correctly predicted that Amazon would be too far ahead for competitors to catch up.

Bezos and Amazon are still doing their thing, now trying to dominate the market for e-books and e-readers. Naturally, One Click is out of date on this and other aspects of the story that have changed recently (think Borders going out of business). Given the topic, there’s no way the book could have kept up.

The book is a slight 191 pages and short in stature, making it a quick read. While footnoted and indexed, it may not cover much new ground to those who have followed Amazon from the start. Brandt, who comes off as a Bezos admirer if not a fan, gives little attention to what it can be like to work for the guy (he drives his employees and isn’t always nice). Brandt allows that Amazon’s phenomenal success may be based in part on timing, but he clearly thinks luck played a small part.

As someone who didn’t follow Amazon except as a customer, I found the book both entertaining and interesting. I enjoyed learning about Bezos’ personal history, and the book serves as a fine introduction to the era of the dot.com boom.

Article first published as Book Review: One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com by Richard L. Brandt on Blogcritics.

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