In the book The Everything Store, Brad Stone takes an inside look at the rise of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Bezos is notorious for his belief in the long term, which leads to the company sacrificing short-term profits to help fuel future growth. The company also has a maniacal focus on customer satisfaction, often at the expense of relationships with vendors, clients, and (sometimes) employees.
Stone reveals several anecdotes where these two factors meet to led to some ultra-shrewd business moves by Bezos and his team. Some examples:
When wrangling publishers to offer their books for the Kindle, Amazon purposefully never mentioned price. The publishers found out with the rest of the world at the Kindle launch event. From the book:
Among the gathered publishing execs at the Kindle press conference, there was confusion. Was the $9.99 price a promotional discount for the launch?
Finally the grim reality set in and publishing executives kicked themselves for their own gullibility
[One publishing executive said,] “If I could rewrite history I would have said, ‘Thanks so much, I love the idea of the Kindle, but let’s have an agreement that says you will not sell below the cost.’ I feel like I was asleep at the tiller.”
The new price made digital cheaper than paperback, which made customers buy more books, which made the publishers more dependent on Amazon. The company purposefully capitalized on the publishers lack of understanding about the new medium to provide the best value and make the book industry further reliant on Amazon.
In 2002, Amazon’s contract with UPS was up for renewal and the shipping company was ready to play hardball. Amazon was in a weak negotiating position. It wasn’t using FedEx at all, and the Postal Service was barred from negotiating rates. Six months before negotiating, Amazon moved to improve its positioning:
Over the course of six months [Amazon employee Bruce] Jones traveled to FedEx’s headquarters in Memphis, integrating their systems and quietly ratcheting up the volume of packages. Amazon also increased its shipment injections with the U.S. Postal Service: company employees drove Amazon’s trucks to the post office and inserted packages directly into the flow of federal mail.
Then, when UPS refused to lower their rates, Amazon “flipped the switch” and stopped using UPS cold turkey:
“In twelve hours they went from millions of pieces a day to a couple a day,” says Jones.
UPS execs caved and gave Amazon discounted rates.
In its early days Amazon would partner with various retailers to keep its site stocked with items from markets it didn’t understand or couldn’t fit in its warehouses. One of the company’s earliest partners was Toys “R” Us, and Bezos ratcheted up the theatrics:
The negotiations were, as was often the case when Jeff Bezos was involved, long and, according to Jon Foster, “excruciating.” When both teams met for the first time, Bezos made a big show of keeping once chair open at the conference-room table, “for the customer,” he explained.
They two companies ended up striking a deal after being at an impasse for months.
While Bezos and company weren’t so kind to their negotiating partners, no one can argue with the results. You can buy the book here.
Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter and CEO of Medium, is a big believer in constraint as a driver of creativity, focus, and getting shit done. Condensed, focused team time is, after all, the concept behind 24-hour hackathons and team retreats. Through it, the communication delay (waiting for an email response) and scattered focus (working on multiple projects) of normal work routines become neutralized and everyone can zero in one project.
For those of us who can’t routinely hold hackathons, Williams advocates the “one-dayer,” wherein a small group tackles a project with intense focus for one day:
As in: “Should we do a one-dayer on this on Thursday?”
When might you say this? Perhaps:
When you’ve been kicking around an idea for a while, have discussed several different directions, but aren’t sure which is best yet.
When you have a project that’s been going for a while and you just want to get it out the door (and it’s not inconceivable to do it in a day).
When you have a crazy hunch you can’t get out of your head.
It might even make sense to have a one-dayer at the beginning and end of big projects.
We often forget that we actually do control our own time, and it’s within our power to apportion it best. Next time you’re craving to dig deep into a project with your teammates, block off a single day devoted to it and see what happens.
We often romanticize ideas as an isolated ‘aha’ moment; however, they are built upon a foundation of multiple thoughts and information sources coming together. Bodong Chen, an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, describes ideas more as a swarm than of a single entity.
Great ideas come from a collection of hunches and “half-baked” ideas waiting to be connected with each other. These are thoughts that look promising, but are perhaps missing that key piece to make them ready to stand alone. It is tempting to throw them away as trivial or irrelevant, but they are the ingredients to your next big idea. Chen says the best thing to do with your swarm is to catch it:
Keeping a slow hunch alive poses challenges on multiple scales. For starters, you have to preserve the hunch in your own memory, in the dense network of your neurons. So part of the secret of hunch cultivation is simple: write everything down… We can see Darwin’s ideas evolve because on some basic level the notebook platform creates a cultivating space for his hunches; it is not that the notebook is a mere transcription of the ideas, which are happening offstage somewhere in Darwin’s mind. Darwin was constantly rereading his notes, discovering new implications. His ideas emerge as a kind of duet between the present-tense thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper.
