“You won’t have difficulty finding me in a place,” jokes Jeff Bezos, the 50-year-old founder and CEO of Amazon.com, the world’s biggest online retailer. His bald pate and raucous laughter are trademarks for his charismatic personality, but his inventiveness and managerial ability are behind his $30 billion (Rs 180,000 crore) fortune that makes him one of the towering figures of the Internet economy. On his second visit to India amid a slew of opportunities in growth amid obstacles faced in regulation and government policies, Bezos spoke to Hindustan Times in Bangalore in a wide-ranging interview that covered a number of issues that included the Indian market, Amazon’s Fire phones, movie production and his personal buyout of the Washington Post. Edited excerpts.
Q: Is this your first visit to India?
A: I was here five years ago. I was here for two weeks. I was on a business trip. I added a bit of vacation to it and travelled around to see the Taj Mahal. I have four kids. I brought my older son, at that time he was nine years old and brought him with me to all these tourist places together. For the business part I was in Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad The whole trip was terrific and it is good to be back.
I know Amit (Agarwal, Amazon’s India head) extremely well because we have worked side by side for many years in Seattle. Amit has done an unbelievable job in getting Amazon India to a roaring start. He keeps the setting the bar higher and higher because the team keeps on exceeding the target.
Of the all places I went (in the two-week tour five years ago) I really liked Varanasi. It was just amazing. There is so much to see there.
Q: You have a famous laugh?
A: Nobody has to really wonder `Where is Jeff’. I am easy to find. Just listen for a moment. (laughs)
Q: Do you understand that India is a culturally different market?
A: Every country that we do business in is unique in its own ways. India is very, very unsual. But so is every other place where we do business. They have their own rules, own regulations, own cultural idiosyncracies. One thing that is super unsual about India is that there are so many small and medium businesses. One of the things that this (Amazon India) team has done is to put together a marketplace and the infrastructure to really make it easier for these offline small and medium enterprises to participate in the digital e-commerce eco-system. They (the Amazon India team) has invented is called the `Easy Ship’ system. This team here is doing so much invention that I think some of these we will be able to export to the rest of the world. “Easy Ship” is an example of these processes and practices which are built on the top of technology. We do not do much that is not encoded in software some way or another.
Q: Amazon is doing everything from hardware to movie production? What exactly is the company’s DNA?
A: The only thing that is a common thread in all of these is that in each case we start with the customer and work backwards. In each of arenas our approach is to be customer-centric. We are very focused on being customer-obsessed. The other two big principles: We have a willingness to invent—we like to invent, we like to pioneer, we like to try doing new things that also means that we have to be ready and willing to fail because you can’t try new things if you are not willing to fail. We also have the willingness to take the long-term approach. Some of the things that we have done, we never could have done if we weren’t willing to be patient.
Q: You are making Fire phones and tablets after Kindle. How are you actually going to make money on them?
A: We are now in the seventh generation of the Kindle. Kindle was by far the most successful e-reader in the world and continues to do extraordinarily well. This is a team that is willing to experiment, willing to try new things, not building me-too products—there is so much going on there….Our business model is to sell the devices at roughly break even and when people use the devices we have opportunities to do e-commerce on them
Q: Are you going to be making home networking gizmos? We hear you have hired people for that.
A: I can’t talk about our product roadmap because we keep it very, very close.
Q: When are we going to see an Everything Store from Amazon in India?
A: Depends on what you mean by the `everything store.’ Even in the US when we started 19 years ago, there are still a lot of products that we don’t offer. I guess this is not just about India but about whole world where we are still decades away. If you look at `Kindle’ our vision is that every book ever printed in any language should be all available in 60 seconds. We are decades away from achieving that goal. A lot of these are multi-decade visions and we keep making progress on them. India is off to a great start with 18 million products on offer already. In every category you can imagine they (Amazon India team) is making great progress in a very unique way by partnering with small and medium businesses. If we had this conversation a year ago, and if you asked me how the India business was going, I would be `optimistic’. But if you ask me today, I already know that is going great.
Read: No obstacles to growth in India, says Jeff Bezos
Q: You are saying there are no regulatory problems ?
A: Everywhere we do business, there are unique regulations. Every country has its own unique rules and regulations. Seen from the outside, they always seem unusual and different. Our job is to adapt ourselves to whatever rules and regulations local countries have. India is no different. The specific regulations are different in every country, but it is totally normal that there are such regulations. It is our job to adapt ourselves to regulations. If the FDI rules (in India) change may be we will be doing many more things for small manufacturers. The countries decide that the rules are and we adapt ourselves to these rules. Ultimately the Indian government is going to decide what the rules are.
