Amazon’s Jeff Bezos offers an important ‘Day One’ message for America
Posted: 2020-07-31 02:44:09    (see more from

One popular critique of America’s Silicon Valley superbillionaires is that while they may live in America, they’re not really of America. The Real America™. Just a bunch of weirdo transhumanists doing weirdo stuff on the Left Coast from LA to Seattle as they climb the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. This is basically the daily message of The Drudge Report.

And there is some truth in that critique, right? Vast wealth may change a person — as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me” — and make it harder to relate to the average American. Of course, who among us would not start a space launch company if we had billions to burn?

But these folks tend to be a bit different even before their success. In the 2019 study “Risk attitudes and personality traits of entrepreneurs and venture team members,” researchers Sari Pekkala Kerr, William Kerr, and Margaret Dalton find that compared to nonfounder CEOs and inventor employees, “entrepreneurs display the greatest tolerance of risk, even in small gambles, as well as the strongest self-efficacy, internal locus of control, and need for achievement.”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos testifies via video conference during a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law on “Online Platforms and Market Power”, in the Rayburn House office Building on Capitol Hill, in Washington, U.S., July 29, 2020. Graeme Jennings/Pool via REUTERS

I mean, sure they’re different. Take Amazon founder and boss Jeff Bezos. In 1994, 30-year-old Bezos was comfortably ensconced in Manhattan with a comfortable apartment on the Upper West Side and a well-paying job at hedge fund D. E. Shaw. But a year later, he was packing books in a windowless basement beneath a Color Tile retail store in Seattle, having already invested $10,000 of his own cash and $100,000 of his parents’ in his fledgling book-selling venture. Even if we had a killer idea, most of us would not take such a career risk and be willing to devote so much time and effort to such an uncertain project.

Bezos told a bit of that story in his opening statement at this week’s House hearing on Big Tech. Two other key things from his presentation. First, Bezos illustrated a point often made by economist Deirdre McCloskey about how humility is a key virtue of market capitalism and capitalists. Successful businesspeople need to listen closely to what their customers say and observe closely how they act. They need to be able to put themselves in the shoes of the customer. Bezos:

In my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the best way to achieve and maintain Day One vitality. Why? Because customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and a constant desire to delight customers drives us to constantly invent on their behalf. As a result, by focusing obsessively on customers, we are internally driven to improve our services, add benefits and features, invent new products, lower prices, and speed up shipping times—before we have to. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it. And I could give you many such examples. Not every business takes this customer-first approach, but we do, and it’s our greatest strength.

That “Day One” reference, by the way, is Bezos-speak about how Amazon should always act like an aware and hungry startup. He mentions the concept again in what to me was the most important part of his testimony for 2020 America:

It’s not a coincidence that Amazon was born in this country. More than any other place on Earth, new companies can start, grow, and thrive here in the U.S. Our country embraces resourcefulness and self-reliance, and it embraces builders who start from scratch. We nurture entrepreneurs and start-ups with stable rule of law, the finest university system in the world, the freedom of democracy, and a deeply accepted culture of risk-taking. Of course, this great nation of ours is far from perfect. Even as we remember Congressman John Lewis and honor his legacy, we’re in the middle of a much-needed race reckoning. We also face the challenges of climate change and income inequality, and we’re stumbling through the crisis of a global pandemic. Still, the rest of the world would love even the tiniest sip of the elixir we have here in the U.S. Immigrants like my dad see what a treasure this country is—they have perspective and can often see it even more clearly than those of us who were lucky enough to be born here. It’s still Day One for this country, and even in the face of today’s humbling challenges, I have never been more optimistic about our future.

A pretty accurate and succinct explanation of the deep magic of American capitalism and innovative dynamism. See, politicians, it’s not so hard!