‘Day 1’ Distraction: National Enquirer fight signals new era for Jeff Bezos, and maybe for Amazon

Jeff Bezos
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2014. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

One of the most fascinating things about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is that building one of the world’s most successful companies was merely a first step.

Those are just a few highlights. Yes, there is a lot of ego wrapped up in that altruism. But even when he’s looking beyond the company he founded, Bezos has always seemed capable of running Amazon and handling it all with discipline and focus. Everything he was doing in the public sphere seemed to add up to a broader vision.

Until we found ourselves reading about his “d*ck pic.”

Publicly challenging the National Enquirer’s parent company AMI for attempted blackmail and extortion, as Bezos did in his remarkable post Thursday afternoon, is bold, risky and even admirable, especially for someone in his position. In a highly unexpected way, it’s more evidence of Bezos’ capacity as a competitor and strategic thinker. He assessed the situation and, by all appearances, disarmed someone who was threatening to take him down.

With the specter of President Trump looming over the whole thing, it’s an amazing turn of events, and a case study in crisis communications.

And yet there’s more at stake here than some embarrassing photos.

In his post, Bezos clearly wanted to get across the point that this mess isn’t impacting his work. For example, he wrote that he told his investigator Gavin de Becker “to prioritize protecting my time since I have other things I prefer to work on and to proceed with whatever budget he needed to pursue the facts in this matter.”

He added later, “AMI’s claim of newsworthiness is that the photos are necessary to show Amazon shareholders that my business judgment is terrible. I founded Amazon in my garage 24 years ago, and drove all the packages to the post office myself. Today, Amazon employs more than 600,000 people, just finished its most profitable year ever, even while investing heavily in new initiatives, and it’s usually somewhere between the #1 and #5 most valuable company in the world. I will let those results speak for themselves.”

But as Bezos himself likes to say, current financial results were “pretty much fully baked about 3 years ago.” So following that logic, any impact from what’s happening now won’t be fully evident for another few years.

Here’s the litmus test: when Bezos woke up this morning, what was the first thing on his mind? The National Enquirer? Or Amazon’s next big move?

He’s a remarkable person, and who knows, maybe he has the discipline to handle this distraction without any impact on his work for the company. And maybe the company’s leadership is strong enough to handle the distraction created by the public disclosure of its founder’s private life, without missing a beat.

But even before this came up, given everything going on his life and at the company, we were already predicting this could be the year when Bezos steps down as Amazon CEO. If it happens, the likely scenario would be for him to retain the title of founder and chairman and turn over day-to-day leadership to one of Amazon’s other Jeffs. (Our bet is on Jeff Wilke, the CEO of the company’s Worldwide Consumer Business.)

With a difficult-to-follow structure and the use of quirky words like “complexifier,” Bezos’ post was clearly written without a lot of input or editing from others. The highly personal nature of the post was in sharp contrast to Amazon’s notoriously close-to-the-vest approach. And knowing that his estranged wife, the novelist MacKenzie Bezos, would often provide feedback on his public letters and memos before publication or distribution, it’s quite possible that this approach is the new normal for Jeff Bezos as a single person.

This whole saga isn’t over yet, but in the meantime, the question of Bezos’ focus is especially interesting for Amazon employees and shareholders to consider.

Bezos likes to say it’s still “Day 1” at Amazon, meaning that the company is just getting started. But this feels like something else — a new phase for the tech giant and its founder, if not a new era for them both.