The trillion dollar company built on flannel

The trillion dollar company built on flannel

A flannel shirt.

A massive E-Commerce empire

Advanced algorithms

What ties all these together? Jeff Wilke, AKA, the right hand man of Amazon, and the man responsible for building the logistics engine of one of the largest companies in the world.

Today, we're going to take a look into Jeff Wilke, and his contribution to the Amazon empire

What we will cover today:

  • Decision Making: How to make hard decisions that scale
  • Scaffolding Mental Thinking: How to turn a founder's mental model into reality
  • Operational Excellence: The key to success

We always look to the leaders for inspiration, but often, there are immense lessons to learn from the number 2. Success for any leader hinges on the ability of their second in command to translate their vision to reality.

Companies, armies and nations are vehicles and scaffolds that translate the mental vision of leaders in reality. And the second in command is the architect that manifests this vision into reality.

Why is this important?

Look around, we live in a world of innovation. We live in a world where ideas are abundant, access is unlimited and the opportunities are endless.

What's holding us back from succeeding?

The problem is not that we don't have ideas or opportunity, it's a lack of execution.

The goal of this series and brief will be to explore the executors. The second and thirds in command. The right hand man (or woman). The consigliere. The shadows where leaders consult and decisions are made.

And we start our series with the second of command of the current titan of business; Jeff Bezos.

Funny enough, Jeff's second in command is also called Jeff. Jeff Wilke to be exact. While this Jeff is less known in the public eye, but who's impact on the Amazon cannot be understated. For the past 2 decades, he has been growing from building the logistics engine of Amazon, to now overseeing everything Amazon except AWS.

What's important here to know is that Jeff is directly responsible for a large % of the success Amazon has seen.

How does he do it?

Making the tough decisions the leader doesn't/can't do:

We all have to make tough decisions as we scale. Initially, as we open any new initiative and business, we have to decide on choices.

What to name the company? Who should we hire? Should I invest in an engineer to build an app? Should I raise money?

From this we can learn from Wilke. Wilke recommends making "Reversible Decisions".

Decisions can be either one-way doors, or two way doors. Rather than position your choices as only one-way doors, think creatively and make two-way doors.

Let's revisit the decisions earlier: Namely - What to name the company?

The one-way choice: Pick a name, buy the domain, and trademark it all at once

The two-way choice: Pick a name, use a public domain and a service to host until you land at a name that is more appropriate down the line.

Why would a two-way door work? The reality is 90% of your decisions are around things that don't really matter to the business. Instead of wasting mental energy by being concerned about the consequences of being wrong, change your framework to focus on solutions that are easily reversible.

Turning the mental vision into a scaffold

Companies are scaffolds that turn the mental vision of the founder into reality.

Let's say you have a great idea. How do you turn it to reality? How do you translate the visceral vision in your head into a thriving company.

This is how Wilke describes Amazon - as the scaffolding aimed to magnify the thinking that Jeff embodies.

How is this done?

At a high level, a lot of this is driven by the principles that Amazon embodies

Disagree and commit.

Inventing and Simplify

Bias to action and many more

At the same time, ensure that you are coupling this with the details. When given the task to build out the logistics engine, Jeff operated at the lowest level of details.

He added scientists and engineers in positions normally given to people with retail experience. He pushed for the development of advanced algorithms and statistical processes to drive cost savings. He emphasized the importance of continuous improvement and applied principles like six sigma to drive improvements.

But you might say to me - but I don't have the resources to do all of that.

In this case, you need to focus on the basics.

Start with delivering a great consumer experience. Start with Operational Excellence.

The secret to success is caring about Operational Excellence

Sometimes we forget about quality. We focus so much on figuring out which product/service to sell, and to whom we sell, that we neglect the quality of what we sell.

In this we are neglecting the importance of the central tenet of Amazon: Customer Obsession.

In learning about Wilke, Customer Obsession is in everything he did to help build the company.

It was not superficial. Many people interpret Customer Obsession as just keeping an eye on KPIs, or reacting only when consumer ratings are going in the wrong direction.

Not Jeff Wilke

Every holiday, corporate employees used to spend days helping out in the fulfillment centers. These area managers were elevated in importance and visibility, and the internal operations of these companies produced vital statistics who all levels of the company paid attention to.

This is where the flannel comes in. Jeff kept a flannel at all times as a reminder of the importance of these fulfillment centers. He recognized the truth - customer obsession meant that perfection and quality was needed at these centers, so as a business operator, ensuring that these centers was run well was a top priority.

For yourself - think about what you are selling. If you run an e-commerce brand, how many of customers are offering returns? Are you using this as a source of financial anguish? Or are you asking yourself why these returns are happening - and revisit your product offering.

We can all learn more by learning from the second in command. Keeping in mind principles like these will help drive improvements in whatever business and endeavour you decide to embark on.

Our goal in the Midnight Brief is to provide you unique insights wherever they are in the intersection of politics, business and history.

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