Where is Amazon’s boss headed next?
IT HAS THE largest windows in space. Six reclining seats. And blue edges that passengers can grab hold of as they float weightlessly more than 100km (62 miles) above Earth. If that is not rarefied enough, imagine if one of the fellow passengers were Jeff Bezos, gazing down onto a planet that is spanned by his digital conglomerate, Amazon, and of which he is the richest inhabitant. When the time comes for Mr Bezos’s private venture, Blue Origin, to send paying tourists into space, its proprietor will almost certainly be among them. “I suspect that he will be—and is, indeed, eager to be—one of the first private citizens to blast himself into space,” writes Walter Isaacson, a biographer, in an introduction to the collected writings of Mr Bezos. Already you shudder to think of Mr Bezos’s peals of laughter ringing through the heavens.
它拥有太空中最大的窗户。六张躺椅。还有蓝色的边框——乘客在距地表100多公里的高空失重漂浮时可以抓住它们。如果这些还不够高大上，想象一下同行乘客之一是杰夫·贝佐斯，他正俯瞰着他的数字帝国亚马逊盘踞的那颗星球，而他是那里的首富。当这一天来临——贝佐斯的私有企业蓝色起源（Blue Origin）把付费游客送上太空——几乎可以肯定它的老板也会是其中一员。“我觉得他会成为——而且是很渴望成为——第一批把自己送入太空的普通民众之一。”传记作家沃尔特·艾萨克森（Walter Isaacson）在贝佐斯文集的前言中写道。想到贝佐斯的哈哈大笑声响彻天空，你都瑟瑟发抖了吧。
It is easy to assume that for the 56-year-old man who has (and sells) everything, space tourism is the ultimate vanity project. He launches rockets from his ranch in West Texas. He has a rippling physique. His bald head resembles that of his idol, Captain Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek”. He is fulfilling a childhood dream. In 1982 he told his schoolmates: “Space, the final frontier, meet me there!”
你很容易会想，对一个拥有（并销售）一切的56岁男人来说，太空旅游是一个终极面子工程。他从自己位于西得克萨斯的牧场发射火箭。他的肌肉线条分明。他的光头和自己的偶像酷似——《星际迷航》（Star Trek）中的舰长让-卢克·皮卡德（Jean-Luc Picard）。他正在实现儿时的梦想。1982年，他曾对同学说：“太空，终极边界，我们那里见！”
Yet dismissing his space quest as a combination of mid-life crisis and money to burn would be underestimating the missionary zeal that drives Mr Bezos, and which “Invent & Wander”, a collection of 23 years of letters to Amazon shareholders and other musings, illustrates. His work on Earth is not yet done. Covid-19 has brought him back squarely to Amazon’s helm. But the book, which is mostly backward-looking, leaves a tantalising hint that you need to peer into the stratosphere to see what comes next. What that means for the future of Amazon is left frustratingly vague.
然而，如果认为贝佐斯对太空的追求不过是源于中年危机加上花不完的钱，那就低估了他那传教士般的热忱。《创造与漫步》（Invent & Wander）收录了他23年来的致股东信及其他思想点滴，展示了这种作为他内驱力的热忱。他在地球上的工作尚未完成。新冠肺炎直接把他送回了亚马逊的方向盘前。但这本主要回顾过去的书留下了一个诱人的线索——要知道接下来会发生什么，需要放眼太空。但想知道这对亚马逊的未来意味着什么，却又有如雾里看花，令人沮丧。
On the surface, his twin obsessions are a puzzle. It is difficult to imagine more different ventures than retailing and rocketry. Revolutionary as both firms are, there are few more hard-headed ones than Amazon, and few more dreamy-sounding concepts than space colonisation. Amazon is a utilitarian monument to the consumer, worth $1.6trn. It promises relentlessly lower prices, speedier delivery and greater variety—as well as faster cloud computing power in the case of Amazon Web Services (AWS). Blue Origin’s vision, funded by the sale of Mr Bezos’s Amazon stock, is Utopian. It is “to enable a future where millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth”. It hopes to achieve this by making launch vehicles that can land and be fully reusable. New Shepard, its suborbital spacecraft, has completed more than a dozen flights. Yet it is years behind schedule for flying tourists to space. For now, Blue Origin’s main customer is the government.
