Amazon has become the leader in the e-book market on the strength of its Kindle line of e-readers. And it dominates an important segment of the cloud computing market; Amazon Web Services is expected to generate $12 billion in revenue this year.
“There's an opportunity to do innovation in big companies,” says author and startup guru Eric Ries. “But very few big companies have done this really well. Amazon is one of them.”
But so far, Google has had little to show for these efforts. Google Glass was a flop. The company has developed some impressive self-driving technology over the past six years but has still not turned it into a commercial product. Google bought Nest in 2014, but the company has struggled to expand beyond smart thermostats. Google acquired some robotics startups in 2014, but hasn’t figured out what to do with them and wound up putting one up for sale.
Google’s most promising “moonshot” is its self-driving car project, which is widely regarded as the technology leader. But top engineers on the project have grown impatient with the company’s slow pace in getting to market. A team of Google engineers left Google to found Otto, a self-driving truck company acquired by Uber earlier this year. The leader of Google’s self-driving car project, Chris Urmson, recently quit to create a self-driving car startup of his own.
“I know examples where a random Amazon engineer mentions ‘Hey I read about an idea in a blog post, we should do that,’” Eric Ries says. “The next thing he knows, the engineer is being asked to pitch it to the executive committee. Jeff Bezos decides on the spot.”
At a normal company, when the CEO endorses an idea, it becomes a focus for the whole company, which is a recipe for wasting a lot of resources on ideas that don’t pan out. In contrast, Amazon creates a small team to experiment with the idea and find out if it’s viable. Bezos famously instituted the “two-pizza team” rule, which says that teams should be small enough to be fed with two pizzas.
“They prioritize launching early over everything else,”
Of course, this method isn’t foolproof; Amazon has had plenty of failures, like its disastrous foray into the smartphone market. But by getting a product into the hands of paying customers as quickly as possible and taking their feedback seriously, Amazon avoids wasting years working on products that don’t serve the needs of real customers.
“It doesn't matter what technology” teams use at Amazon, one of the company’s former engineers wrote in 2011. Bezos has explicitly discouraged the kind of standardization you see at companies like Google and Apple, encouraging teams to operate independently using whatever technology makes the most sense.
One way to deal with the conundrum is for big tech companies to acquire startups early in their growth. That allows a startup’s innovations to be combined with the resources of a big company. Uber acquired the self-driving truck startup Otto less than a year after it was founded. GM paid a billion dollars for the self-driving car startup Cruise in March.