Jeff Bezos’s legacy, according to 11 experts

Jeff Bezos’s legacy, according to 11 experts
Image: Bárbara Abbês for Quartz / Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Reuters
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In a few months, Jeff Bezos will step down as CEO of the sprawling empire that he founded nearly 27 years ago, taking on the role of executive chairman. Amazon is the fourth most valuable US company, as of this writing, the second largest US employer, and has had the second best performance of any stock since going public in 1997. More than any other company, it has taught the world to buy things online.

How will we remember the Bezos era? Tech analyst Ben Thompson has called him “arguably the greatest CEO in tech history,” and the financial data backs that up. Harvard Business Review’s CEO rankings put Bezos first in financial performance among S&P 1200 executives every year from 2014 to 2019. (The magazine did not publish a ranking in 2020.) But when it added social and environmental performance to its ranking in 2015, Bezos fell from first to 87th.

That drop points to the difficulty of assessing Bezos’s legacy, at least so far. Should we remember him as a customer-obsessed founder? A long-term thinker and an internet visionary? A 21st century robber baron? A union buster? Is he an enabler of small businesses or their archenemy? What should we make of his role as the owner of The Washington Post or his commitment to furthering space travel?

We asked 11 thoughtful experts from business, academia, labor, and policy to assess Jeff Bezos’s legacy. Their answers, included below, capture the complexity of one of the most influential CEOs of our era, and they offer a guide for aspiring leaders who hope to learn from his success without necessarily following in his footsteps.

As a kid, Bezos admired Thomas Edison, and two of our respondents drew the comparison—journalist Brad Stone, who has written two books on Bezos, called him “the Thomas Edison of the internet era.” Edison’s greatest achievement was arguably the lab he created at Menlo Park, New Jersey, which redefined the process of invention itself. Likewise, Bezos’s legacy is tied up in the organization he created in Amazon. Whatever he does next, he will be judged in large part by what he did in the role he is about to vacate.

Walter Frick, executive editor, membership

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Table of contents

Sunil Gupta | Kara Swisher | Alison Taylor | Sarah Miller | Brad Stone | James Bessen | Andy Hunter | Rebecca Parsons | Om Malik | Alex Spinelli | Ian Bremmer

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Sunil Gupta

Professor of business administration, Harvard Business School

From Amazon’s humble beginnings in 1995 as an online bookstore, Jeff Bezos has built an empire that is valued over $1.6 trillion today. He will be remembered for three principles that have been instrumental in building this remarkable company.

First, his focus on the long term. In the mid-2000s, financial analysts chastised Bezos for investing in web services because they did not see why an e-commerce player was investing in cloud computing. But the long-term vision of Bezos proved them wrong and AWS is now the crown jewel of Amazon. Even as a public company with the pressure of quarterly earnings, Amazon continues to maintain this long-term focus.

Second, Bezos has created a culture of customer obsession. He implores his leaders to “wake up every morning terrified…not of our competitors, but of our customers,” as he writes in the 1998 Amazon shareholder letter, published in Invent and Wander. Senior leaders who are new to Amazon are often surprised by how little time the company spends discussing financial results; instead, the focus is on setting customer goals and improving customer experience.

Third, Bezos has instilled a culture of entrepreneurship where experimentation and failure are encouraged. To him, it is always Day 1, because Day 2 is stasis, followed by irrelevance and death.

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Kara Swisher

Host, Sway podcast; longtime tech journalist

When I met Jeff Bezos back in the 1990s, all pleated khakis and button-down Oxfords, it was already clear that he was aiming to build something much bigger than than the “Earth’s biggest bookstore.” Then, as now, the most important thing he will leave behind, as he takes off for his floating space colony someday, will be the lesson that boundless ambition combined with unflagging aggressiveness, unfettered creativity, and a willingness to try anything is perhaps the most potent recipe for a modern entrepreneur. This is not a new idea—Thomas Edison had all this, too—but combined with the internet’s ability to turbocharge these qualities, Bezos has perfected it. It’s no mistake that the original name for the company was not Amazon, but If you type that in, the URL will still take you there.

