Business

Scott Kirsner

What Bezos knows about Boston

Jeff Bezos, the chief executive officer of Amazon.
Matthew Ryan Williams/New York Times/file
Jeff Bezos, the chief executive officer of Amazon.

Jeff Bezos has never lived, gone to school, or worked here, so how much can he know about Boston?

Quite a lot.

Since the founder of Amazon showed up to speak at a class at Harvard Business School in 1997, Bezos has invested in a handful of local companies — and bought others, sometimes pulling their leaders out to Seattle to work with him directly. He has overseen the growth of local Amazon offices, which now employ more than 3,000 techies and white-collar workers, separate from Amazon’s logistics operations and distribution centers in the state. Bezos has also invited a few dozen lucky academics, executives, and entrepreneurs from Boston to the exclusive conference he organizes annually in Palm Springs, Calif., to enjoy a “fireworks” display put on by drones or watch Bezos himself gleefully operate a huge Transformers-style exoskeleton.

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What impact — if any — will all of that have on Amazon’s eventual choice of a city for a second North American headquarters? Let’s just say it can’t hurt that Bezos has had plenty of direct exposure to Boston’s best and brightest. And those who have seen him in action say he appreciates brains and drive.

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Rodney Brooks, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus who once headed the university’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, has founded two robotics companies. Bezos invested in both: Bedford-based iRobot, now publicly traded, and Rethink Robotics, a private company in Boston making robots that can work in factories alongside humans.

“He’s the smartest person I know personally, and he seems to me to be one of the two great entrepreneurs of our time, the other being Elon Musk,” Brooks says. “I rank Jeff very high in my pantheon. He always has unique insights that instantly make sense. He’s clearly smarter than me, and it shows every time we talk.”

Brooks is one of the Bostonians who is on the invite list for Bezos’s annual conference — called MARS, which stands for machine learning, home automation, robotics, and space — and this year he showed off Rethink’s newest robot at the event. How is it different from other conferences? “Even if you pay a lot of money, you don’t get to go,” Brooks says.

As Helen Greiner puts it: “If Bezos invites you to an event about robots, autonomy, and space in Palm Springs, I say you go.” Greiner was a co-founder of iRobot, with Brooks, and of the Danvers drone startup CyPhy Works. MARS, she says, is “very demo-oriented,” with lots of new products and research projects on display.

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One of Amazon’s first acquisitions, in 1998, was a local pre-Facebook social networking startup called Planet All. The co-founder of that company, Warren Adams, left Cambridge for Seattle to work at Amazon’s headquarters after Planet All was purchased in 1998. Adams wound up exploring things like the possibility that people might use a handheld device — at the time, a Palm VII digital organizer — to shop on Amazon. Bezos also asked Adams to think about how forthcoming tablet computers might be used to purchase, read, and store collections of books. That was about eight years before Amazon’s Kindle e-reader made its debut.

At Amazon, there was “no way to B.S. your way through something,” Adams says. “Ideas had to be well thought out, innovative, and they had to improve what the customer was going to experience.” It was, he acknowledges, an intense, “midnight oil kind of place,” but “that was my nature — hard-driving.”

Stig Leschly —another local entrepreneur whose company was bought by Amazon in its early years — worked directly with Bezos as his chief of staff, a role described internally as serving as Bezos’s “shadow.”
Leschly says Bezos is details-oriented and more focused on arriving at the right decision than following a particular series of steps or paying attention to corporate hierarchy. “I can remember him not being interested in who was in the room, or what their titles were, but being focused on the substance of the decision,” says Leschly, now chief executive of the nonprofit Match Education in Boston. “The lesson I took away was: Substance first, process second.”

Bezos, he adds, “works very hard. He has done almost every job at Amazon himself. There’s no job too small for Jeff, or too big for anyone else.”

Perhaps Bezos’s biggest link to Boston thus far has been his 2012 purchase of the warehouse robotics startup Kiva Systems. That North Reading company, now known as Amazon Robotics, builds the rolling machines that move merchandise in Amazon’s distribution centers, allowing it to more efficiently fill orders. Bezos is an occasional visitor to Amazon Robotics.

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Amazon also develops much of the speech recognition technology for its Echo intelligent speaker at a research and development site in Cambridge. And the company relies on Cambridge-based E Ink to supply the screens for its Kindle line of electronic books. E Ink’s co-founder and longtime chief executive, Russ Wilcox, remembers his one face-to-face meeting with Bezos, the company’s biggest customer. The Amazon CEO wasn’t exactly happy that there was just one company he could purchase the screens from, but no one else had developed a comparable technology.

“Amazon is a terrific purchaser,” says Wilcox, now a venture capitalist in Boston. “They know how to buy things, and one of their main strategies is to have at least two suppliers. You can hold a little auction, get a fair price, but keep both of them around in case something goes wrong with one of them.”

That, says Wilcox, may be exactly what Bezos is doing by creating a second headquarters city for Amazon.

If one city sets a policy that the company doesn’t like, or isn’t willing to rezone a chunk of land, Bezos would be able to say “the next 10,000 jobs could go into either of our headquarters locations. What are you willing to do for us now?” Wilcox predicts. “He’s going to be able to auction the two cities against each other.”

No one locally who has dealt with Bezos had a strong take on which North American city would win the headquarters crown — only that Bezos and his leadership team will be extremely analytical about evaluating their options.

Some of Bezos’s first visits to Boston, after he founded Amazon, were to drop in on a class at Harvard Business School taught by Jeffrey Rayport, who had written a case study about the then-fledgling business.

It was the late 1990s, and the company was on the verge of its Nasdaq stock market debut. But Bezos was still feeling frugal. He didn’t want to spring for a cab from Logan to the Harvard campus, so some MBA students vied to give him a lift. Two of them, Rayport recalls, were promptly hired to work at Amazon — they helped the company add DVDs and consumer electronics devices to Amazon’s online storefront.

Bezos has gotten to know Boston pretty well over in the years since those early visits. The big question now: Will Boston get to know Bezos better?

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.