Five Truths about Amazon

By Scott Kirsner |  August 6, 2019

At a recent event at MIT, we caught up with Jerry Gupta, a Senior Vice President at Swiss Re’s innovation and venture arm. Gupta worked briefly as a Global Head of Program Management for Amazon, and we asked him what outsiders don’t understand about how things work there. Read Gupta’s five takeaways from his time at at the e-commerce giant.

1. They don’t talk about innovation. “Companies like Amazon don’t even use the word ‘innovation.’ Everybody is innovative.”

Jerry Gupta, Senior Vice President at Swiss Re.

“One other thing that’s very unique about Amazon is, it doesn’t tell you to stay in your lane. Your day job might be packing boxes. You can come up with ideas, and go ring up anyone, and start working on those ideas, and your manager cannot say, ‘Stop.’ As long as you’re still packing the number of boxes you’re supposed to be packing, he or she cannot come and [stop you.]”

“If you are an agile, flexible employee, you will do your job faster, and carve out other time for innovation activities…”

2. It’s not about being the smartest person in the room. “What I realized there is, it’s not about your IQ. It’s about your ability to look around corners and walk through walls. Amazonians are hyper-aggressive. They will go and talk to anyone up and down the hierarchy. They’re not afraid of that; they’re encouraged to do that. And they’re always looking for the next thing — not the moonshot, but the next thing [related to] what they’re doing. That becomes part of the DNA; it’s part of how they’re judged.”

3. Fear can be good. “Innovation is not a hard, tangible thing. Innovation is that mental change that comes with fear. Amazon’s thing is, ‘It’s always Day One. We can be out of business tomorrow.’ Jeff Bezos is on record saying that the minute we start thinking we’re invincible, we will die. That fear, that sense that we have to keep hustling — that is the most important thing an organization can inculcate in its people.”

“The minute people start getting complacent, bye-bye. When you are always worried, always looking over your shoulder, you are much more open to change. You are much more willing to have people work together. And you’re much more willing to experiment, because the fear of big failure overrides your little failures.”

4. Separate innovation groups can create conflict. “When you set up a separate innovation lab, you’re sending absolutely the wrong message to the rest of the organization: ‘You just do your day job; we’ll take care of it.’ It implicitly creates an adversarial mindset. ‘You think you can tell me how to do my business? Let’s see how that works out.’ Amazon doesn’t do that. Google doesn’t do that.”

5. What’s your excuse? “The majority of companies can replicate what Amazon is doing. Fifteen years ago, one would’ve said, ‘Oh, it’s a digital company. You can do things in the digital world you can’t do in the physical world.’ [Amazon is] not a digital company any more. It’s a physical company. They’re buying planes, trucks. They have real estate and stores. They’re buying actual inventory. It’s more physical than digital at this point in time.”