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Alison Taylor

Executive director, Ethical Systems, NYU Stern School of Business

When I teach business ethics to MBA students, Jeff Bezos’s leadership of Amazon is a perfect case study. While my students generally find the company’s culture unique and compelling, they also accept that its success rests on worker exploitation and monopolistic behavior. But when I ask, “Would you work at Amazon?” a sharp dichotomy emerges, which mirrors a raging debate about the role of business in society. Some say Bezos’s obsession with innovation, ambition, and creativity has made working there a great way to supercharge careers; stress and potential burnout are acceptable costs. Others view Bezos as the poster child for naked corporate self-interest and vow never to support a toxic business model.

Bezos’s track record bolsters a persistent myth that, in big business, you can be ethical or successful—but not both. Few seem more attached to this notion than Bezos. As social and environmental crises mount, our calls for humane and responsible “servant leadership” have grown louder. But our veneration of Bezos reveals an uncomfortable truth about the behavior we really reward and value: Vast wealth and power justify the human cost of business decisions. Via relatively minor investment in benefits and opportunities for workers, he could have reduced inequality and poverty without significantly compromising Amazon’s success.

Bezos chose not to. For someone who has set sight on transcending Earth’s boundaries, this is a fascinating failure of the imagination.

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Sarah Miller

Executive director, American Economic Liberties Project

When Jeff Bezos launched Amazon in 1994, his vision wasn’t to sell books, but to chart a path toward commercial dominance. Early employees noted that Bezos’s “underlying goals were [to build] a ‘utility’ that would become essential to commerce.” The legacy of Jeff Bezos’s success is also the legacy of antitrust enforcers failures; Amazon flourished during an ideological era in which the drive to monopolize markets was, contrary to much of American history, viewed as largely unproblematic.

But Bezos’s unprecedented commercial dominance has also sparked a rapid reawakening among policymakers to the importance of antitrust’s original goals. When Bezos testified in front of Congress last fall, one seller’s story demonstrated the extent of Amazon’s ruthlessness and the human cost of enforcers’ failures:

“We were a top bookseller on Amazon and we worked hard, day and night, toward growing our business…[one that] feeds a total of 14 people…As we grew, we were shrinking Amazon’s market share…So, in retaliation, Amazon started restricting us from selling. They started with a few titles in early 2019 and within six months, Amazon systematically blocked us from selling in the full textbook category. We haven’t sold a single book in the past 10 months.”

Despite sending more than 500 separate communications to Amazon, including to Mr. Bezos directly, the seller received no meaningful response. Mr. Bezos should no longer expect policymakers to treat Amazon with similar neglect.

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Brad Stone

Author of the forthcoming Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire and The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

Bezos will be remembered as the most consequential entrepreneur of our age—the Thomas Edison of the internet era, who changed modern economic reality in two significant ways. He didn’t invent e-commerce—there were a few online stores before—but he made it real, creating a vast, virtual “everything store” and an accompanying fulfillment and transportation network that can bring many of the things we need to our homes, rather than requiring us to find and fetch them in stores. His other major contribution was the creation of Amazon Web Services, Amazon’s massively profitable cloud business, which popularized the notion that companies and other institutions can efficiently rent computer resources over the internet.

But in addition to creating enormous wealth for his investors and convenience for his customers, Bezos’s inventions also produced plenty of unintended consequences: Amazon’s destructive impact on local retailers who couldn’t keep up, and its enlistment of more than 1 million warehouse workers and drivers into an invisible labor force whose jobs are only as safe as their ability to meet the company’s impossibly high productivity standards. This will be part of Bezos’s legacy as well.

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James Bessen

Economist; Executive Director, Technology & Policy Research Initiative, Boston University School of Law; author of the forthcoming book Superstar Capitalism.

Jeff Bezos will be known as “The Great Unbundler.” Many companies develop excellent capabilities powered by their own software, but Amazon, under Bezos, has excelled at opening up those capabilities to third parties. And this is important, not just for Amazon’s success, but also because open access is the best way to spread the use of advanced technologies through society. Amazon developed world-class IT support for its e-commerce website. Rather than keep this as a proprietary competitive advantage, Amazon opened it up to third parties as AWS (Amazon Web Services). This created the cloud industry and allowed large numbers of companies, small and large, to access advanced IT capabilities—and, in the process, generating substantial profits.

Amazon developed a world-class e-commerce website and opened it up to third-party sellers, letting many small businesses flourish and also generating profits for Amazon. Amazon also developed advanced logistics and inventory systems to enable one- or two-day delivery. These, too, were made available to third parties. Everyone knows platforms are powerful business tools even if they sometimes pose challenges to antitrust authorities. But in the future, we will see that open platforms are key to spreading the benefits of powerful digital technologies across the economy, improving productivity and innovation and employee pay. And Bezos is the pioneer of this development.

