A Peculiar Company

It was my first interview at Amazon. I was on the phone in an empty 15th floor conference room looking down at the Brooklyn Bridge. Things were going well.

“One final question,” the interviewer said, “Why do you want to work at our peculiar company?”

“Wait! What?” I thought. I asked him to repeat the question. I’d never heard Amazon described that way before. Powerful. Yes. World-renowned. Of Course. But Peculiar? Never.

Amazon is proud of its peculiarity. Jeff says, “As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.” Amazon even has a peculiar unofficial mascot named Peccy—-though I’ve rarely seen it used.

Peccy, Amazon’s Peculiar Unofficial Mascot

This peculiarity is one of Amazon’s core strengths. The company doesn’t strive for peculiarity for peculiarity’s sake. It tries to make the best long-term decisions. In the short-term those decisions might feel uncomfortable or look weird to others. This can make starting at Amazon a jarring experience.

Imagine walking into your first Amazon meeting. It’s in a boardroom with about 20 seats and you’re there to hear about a potential new product. You look to the front of the room where you’d expect to see the presenter with his PowerPoint on the screen. Instead, you see 25 people sitting around a table. They’re all reading silently. You’re wondering when the meeting is going to start. Then someone offers you your own copy of the six-page document and a pen.

This is Amazon’s Document Review process. For the first 20 minutes, everyone silently reads the document and makes their notes. Once everyone is finished, they discuss the document and offer their comments for discussion. Finally, the author takes all of the paper notes and the oral comments and incorporates them in the next version of the document.

The process developed because Jeff didn’t want meetings to be about convincing people that you are right, they should be about coming to the best possible conclusions. Jeff was frustrated with the quality of presentations at his S-Team (the Senior Vice Presidents and Direct Reports to Jeff). They were all trying to sell their ideas to each other with fancy graphics and compelling speeches. Then he read Edward Tufte’s “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within,” and realized that using PowerPoint, a sales tool, for internal meetings leads to poor outcomes. (1)Bryar, Colin. Working Backwards (pp. 85-86). St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.(2)At Amazon, I’d heard a an apocryphal origin story of the six page narrative. Jeff was sitting through a PowerPoint presentation and got impatient. He noticed that the speaker had a set of papers with him and said “I’d like to see those papers.” He found the talking points to be more thoughtful and useful than the presentation. That became the heart of the 6-page narrative.

The document review process is far more useful than PowerPoint. The documents replace the PowerPoint presentations at the beginning of the meeting. They are limited to 6 pages which, at 3 minutes a page, means that the first 20 minutes are taken up by reading. This replaces the 20 minutes at the beginning of the meeting where people present. The other 2/3 of the meeting are for discussion and to refine the concept, often with 100+ comments. People often say, “Why don’t people send out these documents as pre-reads before the meeting? Wouldn’t that be more efficient?” The problem is, that it takes 20 minutes to read this document anyway, so when is everyone going to find this time. It’s actually more efficient for everyone to read the narrative at the meeting. Then you know that everyone has focused time to read these important documents.

Document Review is just one of Amazon’s peculiar behaviors. These behaviors seem a bit strange at first, but upon further reflection, they make a lot more sense. Has a way of talk “common sense” business ideas and flipping them upside down. One of my favorites is from an interview with Jeff at AWS re:Invent, AWS’s annual conference.

“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’

And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time… In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection.

It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible. […] When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

Jeff Bezos at AWS re: Invent

Being peculiar also means that Amazon doesn’t take itself too seriously. At the end of my 3-month long onboarding, the final assignment was to view some of the most unique reviews which show off the crazy, peculiar, and funny culture that is Amazon.(3)As far as I can tell, this started with a Maria Popova story highlighting many of these reviews and then Amazon took ownership of the idea. While Amazon is fanatical about taking down purposely misleading reviews, there’s something wonderful about humorous reviews for products like BIC Cristal For Her Ball Pen (“Is it safe for my husband to use?”) and Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer (“Get this if you’ve ever been frustrated by the chore of slicing babanas!”). Amazon even produced an audio version of these reviews read by celebrities which comes across as a bit clunky, but you’ve got to give them credit for trying.

The Amazon Way of Thinking

Perhaps the most misunderstood concept at Amazon is its approach to failure. People thinks that Amazon likes to fail. Jeff talks about this a lot.

One area where I think we are especially distinctive is failure. I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins.

2015 Letter to Shareholders

Recently, a lot of companies have been fetishizing failure. They use failure as a proxy for innovation and actually court it. I had a previous boss who said, “We should be failing a third of the time or we’re not trying hard enough.”

But it’s not actually about failing, it’s about learning. In order to be successful, companies can’t be afraid to fail. Failing is not an inherently good thing in a company. We should not be looking at failure as something that we want to do. However, we have to be looking at failure as an inherent aspect of growth. Real failure is painful. In order to grow, you need to try your hardest, get knocked down, and get up again. It’s hard but it’s the only way to grow.

