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Amazon's relentless work culture is because it's the startup that never grew up

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I once had the opportunity to ask a former very high-level executive with Amazon what it had been like to work with Jeff Bezos. "I did the best work of my life," he told me, "far better than I ever felt possible, and I don't regret leaving at all."

That's what I thought of when I read Sunday's lengthy New York Times article on "Amazon's Bruising, Thrilling Workplace." The Times highlights a few instances of clearly abusive behavior that go beyond what any sane company would want to see. A woman suffering from breast cancer was apparently told that "difficulties" in her "personal life" were impairing her job performance in a way that put her at risk of being fired. Another story tells of a person returning from treatment for thyroid cancer to a negative performance review.

But Amazon is a large organization, and some edge cases of impropriety and misconduct are going to happen anywhere. In an email to employees in the wake of the article, Jeff Bezos clarified that if people see instances of employees "being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems," they should report them to HR.

But the core thrust of the article isn't about the most egregious cases. It's about the culture that former executive described, except with a relentless focus on the "I don't regret leaving at all" side of the equation. It also doesn't get at what I think is a core reason that Amazon's culture of relentlessness is so important to the company: It's not profitable.

The startup that never grew up

Amazon's modest to nonexistent profitability makes the company very different, both culturally and operationally, from other big, mature tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, or even the relatively new Facebook. Those are all companies who've found their way to core operations that are extremely high-margin and throw off tons of cash.

Amazon looks much more like a relatively early-stage startup. Its relentless focus on low prices in pursuit of growth leaves it with very low margins. And whatever revenue it does scare up is invested in the further pursuit of growth. The mission is to get as big as possible, as fast as possible. The company squeezes costs remorselessly, but passes all that forward to customers in pursuit of even faster growth.

There's a lot to like about this business strategy.

But for a publicly traded company to deliberately eschew profitability over such a long span of time is asking Wall Street to have a lot of faith. Bezos has done remarkable things across a number of dimensions, but one of his most underrated skills as a CEO is simply his ability to sell investors on this strategy. There is no "quarterly capitalism" at Amazon, and in fact the time horizon on the plan for world domination is so long that one can question whether there's any capitalism at all.

A featherbedding-free zone

That, I think, is the context in which you have to understand Amazon's corporate culture. For a company with Amazon's quarterly earnings reports to develop a reputation as a really sweet, caring workplace full of tons of supportive people who recognize the importance of living a full, rich, and balanced life could be absolutely deadly to Bezos's sales pitch to investors.

Wall Street will tolerate "less profit now in pursuit of more profit later." Wall Street will absolutely not tolerate "less profit now in pursuit of being a nice boss."

Fat profits will, by contrast, earn you the right to do pretty much whatever you want with your company. Tim Cook can angrily dismiss questions about Apple's environmental and accessibility initiatives by saying he doesn't care about return on investment because he's earning hundreds of dollars in profit off every iPhone he sells. Because Apple is relentlessly profit-focused, it would like to highlight its charitably minded activities.

By contrast, when I wrote that Amazon was like a charity, Bezos denounced me in a letter to shareholders. He doesn't like bad publicity, but what he really fears is that Wall Street will worry he's gone soft.

Save your tears for Amazon's blue-collar workers

The good news for white-collar workers put off by Amazon's corporate culture is that there's always the option of leaving. Precisely because Amazon has a reputation as such a hothouse place to work, nobody will look at you crosswise if you say you want to leave. And a stint at Amazon on your résumé looks great. The actual victims in this whole system are the blue-collar workers at Amazon's fulfillment centers.

As you can read here or here or here, these are not good jobs. The working conditions are bad. The pay is bad. The prestige is low. Nobody walks away feeling pride in having done the best work of their lives. And working at a warehouse does not look particularly great on your résumé.

The upshot of those brutal warehouse conditions is cheaper stuff and faster delivery for millions of middle-class customers. If the warehouses paid better, we would have to pay more for stuff. If you want to feel bad — or morally conflicted, or self-righteous — then I would focus on that.

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