Jeff Bezos, soon to hold the controlling interest in the Washington Post, did not grow up with the desire to be a newsman. He didn’t even have a paper route.
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Neither did he know that he wanted to become a retailer—he would make that decision much later based on a very different calculus. What he most wanted to be when he was a kid, he has said, was an archaeologist. That was inspired by the summers he spent on his maternal grandfather’s ranch from the age of about four to sixteen. The Lazy Z, a sprawling, 25,000-acre spread in southwest Texas, was an idyllic setting to Jeff. On the ranch, “Pops” Gise taught him to castrate cattle, install plumbing, and even repair a dilapidated D6 Caterpillar bulldozer with a stripped transmission.
This experience taught him to be an entrepreneur—and not simply because of his adult reputation for sometimes treating employees like livestock. He has said that life on the ranch taught him independence, self-sufficiency, and the ability to overcome obstacles. His success was not driven by a passion for retailing.
That sets him apart from virtually every other hugely successful tech entrepreneur. Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates was cranking out code in grade school and running his own software company in high school. Steve Jobs grew up seeing electronic marvels being created in Silicon Valley and tapped into his talent and love of design to create his own computer company. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of Google Inc., grew up on the Internet and thought it was the most extraordinary thing the world had ever created.
Now Bezos wants to be a media mogul at an old and storied newspaper. This is not because, like Charles Foster Kane, he thought it would be “fun.” Fun is reserved for his non-business investments.
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People who are scratching their heads over his interest in the Washington Post should have had itchy heads for years. How many executives can move beyond retailing and into cloud-based computer services or designing and building consumer electronics products? Amazon is Wal-Mart, Salesforce.com and Apple rolled into one. Bezos is the ultimate ADHD entrepreneur.
Bezos does have passions. His biggest: science fiction, the desire to explore space and to live in the future. He said in his high school valedictorian speech that we need to colonize other planets in order to save humanity. In high school he won a NASA competition for a paper he wrote titled “The Effect of Zero Gravity on the Aging Rate of the Common Housefly.” At Princeton he was part of a group called “Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.”
But Bezos diverts these passions to playtime. After he became rich, he put up his own money to create Bezos Expeditions, an investment firm that mostly pursues decidedly unprofitable, futuristic ventures. That includes Blue Origin, his ambitious space exploration company; a giant clock designed to last 10,000 years, now being built in west Texas; and a project to recover F-1 engines that powered the Apollo rockets toward the moon before falling back into the ocean.
In picking out his real businesses, he creates comparison charts listing pros and cons. He discovered the Internet in 1993 and found in it, not something grand, but something that could be exploited as a sales channel. He used a similarly methodical method to decide that books would be the product he would sell—not because he loved reading as a child but because they were easy to pack and inexpensive to ship. He decided that since Seattle was cheaper than Silicon Valley and located close to one of the key book distributors that it was the best place to locate such a business, and he packed up and moved there from Manhattan to start Amazon. That dispassionate decision making and cold analytical approach is his strength in building a successful business.
Bezos bought the Washington Post using neither Amazon nor Bezos Expeditions but his own cash, but the fact that news publishing was never one of his early passions indicates that he sees it as a money-making venture and not a plaything, a possible business partner for Amazon, just as book publishers are now. Bezo did invest in Business Insider, a business and tech news site, through Bezos Expeditions, but that seems largely because the owner and CEO, Henry Blodget, a tech analyst who bet big on Amazon when it was young, is an old friend. On his own site, after warning that he has no inside knowledge of Bezos’s interest in the Post, Blodget argues convincingly that are synergies between the Post and Amazon. First on the list: “Amazon is already in the content production and distribution businesses—and news is just another kind of content.”
As owner of the Post, Bezos may be able to apply his brains and his methodology to figure out how to make a newspaper profitable again, probably in a distribution deal with Amazon. Then he can offer that service from Amazon to other publishers. That gives Amazon a new business model and infuses desperately needed blood into a publishing industry that today is bleeding cash. Perhaps that’s just the kind of job for a do-it-yourself fix-it guy who knows how to repair dead tractors and castrate cattle.