Amazon's Jeff Bezos refers to any talk of competition, including that of Flipkart's heightened sales pitch coinciding with his India visit, as "a bunch of noise". The chief executive of the e-commerce giant is making his second visit to India - the first since Amazon entered this market.
Relaxed in a blue shirt, sleeves rolled up, minus a jacket or a tie, Bezos (50) tells Itika Sharma Punit & Nivedita Mookerji he did not notice any Flipkart billboard. He prefers to stay heads-down and not pay attention to distractions, he says, and repeats it when asked if he ever thought the Flipkart founders, who had begun at Amazon, could compete with him one day.
With his characteristic laugh - something that would stay on his face through the interview - Bezos, who had started Amazon from a garage in 1994, says doing business is not easy anywhere in the world but he has not faced any major obstacle. This is even as e-commerce firms like his own are facing tax-related hurdles in India. Excerpts:
What brings you to India this time?
The reason for this visit is to celebrate the past year, and to say 'thank you' to the Amazon India team and all our customers in India. What has happened here in the past year is spectacular, and surprising, and wonderful... I am grateful for it. Today, we invited a bunch of customers to lunch. And, you know, I have never taken so many selfies in my life (laughs)… I am in India for about a week to meet customers, media and team members… I have a very full agenda. The Indian team is like slave driver... If I say five minutes of rest, they are like, no!
Are you meeting anybody in the Indian government?
I do not know yet, but I would be happy to. We have a team that plans those things... so, maybe I am; I do not know yet.
You have come here at a time when our prime minister is in your country...
I know, we are keeping the world balanced (laughs).
Would you not have wanted to meet the PM?
I would love to meet him. I think, he is very respected internationally. He is seen as a very practical and good leader.
The new government in India is extremely keen on a digital thrust. How will that help e-commerce?
Based on Amazon's experience, I would say e-commerce is happening big time in India. Our Indian teammates have to keep resetting their objectives, because they keep beating their past objectives, and then they have to set even higher targets. So, it is very exciting.
You announced an investment of $2 billion in India, but we do not know the period over which it will be spread. Could you talk about it?
It will be spent as they (the India team) need it. Amit (Agarwal, vice-president & country manager, Amazon India) is taking those decisions along with his team. It is going to be spent on new fulfilment centres, new logistics, transportation, mobile - mobile is important everywhere in the world but especially in India - new tools for the small- and medium-sized businesses for them to be able to access customers. So, there is a lot. We invest big like that when something is already working. I was optimistic, but not this optimistic. It makes sense to double down on that investment.
How much have you invested in India so far?
It is significant, but you know this market deserves even larger investment, because of the success it has generated so far.
The timing of your $2-billion investment was much talked about; its announcement came soon after Flipkart's $1-billion fundraising. Was that a coincidence or did you plan it that way?
I was a little surprised by that. But, as you can imagine, an investment of this size is done in a very deliberate way over a long period. I think it is just a coincidence.
How did you react when your investment was pitched against Flipkart's announcement?
I stay heads-down, focused. I encourage these guys (the India team) to not pay attention to a bunch of noise, and rather stay focused on the customer experience, do the right thing, figure out how to get products to customers faster with more reliability, earn trust with customers. The rest will take care of itself.
There is noise now as well. This time, it is about Flipkart sales billboards being placed all over Bangalore at a time when you are in India. Any view on that?
Noise is always there. It is a noisy world we live in.
But did you see the Flipkart billboards on way from the airport?
No, I did not see… At Amazon, we have a long history of obsessing over customers rather than competition. At every place we do business, we have great competitors. It is okay, that is how the world is supposed to work. I think we do well because we don't think about that. We ask, 'what do customers want?' You know, competitors will never give us money (laughs). We service our customers and they send us money. You do not want to get distracted by this or that, in a world where you can get easily distracted.
Your competition is saying that Amazon is panicking (because of competition in Indian e-commerce) and that is why Jeff is here. Any truth?
