As Jeff Bezos decided to retire from Amazon, it felt it was Day 1 to read through the 24 letters to shareholders he wrote year after year from 1997 to 2021. I had read a few over the years, but not all. Amazon is one of the most impressive successes in business history, its CEO must have got a few principles right along the way…

I spent the evening of Monday July 5th 2021 going through the 88 pages. They make a fantastic read full of distinctive management insight. In particular the original 1997 letter about the importance of the long term view, the 1998 one about recruiting, the 2005 letter that dares to give a corporate accounting class to shareholders, the 2008 issue that starts taking a missionary tone, the 2015 paragraphs on culture, the 2016 statement about when Day 2 will come, and the 2018 letter about high standards.

You will find in this blog book syntheses from a selection of business books that I consider worth reading. Amazon shareholder letters are not a book per se. But I thought they could make it to the list anyway.

So, what can we learn from Jeff? Here are 10 selected lessons. Quotes are directly from the letters.

#01 – Focus on the long term

Long term shareholder value is the fundamental measure of success. « We believe that a fundamental measure of our success will be the shareholder value we create over the long term », « Long term market leadership considerations drive decisions rather than short term profitability », « Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align ».

Focus on free cash flows. « When forced to choose between optimizing the appearance of our GAP accounting and maximizing the present value of future cash flows, we’ll take the cash flows ». « Our ultimate financial measure, and the one we most want to drive over the long-term, is free cash flow per share ». « Cash flow statements often don’t receive as much attention as they deserve. Discerning investors don’t stop with the income statement ».

#02 – Display high ambitions

Shoot for the moon. « Our vision is to use this platform to build Earth’s most customer centric company » comes as early as the 2000 letter. « We want Prime to be such a good value, you’d be irresponsible not to be a member ».

Don’t settle for normal. « In many ways, is not a normal store ». « In what ways does the world pull at you in an attempt to make you normal? How much work does it take to maintain your distinctiveness? » « You have to pay a price for your distinctiveness and it’s worth it. The fairy ta version of be yourself is that all the pain stops as soon as you allow your distinctiveness to shine. That version is misleading. Being yourself is worth it, but don’t expect it to be easy of free. You’ll have to put energy into it continuously ».

Be a missionary. « I realize my tone here tends toward the missionary. I can assure you it’s heartfelt. » « I’m glad about that because missionaries build better products ».

#03 – Hire great talents and set a high bar

Set the bar high for recruitment. « Attract and retain a motivated employee base, each of whom must think like, and therefore must actually be, an owner ». «Will you admire this person? Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they’re entering? Along what dimension might this person be a superstar? » These are the three questions Jeff urges us to ask ourselves when we recruit someone. In a sense, they are essentially the same question. Jeff believes we should be working only with people we could learn from: « life is definitely too short to do otherwise ».

Be demanding. « You can work long, hard, or smart, but at you can’t’ choose two out of three », though the quote is ambiguous, I understand it as a call to work smart. « Work hard. Have fun. Make history. ».

High standards are teachable, domain specific and fun. « People are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure. High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standard team, and they’ll quickly adapt. The opposite is also true. » « I believe high standards are domain specific, and that you have to learn high standards separately in every area of interest ». « Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble. You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots. » « Building a culture of high standards is well worth the efforts and there are many benefits. » « High standards are fun! Once you’ve tasted high standards, they is no going back ».

Create a great culture that works for you. Cultures are « for better or worse, enduring, stable, hard to change ». « They can be a source of advantage or disadvantage ». « It is created slowly over time by the people and by events – by the stories of past success and failure that become a deep part of the company lore ». « If it’s a distinctive culture, it will fit certain people like a custom-made glove. »

#04 – Obsess with customers

Respect customers. « We hold as axiomatic that customers are perceptive and smart, and that brand image follows reality and not the other way around. » « Customers are well-informed and smart. » « the quality of customer experience a partner delivers is the single most important criteria in our selection process – we simply won’t build a partnership with any company that does not share our passion for serving customers ». « Though negative product reviews cost us some sales in the short term, helping customers make better purchase decisions ultimately pays off for the company »

Focus on customers, not competition. « I constantly remind our employees to be afraid, to wake up every morning terrified. Not of our competition, but of our customers ». « Our energy at Amazon comes from the desire to impress customers rather than the zeal to best competitors ». « Many companies describe themselves as customer-focused, but few walk the talk. Most big technology companies are competitor focused. They see what others are doing, and then work to fast follow. In contrast, 90 to 95% of what we build in AWS is driven by what customers tell us they want. »

Be top of mind for customers. « The more frequently customers visit our store, the less time, energy, and marketing investment is required to get them to come back again. In sight, in mind. » « Word of mouth remains the most powerful customer acquisition tool we have. »  « Software developers changing jobs, moving from one company to another, become our best salespeople: « We used AWS where I used to work, and we should consider it here. I think we’d more done » ».

Understand deeply you customers and what drives their satisfaction. For e-commerce, Jeff Bezos believes it is « wide selection, convenient shopping, fast reliable delivery and low price ». « Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys. They love with the design. I am not against bet testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering. Then, beta testing and research can help you find your blind spots. A remarkable customer experience starts with heart, intuition, curiosity, play, guts, taste. You won’t find any of it in a survey. »

#05 – Be an innovator

Invent on customer behalf. « Listen to customers, but don’t just listen to customers – also invent on their behalf ». « Customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it »

Make bold rather than timid investment decisions. « In business, every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs. This long-tailed distribution of returns is why it’s important to be bold. Big winners pay for so many experiments ».