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Andy Hunter

Founder and CEO,

Jeff Bezos famously set out to make Amazon “customer obsessed.” The customer wants everything as cheaply and quickly as possible. The customer may not even want to get out of bed. The customer is comfortably unaware of Amazon’s exploitative labor practices or tax-avoidance schemes. The customer doesn’t know that Amazon is intentionally losing money on deeply discounted bestsellers to make it impossible for independent bookstores to compete, to gain market share at all costs.

What happens when all that market share belongs to Amazon? The customer doesn’t know. The customer might watch The Matrix on Amazon Prime and think it’s a dystopian future to be floating, tube-fed, in a pod whilst living life virtually. The customer’s groceries are delivered via Amazon Pantry. The storefronts in the customer’s downtown are vacant now; there is no reason for the customer to leave the house. Sometimes what we think we want and what is good for us are two different things. Local businesses provide jobs with meaning, community, and pay taxes that support our shared society. The beauty and magic of human life happens outside of a supply chain that only values speed and low prices.

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Rebecca Parsons

Chief Technology Officer, ThoughtWorks

Jeff Bezos’s API manifesto established requirements for how all services within the Amazon ecosystem had to be implemented. The requirements specified that all data and functionality had to be exposed through services. Services could only interact through the service interface, although the specific communication technology didn’t matter. All services had to be designed from the beginning to be exposed to outside developers. The commitment to this manifesto arguably made Amazon Web Services (AWS) initially possible. It also provided Amazon itself with a platform to rapidly innovate its existing businesses, and to enter new businesses.

The need for services to be externalizable simplified the creation of AWS. However, it also meant that service interfaces needed to be carefully designed to be usable, even if you weren’t an insider. This aspect of the mandate likely heavily influenced the overall design of the services ecosystem, making it more usable and flexible. The Amazon services ecosystem established the viability of services-based architectures at a time when there were several significant, high-profile, service oriented architecture (SOA) failures. To date, Amazon remains one of SOA’s great success stories.

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Om Malik

Partner at True Ventures; longtime tech writer and founder of tech blog GigaOm

The success of Amazon is not an accident, but instead it is continuous evolution. And the reason for that: Jeff Bezos (with help from his team) has been consistently been able to accurately predict new internet behaviors, and then graft them into business models for Amazon. As someone who was the earliest enthusiast of cloud computing, AWS is the ultimate Amazon product—as much as you want, whenever or wherever, instantly. It will be the biggest Bezos legacy, for it has fundamentally changed how we think about technology.

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Alex Spinelli

Chief Technology Officer, LivePerson; former global head of Amazon Alexa OS

As head of Alexa OS at Amazon, I saw firsthand how Bezos helped jumpstart a technology that will only become more influential and powerful as time goes on: Conversational AI.

For now, we’re still in the beginning stages of experiencing Conversational AI’s impact on our daily lives. We’re all becoming more and more familiar with the concept that an AI can live in our homes with us and help us look up information, connect with our friends and family, and even buy products and services. Through Alexa, Bezos helped familiarize the world with this idea by getting Conversational AI on the bookshelves and countertops of millions of homes.

The future for this technology is unlimited. Brands, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers are now using Conversational AI to not only talk, but also message with millions of consumers every day, since you can message on the go from any device. At LivePerson, we’re envisioning a world where every brand has their own version of Alexa that helps customers get answers, make purchases, and get help when they need it.

Conversational AI is here to stay, in part thanks to Bezos, but it will continue to evolve in new and exciting ways, supporting us throughout our personal and professional lives in ways we may not even recognize. That’s how ingrained it will become in the fabric of everyday life. One day, Alexa as we know it now may seem woefully out-of-date, but its popularization of Conversational AI will also secure its place in history.

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Ian Bremmer

Political scientist; president, Eurasia Group

Hopefully it hasn’t been written yet. Jeff isn’t even 60 and has breathtaking resources at his personal disposal.  If he wants to build a legacy that really matters—deploying his wealth and influence to tackle some of the massive challenges the world now faces—now is his time to start. The scale and impact of a Bezos Foundation could eclipse even Bill Gates’s. In 10 years’ time, I’d hate to say that Bezos’s primary legacy was Amazon. It would be a missed opportunity of unimaginable scale.