How an Obsession With Time Set Amazon Up to Dominate




  • — July 11, 2019

    Einstein once mused, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” Of course, his time ran out in 1955, but I wish he were alive to see what we have at our fingertips, where it actually does feel like everything is happening simultaneously.

    If Albert were still with us, he might have good reason to reconsider his rationale.

    Past generations charted technological advancements in decades. Today, discoveries and developments in existing technologies, combined with the insatiable appetite of the tech-dependent masses and deep investor pockets, have created a purring flywheel that turns faster by the hour.

    Through the years, including those I spent at Amazon, I told my teams that the ultimate luxury is time because you don’t know when yours, or the customer’s, is up.

    It’s clear to me that Jeff Bezos understands this truth and obeys it wholly—in fact, I’d argue that he’s obsessed with it. In this article, we’ll see how that commitment to saving time helped Amazon become the pacesetter it is today.

    The following is adapted from my book, Brand Currency.

    Amazon Innovates Around Time

    The company’s leadership knows that time is a preciously finite currency. For decades, the CEO unapologetically invested every dollar he could back into the business to reduce time-to-goal for customer and company alike. Here are just a few results of that investment:

    • Free two-day Prime shipping
    • Free two-hour Prime Now delivery
    • Kiva robots in fulfillment centers moving merchandise to workers (not vice versa)
    • Conveyor belts with scanners automatically sorting thousands of parcels an hour
    • Amazon Go stores with no checkout line and automatic payment upon departure
    • Kindle e-readers downloading a 500-page title in eight seconds
    • Alexa devices that do your bidding without having to type a query

    As these innovations show, Bezos is a stickler for time—primarily that of the customer. Plus, he knows Amazon can’t be fast on the outside if it isn’t fast on the inside.

    Down to the Millisecond

    Here’s one anecdote that illustrates just how serious Bezos is about saving time.

    When I was at Amazon, we heard rumors that the engineers working on the first Amazon Echo device had gotten its processing and information-retrieval time down to 25 milliseconds as launch day loomed. Impressive right? Unacceptable, at least to this CEO.

    Supposedly he’d set a goal of 12 milliseconds and wouldn’t budge. (In full transparency, I was never able to verify the rumor, but it does not surprise me.)

    Somehow in the end, they launched the product to his satisfaction. If you have access to an Alexa device and a Siri-enabled device, ask them both the same question on the same network and stopwatch the difference.

    I’ve recorded on average the Alexa task is completed at least twice as fast. Every millisecond counts at Amazon, and their smart speaker market share proves it out.

    The Most Valuable Currency

    Above money, information, and loyalty, time is the most valuable company currency. The best brands know this and nimbly navigate challenges internally to save its own, and therefore its customers’, time.

    Yes, people today are less patient than ever, but believing that’s going to change is a fool’s errand. It will only continue to intensify as everyone, every machine, every surface with a sensor embedded in it is crunching data faster today in response to a command than it did (July 14, 2019). Just as in the wild, slow companies are the first to die.

    After all, last I checked, the human mortality rate was hanging right around 100 percent, so job number one for companies is to make much of time on behalf of their customers. If they do, their brands will outlive us all.

    For more advice on making the most of the most valuable currency, you can find Brand Currency at Amazon.

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    Author: Steve Susi

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