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Several years ago, I said I would no longer publicly comment about my time in 1996–1997 as Amazon.com's catalog manager. Why? Because my knowledge and memory were so out of date, and I did not keep a journal during that period. It would be silly for me to provide commentary about a company that I had only been with during a period of explosive growth—now no more recently than 14 years ago.
However, an essay in today's Wall Street Journal called 'Jeff Bezos of Amazon: Birth of a Salesman,' compels me to comment on one aspect of the pervading myth of Amazon's creation and early years. You can read elsewhere about the truth behind other parts of the creation myth, especially in Robert Spector's fine and exhaustive look at Amazon's early years, Get Big Fast.
The part that got me was the door-as-desk myth, which has been cited since Amazon's founding as a way in which the company confounded standard business practice and was frugal during its very early startup days. This is a complete crock, and I would suspect that no one associated with the company, including Jeff, ever necessarily put forth a cost savings for these ersatz desks.
The door-desks were full-sized solid-core doors with four-by-four posts cut for each corner, and attached using metal brackets. You'll find accounts across the Internet that these were four-by-sixes, two-by-fours, or hollow-core doors. At least back in the day, I saw many of these desks made, and I can testify to their composition. (The hollow-core doors wouldn't have supported the weight—they would have cracked in places under the strain.)
In the very early days of the company, I'm sure the doors made more sense. They had very little room or time, and were trying to husband cash. Doors have a large surface area relative to most desks, and Amazon was in a garage and then a couple of industrial/warehouse spaces before they split the warehouse (down south of the viaduct) and the offices (in what was then identified as the core of heroin district of Seattle, right near Pike Place Market) before I joined.
I had met Jeff Bezos through mutual friends in 1995, when I was already running a Web development firm, hosting several companies, in downtown Seattle. He and I got along quite well, and I was always encouraging. My business was already profitable and growing, but I knew from the early days I didn't have the kind of entrepreneurial drive to embrace the risk—and sell myself—to turn the firm into something huge. I was looking for successful-boutique scale, and more or less achieved that.
I had lunch with Jeff in October 1996 when I was a bit in the doldrums about what I was going to do next with the business. He invited me to join Amazon, which I did. But what I remember most was, after lunch, walking into his office in the Columbia Building, and seeing a rack of blue colored shirts, his trademark at the time, and the door-as-desk. I laughed. I looked at the threadbare carpet and spartan furnishings, and said, 'Investors must love this.' He gave me his patented laugh.
When I joined the company, I saw the door-desks being built all the time. They hired people to build them. Back in 1998, a year after I left, Jeff told the Seattle Times:
'These desks serve as a symbol of frugality and a way of thinking. It's very important at Amazon.com to make sure that we're spending money on things that matter to customers,' said Bezos, 34. 'There is a culture of self-reliance. (With the low-tech desks) . . . we can save a lot of money.'
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The doors were expensive, built to an arbitrary height, heavy, difficult to move, and horrible for body health because of the bad ergonomics. That's when I started having to see an acupuncturist for carpal tunnel and related problems. And also note that these were exterior doors: moving a exterior door through an interior door frame with legs permanently attached is a tricky task. At the time, a slightly smaller desk (or even a sturdy banquet table) would have cost 1/3 to 1/2 the amount and worked far better.
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The myth was in place: the door-desk was part of the story about Amazon's creation, and it was part of what every visitor to the company's headquarters saw. It spoke of a particular ethos about spending and intent. And I will note that Jeff and company were extremely, but not unreasonably, tight with spending. Money wasn't spent on stupid things, either by executives or staff. (Later, the company probably wasted billions on setting up and closing down warehouses that weren't right for them until they figured out the formula for where they should be located and run.)
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Jeff was and is a brilliant marketer. The marketing and perception of the door-desks was much more important than their actual savings to the company.