Lesson #3: Know When to Throw Away the Rule Book

“Every well-intentioned, high-judgment person we asked told us not to do it,” Bezos recalls of his early goal to create Amazon.com and offer one million, many hard to find book titles online. Some people said he shouldn’t try to sell more than 300,000 titles, while others said he shouldn’t bother trying to sell any whatsoever – after all, selling books was not an online sort of venture, they said. “We got some good advice, we ignored it, and it was a mistake,” says Bezos. “But that mistake turned out to be one of the best things that happened to the company.”

The industry experts might have said that it couldn’t be done, but Bezos couldn’t have cared less. Time and time again, Bezos ignored what the pundits were telling him to do – or not to do – threw away the rule book, and trusted his own gut instincts. And, time and time again Bezos proved to be right; Amazon.com customers rewarded Bezos’ instincts with word of mouth advertising that helped the company grow at a rate incomparable to most other companies.

Despite the company’s staggering growth, Bezos says there was never a time when Amazon’s strategies weren’t doubted by onlookers: “For the first four years of the company, we worked in relative obscurity. We always had lots of supporters and we always had lots of skeptics, and that's still the same today. It's just that the level of visibility is so much higher. If you look at the six years that we've been doing business, in exactly one of those six years we were not the underdog.”

But, for Bezos, part of knowing when to throw away the rule book was having the courage to be innovative. He acknowledges that the advantage Amazon has over its competitors is not just one single thing. Rather, it is the multitude of small but innovative online features that have created an unmatched customer experience that has helped propel Amazon to the top. Tools such as letting customers search online through full texts of hundreds of thousands of books were unheard of before being introduced on Amazon.com. He was told it was a crazy idea, especially since the only way to know whether or not it would work was to try it on a massive scale, but Bezos went ahead and did it anyway.

In order to be innovative, Bezos says, it is necessary to walk a fine line between stubbornness and flexibility: “If you’re not stubborn, you’ll give up on experiments too soon. And if you’re not flexible, you’ll pound your head against the wall and you won’t see a different solution to a problem you’re trying to solve.” The hard part about walking that line? “Figuring out when to be which,” Bezos says.

In Amazon’s early days, it was harder for the little startup to ignore expert advice and forge its own path. Today, however, it is not so hard. Amazon is a corporate giant and what Bezos says goes. The company still has its critics, and many people often still think Bezos is out on a ledge, but just like when he first started out, Bezos couldn’t care less. “We’re very comfortable being misunderstood,” he says. “We’ve had lots of practice.”

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