The two companies operate with different degrees of transparency and velocity, too. Amazon has been a public company since it was three years old. Its founding motto was “get big fast” and its obsessive quest to innovate includes a willingness to fail. Blue Origin was kept secret for years after its birth in 2000. It calls itself a tortoise not a hare. Its motto is Gradatim Ferociter, or “Step by step, ferociously”. As Mr Bezos has said, “If you’re building a flying vehicle, you cannot cut any corners.”
两家公司运营的透明度和速度也不同。亚马逊在成立的第三年上市。它创立之初的座右铭是“快速扩张”（get big fast），它对创新的执着追求包括无惧失败。而蓝色起源在2000年成立后的好几年中都处于保密状态。它自称是乌龟而不是兔子。它的座右铭是Gradatim Ferociter，这个拉丁语意为“步步为营，勇往直前”。正如贝佐斯所言，“如果你是在造一架飞行器，就走不得任何捷径。”
Or take their approach to rivals. Amazon, which dominates e-commerce and the cloud, treats them with the haughtiness of a trailblazer. Mr Bezos tells employees to be terrified of customers, not competitors. Blue Origin is a laggard. It is trying to catch up with SpaceX, the rocketry business of Elon Musk, another space-mad plutocrat. Other rivals include Virgin Galactic, the listed venture of Richard Branson, a British tycoon. Aerospace stalwarts such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are both collaborators and competitors. Boeing is a mighty incumbent.
再看它们对待竞争对手的方式。主导电子商务和云计算领域的亚马逊以开拓者自居，傲视对手。贝佐斯告诉员工要畏惧客户而非竞争对手。而蓝色起源落后于人。它正在努力追赶另一位富豪太空迷伊隆·马斯克的火箭公司SpaceX。英国大亨理查德·布兰森（Richard Branson）的上市公司维珍银河（Virgin Galactic）也是对手。洛克希德·马丁（Lockheed Martin）和诺斯罗普·格鲁曼（Northrop Grumman）等老牌航天公司既是它的合作伙伴，也是竞争对手。波音是另一家强大的成熟企业。
Yet at Amazon, Mr Bezos has proved he can run businesses as diverse as one famous for brown boxes, and another for cloud computing. As he wrote in 2015, Amazon and AWS may look different, but they share similar underlying principles on which they act. The same may be true of Amazon and Blue Origin.
Stairway to heaven
Their visions are communicated by a simple narrative. Amazon’s is a focus on customer satisfaction, behind which employees, suppliers and shareholders fall into line. Blue Origin’s core belief is that reusable rockets will lower costs so that access to space is made possible for many. These mantras are endlessly repeated.
Second, the two businesses share breathtaking ambition. From the Kindle and AWS to Echo smart speakers and Alexa, their soothing machine-learned voice, Amazon has frequently given customers more than they ever thought they needed. With Blue Origin, Mr Bezos hopes that he can unleash entrepreneurial activity allowing others to follow his “road to space” and create a new era for business along the way.
Most important, both firms are imbued with Mr Bezos’s devotion to the long term. In his missives about Amazon, he repeatedly reaffirms his intention to invest to win market leadership in a variety of industries, rather than prioritising short-term profits. Blue Origin’s horizons are measured in decades, if not centuries. Both benefit from Mr Bezos’s knack for burying himself in the day-to-day detail, without losing sight of the big picture.
What his fixation with the heavens says about Mr Bezos’s future at Amazon remains a vexing question. The book does not hint at controversies such as the online empire’s treatment of third-party sellers, the hollowing out of high streets, or its quashing of unionisation efforts. It repeats the cliché that it is “day one” for Amazon, even though it seems late in the day as competitors in e-commerce and the cloud up their game and political heat rises. It gives no sense of whether AWS, its most profitable division, should be spun off, or of when Mr Bezos may step down. But it makes clear that Blue Origin, as Mr Bezos put it last year, is “the most important work I’m doing”. One day it may take him not just into orbit but away from the mother ship. ■