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Experimenting at the right scale

Jeff Bezos published his annual letter to shareowners this week. You can find it here. And as is his usual practice, he has attached his 1997 letter to shareholders at the bottom of it. This is his “Day 1” and he clearly likes the reminder.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that 58% of physical gross merchandise sales on Amazon are now by independent third-party sellers. This number has been steadily increasing almost every year since 1999.

And this is despite the fact that first party sales — products sold by Amazon — have grown at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25% during this same time period. Amazon excels at the fulfillment component and you can have them do that for you as a third-party seller.

There are a number of other interesting facts sprinkled throughout the letter, but I particularly liked the bits on “intuition, curiosity, and the power of wandering.” Here is an excerpt on how Amazon is working to scale the size of its failures:

As a company grows, everything needs to scale, including the size of your failed experiments. If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle. Amazon will be experimenting at the right scale for a company of our size if we occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures. Of course, we won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly. We will work hard to make them good bets, but not all good bets will ultimately pay out. This kind of large-scale risk taking is part of the service we as a large company can provide to our customers and to society. The good news for shareowners is that a single big winning bet can more than cover the cost of many losers.

A lot has already been said and written about accepting failure in life and business. Nobody wants to fail, but it can happen when you’re trying to “imagine the impossible.”

The two nuances here are that failures should scale along with the company. And that “large-scale risk taking” can actually be construed as a service. It might mean that the impossible becomes possible.

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