Starting at Amazon was hard. It’s not that anyone hazed me—the people were really nice. And it’s not like I was working crazy hours—I’ve worked much longer hours in consulting. It was hard because I was out of shape.

When I started, I was amazed at the people around me. They were able to get so much done! Amazon hires great people but it’s more than that. Amazon teaches people how to continually improve and learn. Starting at Amazon means getting into “learning shape.”

I wasn’t used to this. Most people aren’t. At my previous jobs, the goal was to get my job done, follow the process, and meet my annual targets. At Amazon, I needed to do all of this, but I also needed to continually improve myself. It’s like going to the gym. My boss even told me that working at Amazon is about building up your muscles.

When you go to the gym, it hurts. You’re breaking down your muscles at each workout and they come back stronger. When you’re out of shape, the pain you feel the first days is the worst. At Amazon, it’s not a workout for your body but a workout for your mind.

At Amazon, we’re obsessed with meeting the needs of our customers. We know that our customers will never be satisfied; therefore, everyone needs to continuously improve and learn new things.

“This is a phenomenal thing!” you might say. I want to keep learning. I LOVE learning. But when was the last time you really “did learning.” Maybe in college? But you’ve probably forgotten how hard it is to learn. Learning is about getting B’s and C’s before you get an A. At most companies you’re supposed to get an A on every presentation that you do. But learning is about making mistakes. Learning hurts. In The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch summed it up well, saying, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted.” It’s not fun but it’s true.

Professor Carol Dweck has a good model for the way Amazon differs from other companies. She describes two mindsets, the growth mindset (which is similar to Amazon) and the fixed mindset (similar to most companies).

The Growth (Amazon) Mindset

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. You’re always learning, getting better and adapting to the changing world. Failure is something to learn from, not a judgment of your capabilities or worth as a human being.

People with a growth mindset know that life provides you with many opportunities to improve. They know that it’s not worth worrying about the past and hoping they can fix it. Instead, they focus on learning from experiences (and even seeking experiences) where they don’t perform perfectly.

This all sounds great in theory but it’s a bit scary in practice. Take Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos’s approach to raising their kids. They wanted to make sure that their kids can create and learn as much as possible so they give their kids access to the best tools. This means letting their kids use sharp knives at age 4 and certain power tools at 7 or 8. Why? MacKenzie said, “I’d much rather have a kid with 9 fingers than a resourceless kid.”

Fixed (Typical Company) Mindset

People with a fixed Mindset assume that they are born with a fixed set of capabilities (e.g., intelligence, creativity, artistic ability) at birth. Because these qualities are carved in stone, life is a series of tests to see how strong these capabilities really are. People with a fixed mindset think that you can’t work to achieve something you’re not born with. For example, they might think that the only “real” coders are those with computer science degrees. In the story of The Tortoise and the Hare, they would only hire the naturally talented hare, not the hardworking tortoise.

People (and companies) with a fixed mindset are afraid to fail. Failure is a mark against you, showing that you are less capable than before. These companies say, “Why will we promote the person who fails? We only want successful people here!”

For those of you that like pictures, there’s a great summary of the two mindsets, but I like this tweeted cartoon the best:

At Amazon, we call the growth mindset “Day 1.” In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos talked a lot about the Day 1 (growth) mindset at Amazon and what happens when you move away from that and into a Day 2 (fixed) mindset.

Jeff, what does Day 2 look like?

That’s a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic.

Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.

To be sure, this kind of decline would happen in extreme slow motion. An established company might harvest Day 2 for decades, but the final result would still come.

Amazon 2016 letter to shareholders.

There’s No Compression Algorithm for Experience

The problem with the growth mindset is that it’s hard. You have to try your hardest and be willing to fail. Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services says, “There is no compression algorithm for experience. You can’t learn certain lessons without going through the curve”. Because it’s hard, large companies try to take shortcuts.

In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Jeff talks about how big companies tend to use proxies instead of focusing on what’s really needed—meeting customer needs.

Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.

Large companies might use these shortcuts rather than focusing on learning. One example is an innovation lab that spends tens of millions of dollars experimenting with technology so the company can say, “We are a very innovative company.“ However, these innovations rarely make it out of the lab to serve customers.

Amazon is peculiar because the company does things in the way they feel is the right way. It’s not about following the way that other people do things but being thoughtful and honest about the limitations of people and the company overall and trying to get the most out of them. If you’re trying to make an important decision, let everyone read the document and come to their own conclusions, don’t try to sell things to people. If you want to innovate, you need to accept that you won’t always get it right the first time. Correct that. You’ll never get it right the first time.


1 Bryar, Colin. Working Backwards (pp. 85-86). St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 At Amazon, I’d heard a an apocryphal origin story of the six page narrative. Jeff was sitting through a PowerPoint presentation and got impatient. He noticed that the speaker had a set of papers with him and said “I’d like to see those papers.” He found the talking points to be more thoughtful and useful than the presentation. That became the heart of the 6-page narrative.
3 As far as I can tell, this started with a Maria Popova story highlighting many of these reviews and then Amazon took ownership of the idea.