In spring 2000, I left Amazon to join a startup called Drugstore.com. My official title was Email Communications Editor. At age 27, Amazon was the first corporation I had ever worked for and I assumed all Internet-based companies operated pretty much like Amazon. Wow, was I ever wrong.
Drugstore.com turned out to be a miserable place to work. Whereas I had enjoyed being part of a tight and innovative cohort at Amazon, at Drugstore I was sequestered in a cubicle on a floor so silent you could hear a mouse click. Nobody talked to each other, turf battles were rampant, and I found myself writing about products like Always Feminine Wipes. Conference rooms were named after drugs; I frequently had meetings in the Prozac room and the Viagra room. Today, Drugstore.com is no more, having been relegated to the dotcom dustbin with companies like Kozmo.com and Pets.com.
One thing I learned from my dotcom boom and bust experiences was that there are people, typically with MBA degrees, who are more interested in making money than anything else. Big shocker, I know. The folks who started Drugstore didn’t particularly have a passion for bath salts and rectal themometers, they just looked around and saw that the kinds of things you buy in drugstores weren’t claimed yet as an e-commerce category. They were essentially riding Amazon’s coattails.
In The Four, a frequently entertaining new book by serial startup founder Scott Galloway (Red Envelope, L2, Prophet), Amazon is named one of the Four Horsemen along with Facebook, Apple, and Google. Galloway’s thesis is to crack the code as to why some companies succeed like Amazon and others fail like Drugstore.com. He credits Jeff Bezos’s gift for training investors not to expect profits, with revenue going right back into aggressive expansion into every conceivable category and into experiments that sometimes lead to failures (the Fire phone) and sometimes smash hits (Prime, the Echo). He faults Amazon for its brutal corporate culture and takes Bezos to task for essentially spending his competition to death, but there’s a sort of fanboyish jealousy/admiration underneath the sniping.
As for Apple, Galloway posits that it’s all about sex. Employing something of an evolutionary psychologist argument, he suggests that we buy Apple products because it’s a luxury brand signalling our sexual prowess. And here I was thinking I use a MacBook because it reliably doesn’t crash. Facebook has become a dominant force in our lives because it appeals to our hearts–our relationships with other people. Most interesting to me was Galloway’s belief that VR was Facebook’s ultimate head-fake, a failure that Mark Zuckerberg will soon regret. And Google is hailed in these pages as a substitute for God, a company to which we submit all manner of questions and through which we seek knowledge.
The subtext of The Four seems to be: goddammit, I wish I had come up with one of these horrible and rapacious company’s ideas. The tone is frequently profane, which I guess signals authenticity in the business book genre. The paradox, I think, is that these companies became so wildly valued because their founders valued something else besides success. Jeff Bezos was driven by a passion for innovation, Jobs famously valued design to the point of making many of his machines prohibatively expensive, and Sergei Brin and Larry Page of Google insisted “don’t be evil.”
Galloway makes an interesting argument in pointing out that dominant companies tend to fade away, replaced by more innovative companies. He speculates on what companies have a shot at becoming a “fifth horseman,” making the case for Uber, Tesla, and even legacy companies like Microsoft and IBM.
Obsession with the product itself as a primary motivating factor led the four horsemen to their market-dominating positions today. Starting with the desire to be famous or wealthy then trying to reverse engineer that desire into a business plan leads to disappointment, and I suspect led to the writing of this book.