Jeff Bezos and a Deep Keel
A powerful lesson from Amazon's founder
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Now, onto Issue 43.
Jeff Bezos and a Deep Keel
In 1995, Amazon launched a radical new idea.
They were simply an online bookstore then.
The radical idea: allow customers to post book reviews.
Customers could give books a 1-to-5 star ranking and post a comment with their review.
At the time, this idea seemed odd. Why would you enable customers to share their opinions of your products publicly, especially negative or critical ones?
Book publishers didn’t like this idea.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos tells a story of receiving a letter from a publisher once. The publisher suggested sharing only positive reviews. Amazon’s sales would go up, the publisher argued.
Bezos thought about this and came to a different takeaway.
Amazon’s role was to help customers make a purchase decision. It was NOT to persuade them to buy specific products with exclusively positive reviews. While publishers may not have agreed, Amazon’s customers loved this approach.
They liked sharing feedback and learning from others
They liked hearing from people who spent their money on a product
They liked making a more informed decision
Amazon’s instincts were right, of course. Customer reviews are commonplace today.
This experience taught Bezos a critical lesson.
Lesson: You will be misunderstood
In a 2018 talk at SMU, Bezos shared this story and how it shaped his perspective.
“If you’re going to do anything new or innovative, you have to be willing to be misunderstood,” he said. “And if you can’t tolerate that, then for God’s sakes, don’t do anything new or innovative.”
Bezos went on to say that every important thing Amazon has done over the years has been misunderstood at the time.
Sometimes by well-intentioned people. Other times by ill-intentioned critics.
But the result was the same.
What Bezos came to accept was that if Amazon wanted to be the best in its space, they would be repeatedly misunderstood.
They would be criticized for taking risks, pushing boundaries and making innovative bets. They wouldn’t always be able to explain themselves.
But that’s how it goes.
There’s a cost to innovation and leadership.
Speaking at SEC Media Days in July, University of Georgia football coach Kirby Smart made a similar comment.
"If we truly want to be honest and upfront about leadership, you can't ignore the cost of leadership,” Smart said.
He then highlighted three “costs of leadership” that he keeps in his office as a reminder:
1: “You will have to make hard decisions that could negatively affect people you care about”
2: “You will be disliked, despite your best attempts to do the best for the most”
3: “You will be misunderstood and won’t always have the opportunity to defend yourself”
Two completely different people, in wildly different professions, yet bound by similar principles.
Most sailboats have a keel fixed to the bottom of the hull.
The keel is essentially a flat blade that sticks down into the water.
It serves two primary purposes:
Prevent the boat from being blow sideways by the wind
Carry ballast (usually iron or lead), which keeps the boat upright against the force of the wind
A boat with no keel — known as flat-bottomed boats — is much more likely to be rocked around when the winds and seas get rough.
Critics are the equivalent of wind.
They blow in, shake things up, then blow out. They move onto the next target, and there’s always another critic coming shortly behind.
How should leaders respond to these critics when they know they’ll be misunderstood?
“If you look yourself in the mirror and decide your critic is wrong, then do not change no matter how much pressure is brought to bear,” Bezos says.
“Do the right thing. Have a deep keel.”
I met Kevin Stark on Twitter this past week.
Kevin is a former Navy SEAL. He served for over 20 years.
I was alerted of a post Kevin made on social media and told I should connect with him.
Kevin’s post struck me deeply, and I wanted to share a bit of it here:
This reluctance to speak publicly is common among many military veterans. Most don’t want recognition, and they don’t want to be seen as leveraging their service for personal gain in public.
And yet, these are some of the most incredible human beings we have. They have so much value to offer the civilian world. Their stories, lessons and insights not only deserve to be shared, they need to be shared.
Idea for the Week
A powerful mindset: 1% beats 0%
Progress isn’t always obvious, but consistency compounds.
A powerful mindset:
1% beats 0%
Progress isn't always obvious, but consistency compounds.
— Teddy Mitrosilis (@TMitrosilis)
Aug 25, 2023
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