Want to know what Jeff Bezos thinks? He doesn’t give many unscripted interviews these days. Heck, he made news recently just by answering some open-ended questions onstage from his younger brother. But it wasn’t always this way.
Years ago, Bezos appeared much more often in the press, and among his many interviews was one that prompted a 5,700-word profile in The Washington Post. Published in September 2000, it contains some interesting keys to what the Amazon later became–including the hiring strategy Bezos used when he was still the one doing the interviewing.
Bezos was 36 then, and Amazon was six years old. He was famous already: a multi-billionaire who had been Time‘s Person of the Year. But his “get big now, profit-later” strategy had Wall Street nervous, and the company’s share price was sliding. Some employees worried that their stock options might turn out to be worthless after the dot-com bubble burst.
Yet Bezos was still spending “much of his time recruiting and screening executives,” the Post reported. And, he said, he always asked the same unusual question in every interview: “How many gas stations are there in the United States?”
The thought process
I’m sure you’ve seen these kinds of questions; perhaps you’ve asked or answered them in interviews yourself. The answer to the question itself doesn’t really matter; it’s all about probing the candidate’s thought processes.
“I realize it’s a little weird to ask things like this to people who have 800 people reporting to them somewhere,” Bezos told the Post reporter, but he viewed it as a means to a goal, hiring only the smartest people he could find. Amazon’s business model, projections, strategy, and products might all change, he thought, and so the constant to shoot for was to hire only the smartest people.
Besides his gas station question, it led him to ask applicants to share their SAT scores and to ask a CFO candidate who had ranked #2 on the CPA exam why she hadn’t come in first.
“There’s nothing wrong with asking for SAT scores,” Bezos told the Post. He also often conducted hour-long reference checks on potential hires himself, asking 23 standard questions including: Can you think of a problem that everyone thought was unsolvable that this person solved?
“If this person were really brilliant, you can remember these things. If they can’t think of anything, it doesn’t mean they’re not brilliant. But it’s certainly a negative indicator,” Bezos said.
No diversity questions
Parts of the 2000 interview are a reminder of just how much has changed during the first two decades of this century.
We can start with Bezos’s daily dress code (“blue dress shirts and khakis”). There’s also the fact that that the company is portrayed as having made no effort to pretend even to care about racial or cultural diversity.
“Sources within the organization say it is simply not a priority in recruiting,” the Post reported, and described it as “predominantly male and white.”
But again and again it comes back to the notion that a company is at core its people–and that means recruiting “the best available players in the draft,” to borrow a sports metaphor.
As David Shaw, who founded the hedge fund where Bezos worked before launching Amazon, and whose hiring practices Bezos was said to have taken inspiration from, told the Post, “We don’t always recruit for specific positions. We’re happy to warehouse a truly gifted individual on the assumption that they may someday make us money.”
175,000 gas stations
Bezos, of course, turned out to be one of the rare founders who can guide a venture from garage startup days to conglomerate.
At the time of the 2000 Post interview, Amazon was doing $1.64 billion a year in sales and had about 8,600 employees. It hadn’t yet seen its stock price crash and rebound, as happened during 2001. Yet a Lehman Brothers analyst had made a name for himself earlier that summer by predicting that Amazon was toast: “The party is over.”
Fast forward to 2016, and Amazon did just under $136 billion in revenue. With its acquisition of Whole Foods, the company just surpassed 500,000 employees. Oh, and of course Bezos is now the world’s richest person and owns the Post. (Meantime the firm where the “party is over” analyst worked no longer exists.)
By the way, here’s how Bezos said he’d answer the gas station question.
As a kid, he spent summers in the tiny town of Cotulla, Texas, population 3,000, and he recalled that there were two gas stations there. Thus, he said he’d assume that 1 gas station for every 1,500 people ration held true for the entire country, and just do the math.
Based on a U.S. population of 280 million at the time (it’s 323 million now), that would work out to about 186,666 gas stations. The actual number at the time: 175,000. His calculation was within about 6.7 percent of the right answer.