Luckily, it is incredibly easy to catch your hunches — it can be as simple as carrying around a physical notebook or using the multiple functions of your smartphone. Mobile apps like Evernote and Pinterest allow you to collect web clippings and upload your own data. Alternatively, cloud services such as Google Drive and Adobe Creative Cloud make it easy to access your achieved hunches wherever you are. Even your camera phone is an excellent visual recorder (and is probably always on hand).
he key here is to record the information, but not spend any time categorizing it. First of all, who has the time to shift random information into preorganized categories? Secondly, you want all the information and hunches to mix together. Great ideas come from combining two seemingly unrelated hunches. In order to accomplish this, Chen says you need to keep the hunches alive by rereading through your notes. After all, it’s hard to connect hunches together if you no longer remember them.
The studio Formafantasma’s motto is never to have stereotypes or prejudices. This is particularly true of their design work as they question absolutely everything and why it has been done that way. In an interview with Designboom, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of Formafantasma explain how they avoid clichés through their design process:
We, as designers, work almost like filters. Our projects are the result of a process of distillation. We always know where we start but never where we are going to end. As designers, every time we begin a new project, or we investigate a material, our first intention is to questions stereotypes and clichés. Often more than giving solutions, we propose questions or possible alternatives.
In their ‘botanica’ collection, commissioned by PLART foundation, Formafantasma began with the material of plastic and investigated its industrious history. Modern plastics, as a material of the future, have been largely utilized for their smooth surfaces. Instead of following along with this common finish, the studio transformed the material into a collection of handmade vessels that highlight natural textures and colors. It completely transforms how you think about the material. Instead of using a material, typeface, or any other design element as it always has been, investigate it’s counter. Why has it been used that way, and why not try the other?
Zen Habits’ Leo Babauta has a great recommendation for those times when you’re wallowing in self-doubt, consumed by stress over your work and paralyzed into inaction. Just start doing something:
[J]ust pick something to work on. Write something, draw something, program something, animate something, sew something. It doesn’t matter. Anything that your heart is drawn to.
Set an intention for this activity: I’m doing this out of compassion for others, out of love for myself, to meet my commitment to so and so.
Now get started: begin actually doing it. Don’t worry about whether you’ll do it for 10 minutes or an hour. Don’t worry about how good you’ll be at it, or what people will think of it, or whether you’ll succeed or not. Those are not relevant to the task.
Just do. Put your mind completely in the activity, in the motion and ideas and emotions, in your body and breath and surroundings. Be completely mindful, completely immersed.
When all else fails, you can always fall back on the work itself. Strip away the complicating factors that live strictly in your whirring, buzzing, mile-a-minute brain, and just focus on the actual work. The work shall set you free.
Research shows that your ability to persevere is directly correlated to your likelihood of success. Those who can hang in there when things get tough, studies show, are the ones who regularly succeed. It’s no wonder why this is the case: those who persevere are the only ones who come out on the other side, while everyone else has called it quits.
One primary reason why many of us quit anything is simply because sometimes things are difficult — but only to a point. By definition, things that are difficult are things that can be overcome, understood, and dealt with. Part of our ability to overcome difficult things is linked to our close personal network, but it’s also a matter of whether or not we’ve set the right expectations for the challenge ahead. When we pursue a new habit, start a new job, or otherwise undertake a new challenge, our assumptions and expectations about the work required of us is one of the most important factors for ensuring we’ll make it through to the end.
Ben Casnocha gives us the playful anecdote of learning how to draw an owl:
I believe a key reason so many people on the road to mastery call it quits is not because drawing a beautiful owl in pencil is superhumanly hard. It’s because they thought it would be easy.
Drawing an owl can be difficult (particularly if you aren’t an artist by trade), but—like starting a new job, trying to create a new habit, or working your way toward prominent success—it can be done. The first step isn’t simply to start, it’s to set your expectations and ensure you’re ready for the task in front of you. I call this step zero.
If you’re starting a new job, step zero for you is to talk to your manager or team about exact expectations for you from day one. If you’re starting a new habit, your step zero may be to create a list of everything you’ll need to do in order to make the habit stick.
As Casnocha explains:
Step one is always start, and step two is always keep going and going and going until you’ve nailed it.
Before you start any endeavor, focus on the step before starting: establishing the right expectations and planning how to tackle them.
Disagreeing with your boss is awkward, but expressing that divergent viewpoint is important in your professional growth as well as the forward progress of your company. Social scientist Joseph Grenny shares with Harvard Business Review how to express disagreement with your superior without coming across as a jackass:
Discuss intent before content. When the boss gets defensive, it’s… because she believes your dissent is a threat to her goals. Defenses are far less often provoked by actual content than they are by perceived intent. You can be far more candid about your view if you frame it in the context of a mutual purpose that the boss already cares about. If you fail to do this, the boss may believe your disagreement signals a lack of commitment to her interests.
Show respect before dissent. Most of us assume that if you want to be respectful, you have to dilute your disagreement, and if you want to be honest, you’re going to have to hurt some feelings. But this is a false dichotomy. You must find a way to assure your boss that you respect her and her position. When that sense of respect is secure, you can venture into expressing your views openly and honestly.
Basically, the trick is to frame your disparate view in the context of your team or company’s larger goals, while also conveying respect for your higher-up through the language you use and the attitude with which you use it. Disagreement can even be productive in the workplace, if and when it is communicated properly.