Several years ago, at the end of an all-hands meeting, an Amazon employee asked Jeff Bezos: "Jeff, what is the one thing you would change about Amazon?" Bezos responded with: "Speed. I would like us to move even more quickly."
Amazon is known for moving fast. I can attest, first-hand, just how fast that is. In 2013, I was one of four Amazonians who started Amazon Game Studios (AGS) in a series of direct presentations to Jeff Bezos. Perhaps, the more interesting part of the story is that I presented to Bezos during my fourth week on the job. At the time, I hardly even knew where the restrooms were, yet there I was, convincing Amazon's CEO to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in video games.
Amazon Hired me in January 2013
In 2013, I had 13-year professional experience in games, as a Planner and a Biz Dev Director at Xbox. I had responded to Amazon's outreach because, as someone once said, "when the New York Yankees give you a call, you take the call." Amazon went from initially reaching out, on LinkedIn, to making me an offer within 14 days. Yet, due to confidentiality reasons, Amazon couldn't tell me what I'd be doing. So I joined the Yankees, hoping I would be working on something cool.
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It did turn out to be something cool. Amazon had hired me to help expand their presence in video games. At the time, Amazon had consistent data that Fire-tablet customers were spending the most amount of time and money playing games on their devices. As a result, Amazon wanted to delight these customers even more, and instinctively knew that games would become a long-term, key instrument to help retain customers in Amazon's retail and entertainment ecosystems.
The problem was, Amazon didn't exactly know how to double down on video games. They had the data that customers loved games, but weren't sure where to go from there. Would Amazon be better off licensing games or building them in-house? What game genres would Amazon's customers like? Amazon didn't know. To complicate things further, becoming relevant in games would require investing hundreds of millions of dollars. Jeff Bezos, himself, would need to approve placing this kind of bet, and Amazon lacked sufficient gaming talent internally to consult Bezos for the right strategic decision and execution.
Starting Amazon Game Studios
Right after my hire, I joined a team of four, to resolve the games initiative for Amazon. We scheduled an initial review with Bezos four weeks after my hire date. Then we started working on the six-page narrative that would define Amazon's entry in games. Each of us four iterated on the document and did primary research. We deliberated and shared the load of collecting data and building hypotheses. In the end, I had directly written about a third of the final narrative.
During the Bezos review, the most senior Amazonian of us four led things. The others chimed in, as needed. I engaged in a direct conversation with Amazon's CEO for about 10 minutes, answering his questions and offering my general viewpoints.
Brainstorming with Jeff Bezos was remarkable. He had no prior professional experience in games, yet after reading our document, he produced a number of incredibly thoughtful insights. The type of insights I could never achieve in a brand new field, after just a couple of hours. For example, he stated how: "Not only Halo did launch the first Xbox. But the first Xbox did launch Halo." In other words, Halo (a hit Xbox game franchise) was the killer app that helped sell the new console. But the fact that the new Xbox marketplace had very few games to play, contributed to making Halo a success. This type of strategic insight is highly unusual even for grizzled game veterans (me included.)
At the end of the meeting, Bezos had a number of action items for us. All in, we met with Amazon's CEO three additional times until he approved the creation of a dedicated game development team: AGS.
Bias for Action
After starting AGS, I served as the business-development, production, and solutions-architect lead, until we hired dedicated heads for each function. In the first ten months, I signed double-digit new-IP games with external development studios. Those games later became the backbone of AGS's game portfolio and provided exclusive game content for Fire TV, Fire Phone, and Fire Tablet. Fast forwarding a year later, AGS had also acquired Twitch (Amazon's largest acquisition until August 2017.)
The main takeaway here is that Bias for Action matters and that Amazon does move quickly. And it is, indeed, a Day-1 company. Meaning that Amazon does make high-quality, high-velocity decisions with a speed that is frequently unnatural for its size. What else would you call deciding to plow hundreds of millions in a brand new space? In just four weeks.
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