Well, all I can tell you is that I am super happy to be here. I love being here. I find India and its people energetic and energising. There is just so much going on here, it is just so dynamic. It is interesting, because you hear all the time that there are so many obstacles in doing business here in India, but that's not been our experience. Our experience is that this is the fastest growing geography that we have ever entered into.
So, are you saying that doing business in India is easy?
See, doing business is not easy anywhere. Every country has its quirks, differences and uniqueness. Every country has its own rules and regulations. Companies must work around those.
But, has Amazon not faced taxation and foreign direct investment (FDI) -related issues in India?
As far as FDI goes, we are operating in the marketplace format and are doing well. If rules change, maybe, we will do more.
Do you think you need to change your India strategy for a better hold in this market?
No, I do not think there is any need to change the strategy. My basic advice to my team is -be stubborn on the vision but flexible on details.
You said India was the fastest-growing market. Have you also witnessed the fiercest competition in India?
I don't know. We have fierce competition all over the world - US, Japan, everywhere…
In India, your biggest competitors have a local edge. How do you handle that?
We have a local edge, too (laughs). Have you met Amit? He has an American uncle in the US (referring to himself), who sends him money whenever he wants… We are local in India, with the basic principle of starting with the customer, and not being a 'me-too' company. Third thing is being patient and not cutting corners. Within these principles, they (the India team) are doing things. I am not managing India from Seattle.
Flipkart founders - Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal - began their career at Amazon. Did you think they would build a company like Flipkart one day and compete with you?
I do not think much about these things. I think too many companies get distracted by others, instead of just thinking about their customers. You should have a deep keel, so that the wind cannot blow you around. I would encourage any employee to just forget about all that and think just about customers. For 19 years, we have taken that approach and I do not want to change that. Everybody should pursue his own goal.
Do you expect consolidation in the e-commerce market? Do you think there will be one winner in the end?
No, I think there will be more than one winner. Our growth will mostly come organically. There will be acquisitions that are practical in India as well. But I think the real thing is organic.
The narrative seems to be changing. Earlier, there were questions on whether there would be an Indian Amazon or not. Now, it has shifted to 'will there be an Indian Alibaba'? Do you see any possibility of an Indian Alibaba or an Indian Amazon?
I do not know. This is one of those things that I do not know the answer to. I want to be an Indian Amazon, and I want to be Amazon!
But, what are your thoughts on Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba after its $21.8-billion initial public offering?
I know that these questions are very interesting… But I do not spend too much time thinking about those. The world is full of good companies and great opportunities. They pursue their mission in their ways, and we pursue ours in our way.
But the Alibaba IPO reflects upon the e-commerce sector. Does it not?
Investors come in all shapes and sizes, they have different opinions and different investment horizons and different approaches to building their portfolios. The most important thing for a public company is to be really clear about its approach; investors get to self select then. They get to say, that is the kind of company we want to invest in. Warren Buffet has this fantastic quote - "you can hold a ballet, and that is okay. And, you can hold a rock concert, and that is okay too. But just don't hold a ballet and advertise that there is a rock concert". That is the most important advice any public company could ever be given. Just be clear about who you are. Investors know that we are long-term oriented, we like to pioneer and make bets and try new things. To some, that appeals, while others would say that is not the right kind of investment for me. And that is okay.
Drones have been in news. There were reports we could see drones from you this Diwali. What are your plans?
I heard about that rumour too. Who knows where these rumours come from? But, anyway, (laughs), I am very excited about drones as a delivery mechanism for the future. We have a significant team working on that, they are making progress. The technology is challenging but very doable. The hardest part is getting the right regulations in place to make it possible. So, we continue to work both on the technology side and the regulatory side.
You acquired Washington Post last year. Are you looking at making any investments in the Indian media as well?
Is there something you are trying to sell me? We should meet later (laughs). I am very happy with Washington Post and there is a lot of exciting stuff there. But I am not looking to expand that by buying more media companies.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in India