What Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs Both Said 20 Years Ago

It is not uncommon to see old video footage of Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos on social media. We’re all interested in what these influential leaders of two of the most iconic companies in the world have had to say. What is unusual is to see both of them say nearly the exact same thing in two separate interviews around the same time period. In this interview from 1999, Jeff Bezos articulated his vision for Amazon by saying, “If there is one thing that Amazon.com is about, it is obsessive attention to the customer experience.”  Shortly after Steve Jobs rejoined Apple in 1997, he talked about his vision for the company in this video. In it, he emphasized the need to focus on what incredible benefits they can offer the customer: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” There are three insights from these two remarkably similar videos:

  • The importance of "why"
  • The value of long-term thinking
  • The need to focus on the customer
Having a Clear Purpose The first takeaway from this is the importance of core values and having a powerful "why". Roy Disney once said, "When your values are clear, making decisions becomes easier." On a personal level, if you have big goals that really stretch and challenge you, then your "why" is the thing that will help motivate you to power through the tough times. It even helps you get the boring things done when you'd rather be doing something else. In business, a leader with a clear “why” will be able to not only make decisions with conviction but also will be able to inspire and influence others. Imagine you are leading a sales or marketing team at Amazon in mid-1999 and you have all kinds of ideas for growing the business. Your latest financial request for much-needed advertising dollars was rejected because the company is spending millions to buy yet another huge warehouse. Anyone in that type of situation could become frustrated or disengaged if they did not understand why decisions were being made. Fortunately, Jobs and Bezos were not wishy-washy. Watch those videos and you can feel the passion and singularity of focus. It's contagious and without that, it is really difficult to get buy-in from others.   A Long-Term Vision The second insight is the importance of having a long-term mindset. In the late 90’s, the internet bubble was near its peak, and there was tremendous pressure at that time to be regarded as an internet company. That is why we see the interviewer pressing Jeff Bezos and trying to put Amazon in a box by asking if the company is a “pure internet play.” Bezos responds by saying, “it (that particular label) doesn’t matter to me, what matters to me is providing the best customer service.” Ever heard of Lycos? It was just one of dozens of now-bankrupt companies that sought after the much-coveted status of "pure internet play" in the late 90’s. Current trends – from pure internet plays to robo-advisors - are always alluring but also have the potential to distract a company from its primary goal. Now, more than ever, with the rapid increase in technology and information, there is an ever-present temptation to get wrapped up today's trends or fads and make regrettable short-term decisions. Steve Jobs acknowledged in the video that, earlier in his career, he would start with a cool new technological invention and then try to figure out a way to sell it. It was only through experience that he gained the wisdom to flip the order on that and, instead, start with the needs of the customer and then come up with an innovation required to solve the problem.   Client-Centric Decision Making That leads to the final observation: it's all about serving the customer or client. That may sound cliché, and every company says they do this. But when you start to think of examples of corporate decision-making, you quickly get a sense of how rare this really is. Ever had to change a flight because of a last-minute change of plans? With one or two exceptions, the airlines put short term profits ahead of customers. Often, however, it is more subtle than that... Imagine a company that forms a committee to discuss a new product launch; the brainstorming session is obsessed with how to market the product or who to sell it to. If that same committee were client-centric, that meeting would start with a detailed discussion about having the right capabilities in place to actually deliver on the promise being made to prospective clients. In other words, as Jobs put it, it requires thinking about “what incredible benefits… we give to the customer” and what is required to deliver that experience. That's what is so instructive about the interview with Bezos in particular. He's talking about buying up empty warehouses in the middle of nowhere and he's EXCITED about it. Why? Because he has the end-to-end customer experience in mind and the foresight to realize that the buildings will be a crucial component in delivering an experience that is far beyond what anyone has previously thought possible. Today we click a button and a package is delivered to our front door sometimes in the same day. Or we have thousands of songs and movies on a little device in our pocket. It's easy to just take all of it for granted, but before you touch that screen, think about what made it all possible. It required someone who envisioned something that does not yet exist and had the clarity of purpose and drive to make it happen.