While Jeff Bezos will remain Amazon’s CEO for a few more months, his 2020 shareholders letter was recently released, and it’s interesting to see how he’s choosing to say goodbye to the company he created nearly 27 years ago. In many ways, the lessons he imparts are meaningful not only to those tethered to Amazon, but to anyone looking to either build a unique business or a brand in the face of a fickle world that sends us mixed messages about uniformity.
“We all know that distinctiveness – originality – is valuable,” Bezos wrote. “We are all taught to ‘be yourself.’” And yet, he says, we all pay a price for our distinctiveness; that it’s never quite as easy as we’re led to believe, despite what we are told about originality. “The world wants you to be typical – in a thousand ways, it pulls at you. Don’t let that happen.”
From a business perspective, what does it mean to be distinct? And what is the price we often pay to achieve it? And if originality is known as a valuable commodity, then why do we rail so hard against it? Is it because we feel that the world tells us one thing but actually means another? That it actually doesn’t value uniqueness? (Because after all, what is uniqueness – if everything is unique, then nothing truly is, right?)
Amazon is no stranger to distinguishing itself among consumers; in fact, there’s really nothing quite like it in any of our markets. It’s like a mythical store in the sky – we can’t see it, but if we tap a few of the right buttons, what we’re desiring will seemingly float down on our doorstep in the blink of an eye. However, Amazon is also no stranger to controversy.
Perhaps this is what Bezos means when he refers to the world “pulling” at you. When you’re different, you automatically open yourself up to controversy.
His shareholder letter emerges amid ongoing reports of flawed working conditions and union drives. The company even recently issued a “rare” public apology after it was caught lying about how its workers have never had to urinate in water bottles to meet their strenuous work demands. Missed lunch breaks and injuries on the floor are just a few of the other complaints.
I’m not saying there isn’t anything wrong with the way Amazon does things. After all, the fast delivery is lovely, but behind that dexterity and speed, someone worked quickly to avoid falling behind by the robotic tracker – maybe too quickly and at their own detriment. But I do think there’s something to be said about being an original when so many businesses are not.
If you look at some of the biggest, most successful companies today, they all have one thing in common: they are different. Somewhere along the line, these business leaders took a risk and it paid off. Whether it’s newcomers like Tesla and SpaceX or familiar faces like Coca-Cola and Proctor and Gamble, it’s clear that these companies did not find their footing by being like everyone else.
Why should small businesses be any different? A small business owner is, in and of himself, a maverick. After all, the odds are automatically stacked against him, so the blueprint for being original is already ripe and set in place. Don’t be typical. Be atypical. Stay true to yourself. If you do, your brand will strengthen and remain consistently genuine, and this will resonate with consumers.
A small business will rarely explode into an Amazonian sized business (ha—get it?), but you can ensure that you’ll stand out and be different, and honestly, that’s one of the biggest wins you can have. Then again, Wal-Mart started off small in this very state…so I guess there’s hope yet.
While there’s no fairytale ending for any business (I think Amazon’s problems are just the tip of the iceberg, and every company’s got them), there is the possibility for greatness through our distinctness, and I think if anything, Bezos urges us all to find it in ourselves and use it to better the world. Be yourself. The world will thank you.