Q: Isn’t the ban on FDI in e-commerce constricting Amazon’s expansion in India? Are you going to be meeting government officials on this matter?
A: So far the results would say that they are just fine. I would always welcome the opportunity to meet with him (Prime Minister Narendra Modi), but he is not here. You could say the PM in the US while I am here. We are preserving some balance in the world by switching places (laughs) I don’t personally get involved in these matters. We have teams, people who meet with regulators and discuss these things and share their opinions. We do that all over the world.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at Orion Mall. (Source: Kashif Masood)
Q: So you don’t see obstacles to growth in India? And were you not late in entering the Indian market?
A: I look at the results that this (India) team is achieving and I don’t see any obstacles. I would think this is not my place to say one model is better than the other. Judging by the results we have achieved, it seems like we have entered exactly at the right time because it is working really well.
Q: Would you look at acquisitions in India? Can they be for size or scale?
A: Mostly our growth is organic. That’s true not just in India, but everywhere. We have a very organic-focused growth strategy. We do acquisitions from time to time. We do buy because there is something unique (in the companies) If there were opportunities in India, we will certainly look at those. Almost every company that we have acquired were led by missionaries—people who have the same kind of customer-centric approach. But the baseline growth is going to be driven organically.
Q: What do you think of your competition (like Flipkart, Alibaba)?
A: I have a strongly held belief that one of the reasons that Amazon has been successful is because we do not obsess over competitors. Instead we obsess over customers. We just stick to that and that’s a big part of the culture at Amazon. We have been doing it for 19 years and it has worked.
Q: Would you like to say anything on Narendra Modi?
A: What I can tell you is he (Modi) has, as far as I can assess, a very positive international reputation. People all over the world see him as a constructive and practical. I think people think India has a good leader. But I am not contrasting the current Prime Minister with any former Prime Minister of India.
Q: How do you see your $2 billion investment in India?
A: It is a big amount. We wouldn’t invest such a big amount it the model wasn’t working. There is also lot to invest in.We have a lot of ideas and a lot of opportunities in infrastructure, mobile, customer acquisition and category expansion. There are just tonnes of opportunities.
Q: You have a deep interest in space and a project, Blue Origin. How is it going?
A: You are first people to ask me this question. I am a big fan of space research. I have followed with great interest (India’s) Mars Orbiter mission. India’s accomplishment in the Mars orbiter mission is just incredible. There should be a lot of national pride in that. If you follow space you would know how hard that is.
Our vision of Blue Origin is that one day there will be millions of people working and living in space. For that to happen we need to make space travel much less expensive and much safer. Those are the two primary objectives of Blue Origin.
Q: You seem to be turning producer, with a do-it-yourself Hollywood (in financing shows) and a successful online show in Transparent?
A: Amazon Studio is completely populated with professional content producers. These are experienced people who know what they are doing. We also like to do things differently. We have invented this novel pilot process where we create series of pilots and release them at the same time and let customers vote and give their views on which pilot should be made into a full series. It is like the whole world is your focus group. Then we use this data with human judgement. Once we fund something, we step back. That has been working extremely well. `Transparent’ has got remarkable critical reviews.
Q: And how does that tie up with your personal purchase of Washington Post?
A: I am a missionary in doing things in new and inventive ways. I love Amazon Web Services (cloud computing service) because that team is completely reinventing how competition is done. My favourite day is when I sit in a series of meetings discussing new ideas of what we are going to do in the future. I am super optimistic about it (Washington Post). The Internet can be used to energise what is already a terrific news gathering operation. This could be done across the world. I am super excited about that and for me it is another opportunity.
Q: Where do you see movie making or news media, five years from now?
A: This is an extremely good question. You can only answer that question if you identify the most important fundamental thing about the endeavour in question. So, about Amazon, ten years from now no customer is going to say `I love Amazon, I wish it delivered more slowly’. Fast delivery is a fundamental desire of customers. You have to find things that are stable in time. About news organisations, nobody is ever going to say ten years from now I wish the “Washington Post” was a little more boring. So, the number one rule is you have to be interesting. The fundamental thing that is not going to change about Amazon Studios is that at the end of the day it is about storytelling and how do we tell better stories.
Q: Which reminds us, Deutsche Post has beaten you in using drones for delivery of goods.
A: I am super excited about drones. The hardest part of that is going to be the regulatory part, getting permission to use the drones. We are going to be working with regulators all over the world to make sure that we end up with rules that keep people safe.