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Amazon.com: a story of rapid prototyping

How did Amazon.com get started? Was there a whole strategy and business plan? According to Tom Kelley in his article in Journal of Design Management, Amazon.com is a story of rapid prototyping.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard
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As I was reading Tom Kelley's paper and his account of the creation of Amazon.com, I thought it was very relevant to this challenge. I highlighted (in bold) the points that I thought were particularly relevant:

"Quick prototyping is about acting before you’ve got the answers, about taking chances— stumbling a little, but then making it right. Consider Jeff Bezos’s story of the birth of Amazon.com. A business rookie, he launched one of the Internet’s first multibillion-dollar behemoths, literally on the run. Bezos’s saga put wings on the Silicon Valley cliché of starting your company in a garage. His e-commerce juggernaut began with one startling statistic. In spring 1994, he happened upon a prediction that annual growth of the World Wide Web would ramp up at an astounding 2,300 percent. Inspired by the market potential of such explosive growth, he madly scratched out a list of things he could sell online—everything from music to clothing—before settling on books. Within weeks, Bezos quit his cushy Wall Street job and called a moving van. Incredibly, he hadn’t yet figured out where to cast his e-commerce seeds. His short list included Boulder, Portland, and Lake Tahoe. Unable to make up his mind, he instructed the van driver to simply head west. The next day, Bezos phoned and told the driver he’d decided on Seattle, a city with plenty of high-tech workers. Bezos was doing exactly what innovators do every day: breaking a problem down into its parts, making on-the-fly decisions in parallel.

The ordinary thing to do would have been to stay put until he had decided upon a city. How could a moving van begin its journey without knowing a state, let alone an address? But Bezos gained a day of Internet time by launching his ship before he’d charted his New World. As his moving van rolled westward from New York on the interstate, Bezos flew to Texas and picked up a beat-up car from a family member.While his wife,MacKenzie, drove, he sat in the passenger seat, pecking out a business plan on his laptop and punching out calls on his cellular. Think of it: nothing on paper, no place to land his imagined company, yet he was already hurtling toward his destiny.

He took a detour through Northern California to interview potential vice presidents of development, and he retained a Seattle attorney by phone to incorporate his online venture with the unlikely name of Cadabra. He still had no idea where he was going to live or how he would fund his scheme, but he had no time to waste because “when it’s growing 2,300 percent a year, weeks are important.” Bezos’s story would make a great movie about how rapid prototyping can give you a business edge. The dynamo entrepreneur was sorting out the pieces of the puzzle as he sailed west, trying to figure out what his Web site would do, where he’d be, who he’d hire—and what he’d call the darn thing.

Bezos could make an early blunder—like the clunky name of Cadabra—because he was carving himself out so much extra time. Once he’d rented suburban Seattle digs to house his venture in the proverbial garage, he applied the same “time is precious” logic to Amazon.com. Get it up, get it out was the order of the day. Function preceded style and editorial content. Low on graphics and animation, Amazon.com loaded fast and excelled at the basics—making it easy to find and buy books. By the time the dust cleared, the bricks-and- mortar booksellers were playing catch-up. The next time you kick off a project, try sparking your engines with a little New World Amazon style energy. Think about tackling problems when you don’t have the answers. Once you get in gear, you’ll be surprised how easily some of the solutions appear."

Tom Kelley, Prototyping is the shorthand of innovation

Design Management Journal, 2001


What can we learn from this story?

  • The strengths of prototyping and if prototyping is a mindset, how can we support this mindset? Through education probably; in schools but also providing workshops.
  • Moreover, how can we provide the environment and tools to help prototyping? A lot of inspirations on co-working spaces and incubators could provide the right environment.
  • A lot of the administrative rules are probably not supportive (even going against) a prototyping, iterative, on the fly, spirit.



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DeletedUser

Hi Anne-Laure, nice to 'meet' you again here, this time on another challenge!

Frist of all thanks for sharing this article, I read it when it came out and it's great to read it again now, it says some very important things - Most importantly because I am now doing a Service Design internship at a company in London called Made by Many, ( http://madebymany.com/what-we-do ) and for the first time I am experiencing working with Kanban and Agile methods of production, quite in line with the methods Tim describes above, of rapid prototyping and continuously developing with user insights. It's the first time I am experiencing working in this kind of system, and I have had a very positive experience so far, and definitely agree with Tim's words.

Especially in the current times where so many new things and ideas are being started, it's important to prototype your idea soon and get it out and gain insights from your prototype, not just the ideas you have dreamed up. Bezos's case is a great example.

Funny I was just reading this morning about Bezos's thrill seeking lifestyle on a CNN article, and he seems to enforce his business way of thinking in his lifestyle too... http://business.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/29/the-executive-adrenaline-junkie/?hpt=hp_c3

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Hi Ana, glad to "meet" you again and congratulations on the internship.
I went on the website of Many by Many and I found interesting the lean startup principles they use interesting. There might be an inspiration there? :-)
Looking forward to more conversations, al

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DeletedUser

Hi AnneL and thanks for your kind reply!
Glad you found their methods interesting, it is currently a very interesting journey.
Looking forward to more collaborations too :)
Take care.

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