How to build your business on whats not going to change

Image: S. Warren/AP/REX/Shutterstock

He’s been up. He’s been down. At least, that’s what you’d expect.  

Late last month—for six short but glorious hours—Jeff Bezos was officially crowned the world’s richest person. Then, during last Wednesday’s premarket session premarket session, Amazon’s stock dropped by nearly a full percent in the wake of a Tweet from President Trump:   

Image: Twitter screenshot

So far, neither Bezos nor Amazon has responded. Why?  

The reason could be perspective

“I very frequently get the question,” Bezos has famously noted, “‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ 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.’” 

Using that quote as jumping off point, Jeffrey and Bryan Eisenberg’s recent book Be Like Amazon: Even A Lemonade Stand Can Do It presents a narrative-driven account of Amazon’s four unchanging pillars: (1) customer centricity, (2) a culture of innovation, (3) corporate agility, and (4) continuous optimization. 

Be Like Amazon’s parabolic style makes it perhaps the easiest-to-digest examination of what makes Amazon grow. However, for anybody wanting more, 12 books — three for each pillar, two modern and one ancient — can teach you exactly how to build your business on “what’s not going to change.” 

Customer centricity 

When Amazon launched, Jeff Bezos said he wanted to be “Earth’s most customer centric company.” This wasn’t because he thought of customer obsession as something touchy feely. Rather, he understood that data — real, hard numbers — could be used to programmatically learn more about your customer and personalize their experience.

Modern: 

1. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek 

2. Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh 

Ancient: 

3. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith 

First published in 1776 at the outset of the Industrial Revolution, Smith’s text laid the intellectual foundations of free-market capitalism. Although he only used the term once, Smith became best known for his articulation of the “invisible hand” theory — that competition drives both profitability and equilibrium. No business owner can fully understand the shape of today’s consumer-centered global economy without thoroughly digesting this foundational text. 

The value of any commodity, therefore, to the person who possesses it and who means not to use or consume it himself, but to exchange it for other commodities, is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. . . . The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.

Culture of innovation 

Amazon isn’t typically thought of as a “tech” company. And yet, Bezos’ baby spends more on research and development than Google and Apple combined. For years, they’ve pushed the limits by developing in-house tools and spent billions acquiring start-ups. Everything from the Kiva robots that improve their fulfillment operations to a 3D printing marketplace to re-imagining brick and mortar checkouts with Amazon Go. 

Modern: 

4. The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton Christensen 

5. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steve Johnson 

Ancient: 

6. On Innovation: HBR’s 10 Must Reads by Harvard Business Review 

The late 20th Century may not be as ancient as the 18th, but there’s a reason HBR leads off their authoritative text on innovation with Peter F. Drucker’s classic essay, “The Discipline of Innovation.” Heralded as “the man who invented modern management” by Business Week, “The Discipline of Innovation” is the culmination of Drucker’s life work at the forefront of seismic shifts in business. 

In innovation, as in any other endeavor, there is talent, there is ingenuity, and there is knowledge. But when all is said and done, what innovation requires is hard, focused, purposeful work. If diligence, persistence, and commitment are lacking, talent, ingenuity, and knowledge are of no avail.

Corporate agility 

Amazon’s teams are organized for execution. As a rule, they keep them small and cross-functional. Moreover, they’re given autonomy to execute end-to-end without gathering resources or buy-in from other teams. In place of fixed hierarchical structures, Amazon prioritizes three things: (1) allegiance to the data, (2) discovery through experimentation, and (3) a willingness to change course. 

Modern: 

7. The Founder’s Mentality: How to Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth by Chris Zook and James Allen 

8. Exponential Organizations: Why new organizations are ten times better, faster, and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it) by Salim Ismail, Yuri van Geest, and Mike Malone 

Ancient: 

9. The Emperor’s Handbook: A New Translation of The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius 

What do the musings of a 2nd Century Roman emperor have to do with Amazon? In a word: death. As Bezos himself once said, “Life’s too short to hang out with people who aren’t resourceful.” Largely considered to be the most notable popularizer of stoicism, Marcus Aurelius lived his life under the shadow of its end. Rather than blind allegiance to status quo, this focus on the brevity of existence made Aurelius a man acutely aware of his own limitations and ready to take action.  

If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.

Continuous optimization 

Amazon knows that optimization is neither a tactic nor a project but rather a competitive advantage woven into the heartbeat of their business. According to shareholder letters, the company runs over 1,900 experiments each year. This when the typical company struggles to run two to five tests a month. They focus on optimizing every process: marketing, fulfillment, inventory management, and finance. There are no sacred cows that cannot be improved.  

Modern: 

10. Hacking Growth: How Today’s Fastest-Growing Companies Drive Breakout Success by Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown 

11. The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer By Jeffrey K Liker  

Ancient: 

12. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume 

A contemporary of Adam Smith, David Hume was one-part scientist and one-part epistemologist. In other words, he not only studied but revolutionized the way modern society acquires knowledge. Skeptical of superstition as a source for truth — i.e., inherited knowledge — An Enquiry presented the most comprehensive application of the scientific method of its time. Modern businesses of every kind stand to gain much from embracing those same rigorous standards. 

To begin with clear and self-evident principles, to advance by timorous and sure steps, to review frequently our conclusions, and examine accurately all their consequences; though by these means we shall make both a slow and a short progress in our systems; are the only methods, by which we can ever hope to reach truth, and attain a proper stability and certainty in our determinations.

There’s nothing ‘new’ about Amazon 

If there’s one thing that Be Like Amazon: Even A Lemonade Stand Can Do It and the other 12 books mentioned above makes clear … it’s that innovation and disruption are anything but new. 

Instead, the pillars that led to Jeff Bezos’ six hour reign as the richest person in the world echo the words of another man who also wore that title, this time from roughly 2,500 years ago: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” 

Well, except maybe presidential Tweets. But with the right perspective, even that won’t shake you. 

Aaron Orendorff is the founder of iconiContent and a regular contributor at Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, Fast Company, Business Insider and more. Connect with him about content marketing (and bunnies) on Facebook or Twitter.

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