Quora is a fun and interesting tool sometimes. It’s kind of neat to see what sorts of things people might ask (though, admittedly, about 95% of the questions are completely banal), or what they might say in answer to your questions.
But sometimes a question on Quora can serve as a writing prompt to get you thinking. For example, my answer to someone asking “Why doesn’t Barnes and Noble have something similar to Kindle Unlimited for Nook?”
As I note in my answer, the better question might not be so much why Barnes & Noble didn’t, but why Amazon did. And that led to me recalling all the other things Amazon did. It seems that the key to Amazon’s success can be summed up in the title of a song from a recent Disney movie.
Remember how Amazon began? It was a simple little bookstore site devoted to the proposition of selling paper books, just like your average Waldenbooks, Borders, or Barnes & Noble, but doing it over the Internet.
That’s all Amazon was, and all Amazon did, in the beginning. It was a store where you could buy physical goods over the Internet—like about a zillion other stores back in the day. It wasn’t even the only Internet bookstore! For the longest time, I only ordered books from Books a Million (I had a loyalty club membership and everything), because I had been annoyed at some obnoxious thing or other Amazon had done, so long ago that I can’t even remember what it was now, and had the foolish notion that my “boycott” of Amazon might have some effect. (I eventually learned better.)
But what put Amazon out in front of all the rest of them? Well, just look at everything Amazon is and does now. An expanded merchandise selection beyond (way beyond) books. The Kindle. Kindle Desktop Publishing. Amazon Prime. Amazon Prime Now. Amazon Music. Amazon Streaming Video. The Kindle Owners Lending Library. Kindle Unlimited. The Fire Tablet. The Amazon Echo. Sunday mail delivery. Amazon Dash buttons. And on. And on. Every single one of those things was, at one time, something completely new Amazon was trying, and had its share of skeptics. And yet, all of those things have stuck around, so far.
And that’s the secret, really. Since it started acquiring the cash flow to end all cash flows. Amazon has never rested on its laurels. Remember all the years people gloomily wondered whether Amazon would ever turn a profit? That’s because there were no laurels to be had—Amazon was immediately plowing all its income back into building out its infrastructure, and, more importantly, trying more and more new things.
Not all of those new things were successful. Some of them not only failed, but failed badly. The Fire Phone comes most immediately to mind. That phone didn’t just fail, it crashed and burned, and you could see the mushroom cloud from over the horizon.
But did Amazon let that stop it? No. It just shrugged, brushed the dust off, told itself, “Lesson learned,” and applied those lessons as it continued to try yet other new things. It’s not just trying anything, it’s trying everything.
Of course, the underlying reason Amazon is so confident in trying new things is that it has deep-enough pockets that it doesn’t have to worry about the occasional idea that turns out to be a stinker. It’s diversified and wealthy, so it has ample money to burn on trying out crazy new ideas. The ones that work will work well enough that the occasional bad investment can be easily written off with no need to feel bad. If you don’t try any new things, you don’t find new things that will make you even more money.
And that’s one of the areas where Barnes & Noble failed. Not only did it never try a “Kindle Unlimited” style ebook subscription program, it never had the wherewithal even to consider one, because its Nook self-publishing program was nowhere near as extensive or successful as Amazon’s. It’s never had the critical mass of self-publishing writers sufficient to make up for the fact that no big publishers are willing to sign on.
Since clawing its way to the top bookstore chain spot decades ago, B&N has never tried to innovate. Its only attempts at new things have come after Amazon has shown it the way is safe with its own products: An e-ink reader. A $50 tablet. It only pokes its nose into spaces where Amazon has already proved the way is safe—but by the time it does, Amazon has already solidified its own hold on that market. Being that timid is simply not the way to win. (And for that matter, I haven’t seen Books a Million trying any new initiatives lately either.)
Amazon doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. It’s constantly looking into new programs, including seemingly fanciful ones (like drone package delivery services) that competitors scoff at now. But does Amazon know something they don’t? It might very well. It might just know that continuing to try new things, even outlandish things, is the only way to succeed. You can’t win if you don’t play the game. Even if you fail, you probably learned something in the doing that will help you succeed if you try something else similar down the road. That’s how Amazon has rolled, the last few years—and rolled right over its competitors.
I’m really looking forward to finding out just what new innovations Amazon comes up with in the next twenty years or so.