Working Backward from the Customer

7 Jan

Daniel Lyons interviewed Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for Newsweek about the success of the Kindle and how he runs his company.  What is clear is that Bezos’s Amazon has a culture unique from any other I’ve experienced.  In particular, Bezos talks about how the Kindle was developed by “working backward from the customer”:

“There are two ways that companies can extend what they’re doing. One is they can take an inventory of their skills and competencies, and then they can say, “OK, with this set of skills and competencies, what else can we do?” And that’s a very useful technique that all companies should use. But there’s a second method, which takes a longer-term orientation. It is to say, rather than ask what are we good at and what else can we do with that skill, you ask, who are our customers? What do they need? And then you say we’re going to give that to them regardless of whether we currently have the skills to do so, and we will learn those skills no matter how long it takes. Kindle is a great example of that. It’s been on the market for two years, but we worked on it for three years in earnest before that…We had to acquire new skills….

Then Bezos talks about doing what you do and doing it well versus adding new skills to meet customer needs:

“There’s a tendency, I think, for executives to think that the right course of action is to stick to the knitting—stick with what you’re good at. That may be a generally good rule, but the problem is the world changes out from under you if you’re not constantly adding to your skill set.”

How do you work backward from the customer?  Despite how it sounds, what I hear from Bezos is that  Amazon isn’t simply a blank slate on which customers crowdsource new service offerings and innovations.  What Amazon clearly did with the Kindle is to put smart people on the task of getting to know their most avid book buyers.  They found out what they want and need, coming up with a vision what those customers were going to need, and investing in a team that could deliver it.

The result: a product that, despite it’s flaws, seemed like something we’d wanted it all along.

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One Response to “Working Backward from the Customer”

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