Be humble about your opinion of what will work and will not. When a platform is self-service, even the improbably ideas can get tried, because there is no expert gatekeeper ready to say « that will never work! », but guess what – many of those improbable ideas do work, and society is the beneficiary of that diversity. »

Accept failure. « Some of these investments will pay off, others will not, and we will have learned another valuable lesson in either case ». « One area where I think we are especially distinctive is failure. I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and inventions are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. »

#06 – Act ahead of time

Act before you have to. « We are internally driven to improve our services, adding benefits and features before we have to. We lower prices and increase value for customers before we have to. We invent before we have to. These investments are motivated by customer focus rather than by reaction to competition. »

Decrease prices before customers ask for it. « With rare exceptions, the volume increase in the short term is never enough to pay for a price decrease. However, our quantitative understanding of price elasticity is short-term. Our judgement is that relentlessly returning efficiency improvements and scale economies to customer in the form of lower prices create a virtuous cycle that leads over the long term to a much higher dollar amount of free cash flow ». « Our pricing objective is to earn customer trust, not to optimize short-term profit dollars ».

Embrace external trends. « If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and have a tailwind. These big trends are not hard to spot (they get talked and written about a lot), but they can be strangely hard for large organizations to embrace. »

Be pioneers. « We love to be pioneers, it’s in the DNA of the company, and it’s a good thing, too, because we’ll need that pioneering spirit to succeed ». « Many of the problems we face have no textbook solutions, and so we – happily – invent new approaches » « Invention is in our DNA »

#07 – Take fast fact-based decisions

Make fast decisions. « Day 2 companies make high-quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly. Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure »

Take fact-based decisions. « Many of the most important decisions we make at Amazon can be made with data. There is a right answer or a wrong answer, a better answer or a worse answer, and math tells us with is which. There are our favorite kinds of decisions. »

Recognize true misalignment early and escalate immediately. Without escalation, the default dispute resolution mechanism for this scenario is exhaustion. Whoever has more stamina carries the decision. « You’ve worn me down » is an awful decision-making process. It’s slow and de-energizing. Go for quick escalation instead – it’s better.

Disagree and commit. « This phrase will save a lot of time. If youi have a conviction on a particular direction even though there is no consensus, it is helpful to say « Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it ? Disagree and commit? ».

Analyze investments. « We will continue to measure our programs and the effectiveness of our investments analytically, to jettison those that do not provide acceptable returns, and to step up our investment in those that work best. ». All companies I know claim they do this. Very few walk the talk.

#08 – Focus on what you can manage

Be in business where we have an edge. « Before we invest, we must convince ourselves that the new opportunity can generate the returns on capital our investors expect, that the new busines can grow at scale, that the opportunity is currently underserved, and the we have the capabilities needed to bring strong customer-facing differentiation to the marketplace. »

Focus management time on the controllable inputs. « Senior leaders that are new to Amazon are often surprised by how little time we spend discussing actual financial results or debating projected financials outputs. To be clear, we take these financial outputs seriously, but we believe that focusing our energy on the controllable inputs of our business is the most effective way to maximize financial outputs over time ».

Take pride in excellent execution and cost consciousness. « With good execution and a bit of continuing good luck ». « the taking of professional price in operational excellence ».« We will work hard to spend wisely and maintain our lean culture », « two years spent almost exclusively on lowering costs »

#09 – Be humble and grateful

Recognize there are more than one model. « We don’t claim it’s the right philosophy, we just claim it’s ours ». « Someone energized by competitive zeal may select and be happy in one culture, while someone who loves to pioneer and invent may choose another. The world, thankfully, is full of many high-performing, highly distinctive corporate cultures. »

Recognize difficulty. « We must remain vigilant and maintain a sense of urgency ». « We do not expect the road to be an easy one » « But I don’t think it’ll be easy ».

Call yourself lucky. « I am lucky and grateful », « We’re fortunate and grateful », …. As a side comment, calling oneself lucky is a trait of so-called « Level 5 CEOs » in the Jim Collins study From good to great.

Be proud of your team. « I’m incredibly proud of everyone at for… » « Around the world, amazing, inventive, and hard-working Amazonians are putting customers first. I take great pride in being part of this team. » « We have on our team some of the most sophisticated technologies in the world ». « I’m extremely proud of the whole team, and feel lucky to have a front row seat ». « I am continually amazed at the passion, intelligence and creativity on display. »

#10 – Keep it Day 1

Are these the ten lessons by Jeff? Obviously, we are missing the main one: it’s still day 1!This call to keep a fresh eye on things, to think it is never too late to start and to maintain the startup mindset is probably the most repeated mantra over the letters.

« This remains Day 1 for e-commerce, and these are the early days… » ; « the current online shopping experience is the worst it will ever be » ; « If you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right » ; « Our approach remains the same, and it’s still Day 1 ». « Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1. »


Here is the last sentence of the last letter. We can imagine it was well thought out.

«  To all of you: be kind, be original, create more than you consume, and never, never, never let the universe smooth you into your surroundings. It remains Day 1.  » .

That’s all folks!

Download a compendium of the 24 letters here: