Dear Civic Leaders of Seattle,
I am deeply embarrassed on your behalf after reading your letter to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and John Schoettler. As someone who worked for Amazon twice for a total of five years, and as a citizen who spent two years working with the city on a cultural diplomacy project that didn’t pan out, I feel I’m in a unique position to provide insight into how our municipal government might cope with the news that Amazon is seeking another city to host a second headquarters.
First, your letter reveals that you have yet to digest this whole “HQ2” concept. Amazon isn’t leaving Seattle. It is doing something far more innovative and radical, engaging in a process of corporate mitosis through which it will build redundancies, foster innovation, and hedge its bets against natural disasters, economic downturns, Trumpian vendettas, and hostile regulatory environments.
The notion that Amazon decided on this strategy because of negative coverage in local newspapers is laughable, not to mention disgraceful at a time when the fourth estate is under attack from the executive branch. Amazon isn’t taking its toys elsewhere because the Seattle Times or The Stranger hurt its feelings. I’ve endured a number of Amazon performance reviews, and can tell you that the company is made of people who can shrug off harsh criticism.
I have a couple pieces of advice for you. First, take a field trip to the intersection of Denny and Stewart. Look up at the billboard that’s been planted on the southeast corner of that intersection for the past month, the advertisement for Amazon Web Services. Do you see what it says? “While Talkers Talk, Builders Build.” Do you think it’s a coincidence that this billboard is directly on the route where drivers taking the 520 bridge from the eastside will see it as they exit into downtown Seattle? Do you understand that this message is directed at you? (Extra credit if you can explain what “Amazon Web Services” is.)
I imagine that your offer to convene a joint task force to discuss the future of Amazon in Seattle was met with peals of laughter in the corner offices of South Lake Union. A task force is the definition of talking instead of building. My experience with Seattle’s municipal government taught me that there is far much more of the former than the latter happening at City Hall. Amazon’s primary leadership principle is Bias for Action and the company culture is designed to encourage calculated risk taking by individuals. Municipal government is designed for consensus-building and risk avoidance so you can remain in office.
My other piece of advice is this. Establish an office at City Hall that is dedicated to Amazon relations. A budget, a room with desks in it, email addresses, letterhead. Do this yesterday.
Next, as soon as Amazon announces the site of HQ2, lease an office in that city, preferably across the street from their City Hall. Hire an ambassador who will live in that city. Establish a rigorous civic diplomacy program that has officials from that city spending significant time in Seattle and vice versa. Exchange notes like crazy. Provide HQ2’s city government with a massive data dump of Seattle’s experience with Amazon, providing all pertinent public records related to facilities and real estate. Ask the same from HQ2’s city. Work together and when necessary present a united front. Otherwise, Amazon will play you off one another like a kid going from mom to dad asking both for ice cream.
If all of this sounds harsh or nasty or disrespectful, know that I am simply communicating in the manner that I learned at Amazon, and if you expect to start taking meetings with the company, you should brace yourself for a hell of a lot worse. I have to cope with rising rents and other Amazon-related growing pains like everyone else in Seattle. I love this city and want to see it prosper. I wrote this letter because I assume you feel the same. Good luck.