The secrets to Jeff Bezos’s customer-driven idea machine. Coddle the 164 million people who buy from Amazon

From Forbes Magazine:

A few months ago Amazon reached what its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos demurely tells me was “an interesting milestone.” The retailing giant, so ubiquitously associated with books, then music and video, now has tens of millions of products in stock—and a majority are nonmedia goods: drills, dress shoes, tennis rackets and almost anything else that a human can ship. Adults may still mentally link Amazon with Barnes & Noble, but to teenage customers, Amazon is now synonymous with store.

That turning point might be Bezos’ greatest accomplishment. In officially transforming Amazon from an online bookstore that sells other stuff to a retailer—and business ser­vices provider—that once sold mostly books, he has taken one of the original Internet bonanzas and created a success story all over again. Its stock is up 397% in the last five years.

With a net worth of some $19 billion, the 48-year-old is one of the 30 richest men in the world. Yet he still dashes around Amazon with the intensity of a startup boss trying to make his first payroll, as well as the glee of a teenager discovering all the fun you can have at overnight camp. “I’m a legitimately happy person,” Bezos explains on a recent, rainy Friday morning at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. “My wife says: ‘If Jeff is unhappy, just wait five minutes.’”

What’s not to be happy about? He’s the number one CEO in America. The passing of Steve Jobs has left him, without question, as the corporate chief that others most want to meet, emulate and deify. And his primacy can be proven with numbers: FORBES’ ranking of top CEOs—using a bang-for-the-buck methodology that factors in sustained performance, modest compensation and the ability to pull ahead of one’s peers—has Bezos comfortably in the top spot. Indeed, he’s in the highest 5% in every single metric.

Across numerous e-mail back-and-forths and face-to-face questions with Bezos, I’ve come to understand why. More than a century ago another legendary retailer, Chicago’s Marshall Field, championed the fatalist’s slogan: “The customer is always right.” Bezos, perhaps more than anyone, has taken that mantra into the digital era, incrementally cracking one of the business’s great mysteries: figuring what customers want before the cash register rings and then making those insights pay off. In an era when high-flying tech companies outdo each other with worker perks, no-frills Bezos is proving the potency of another model: coddling his 164 million customers, not his 56,000 employees.

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