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Jeff Bezos talked to us about leaving a steady Wall Street job to start Amazon, why his rocket company Blue Origin is his most important project, and what it's like to have Trump as your biggest critic

Jeff Bezos talked to us about leaving a steady Wall Street job to start Amazon, why his rocket company Blue Origin is his most important project, and what it's like to have Trump as your biggest critic

Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner sat down with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to talk about the early days of creating Amazon, what he's learned since then, how he funds his rocket company Blue Origin, and what it's like when the president of the United States is your biggest critic.

The sit-down interview happened in Berlin, Germany, where Bezos received the Axel Springer Award 2018. You can read the complete transcript of their talk below.

Mathias Döpfner: Jeff, welcome to Berlin.

Jeff Bezos: Thanks, it's great to be here.

Döpfner: I have to tell you, when we were sitting in the first row just a couple of minutes ago when the heartbeat was there, Jeff looked at me and I was breathing in and out and he looked at me and asked, "Matias are you nervous?" I said, "Yes, I'm always nervous on occasions like that." And he said, "So am I." I said, "Really? "The richest man in the world is nervous "because he receives the Axel Springer Award?" So be a bit forgiving, we are both nervous. Jeff, we are so glad to really celebrate you tonight. Most importantly apart from all the reasons that we heard because you are a role model for other young founders, entrepreneurs who really have great ideas, crazy ideas, unconventional ideas and need encouragement to simply do it and go for it and you have shown that to the world. So that is really, for me, the most important thing and in that context the first question, you used to work in New York as an investment banker. So an investment banker is actually the exact opposite of an entrepreneur, he's delegating risk to other people and basically, how did you find out or how did you think that you should move from investment banking to really launch a company?

Bezos: I think I'd always wanted to do it ever since I was a kid, had the idea, every time I look at something, it looks like it could be improved, there's something wrong with it so I go through it like how could this restaurant be better, so I've always had that kind of idea. By the way, before we really get into this, how about this amazing production that you and your team have put together? This is truly incredible for its originality like these boxes that you were filming live that's just crazy cool so thank you. Truly it's incredible. But I think the great thing about humans in general is we're always improving things. And so entrepreneurs and inventors, they follow their curiosity and they follow their passions and they figure something out, and then they figure out how to make it better and they're never satisfied. And you need to harness, in my view, you need to harness that energy primarily on your customers instead of on your competitors. And so I sometimes see companies and even young small start-up companies, entrepreneurs, go awry - they start to pay more attention to their competition than they do to their customers. And I think that in big mature industries that might be a winning approach in some cases, kind of close following, let other people be the pioneers and go down the blind allies, there are so many things that a new, inventive company tries won't work and so those mistakes and errors and failures do cost real money. And so maybe in a mature industry where growth rates are slow and change is very slow. But as you see in the world more and more, there aren't very many mature industries, change is happening everywhere. You see it in the automobile industry with self-driving cars, but you could go right down the line of every industry and you would see it.

Döpfner: Do you have any idea where your ambition really comes from? What was driving you?

Bezos: I really don't know. I've been passionate about certain things forever and I fell in love with computers in fourth grade. I got very lucky. My elementary school had a teletype that got connected to a mainframe computer that some business in downtown Houston donated a little bit of computer time too. This is, you can picture these teletypes, they had the punch tape and they had a 300 bot modem, you would dial up the phone, you'd put it in the cradle. And so we had some time sharing on that mainframe computer and none of the teachers knew how to use it so me and two other kids stayed after school and sort of figured out how to do it, figured it out and kind of taught ourselves programming from books. I think one thing is I got very lucky early in my childhood. Look, we all get gifts, we get certain things in our life that we're very lucky about, and one of the most powerful ones is who your early role models are.

Döpfner: It was your grandfather.

Bezos: It was in a big sense. My mom and dad but my grandfather too. My mom had me when she was 17 years old and she was still in high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico and this is in 1964. I can assure you that being a pregnant teenager in high school was not cool in Albuquerque, New Mexico at that time. So it was difficult for her. My grandfather went to bat for her - they tried to kick her out of school. They're incredible. So the gift I had is I had this incredible family.

Döpfner: Could you describe a little bit the role of your grandfather? Because John has mentioned it and I think it was really important.

Bezos: It was super important for me and I spent an unusual amount of time with my grandparents, especially with my grandfather on the ranch. So he had a ranch in South Texas and I would spend my summers there from age four to 16. And when I was four, they were taking me for the summer to kind of give my parents a break, 'cause they were so young and it was useful. I was a handful I'm sure. Anyway, he created the illusion for me when I was four years old that I was helping him on the ranch which of course could not have been true but I believed it and then by the time I was 16 of course I was actually helping on the ranch. I can fix prolapsed cattle, we did all of our own veterinary work. Some of the cattle even survived. And we fixed windmills and laid water pipelines and built fences and barns and fixed the bulldozer that you guys talked about, and so one of the things that's so interesting about that lifestyle and about my grandfather is he did everything himself. He didn't call a vet if one of the animals was sick, he figured out what to do himself.

Döpfner: So what does it mean, no delegation?

Bezos: Being resourceful, I think. If there's a problem, there's a solution, and of course as you mature and get into the business world and anything you do on a team, you very quickly realize that it's not about just your own resourcefulness, it's about team resourcefulness and how does that work. But that attitude of my grandfather's was very ... he was full of wisdom. John mentioned the story about the words my grandfather gave to me at one point, of it's harder to be kind than clever. That story, the slightly longer version of that story, 'cause this was really powerful wisdom is that I made my grandmother burst into tears and the way I did it was we were driving on a long road trip and she was a chain smoker and this was, I was probably, I don't know 10 years old so this was around 1974 and it was in a period of time where there were heavy radio advertisements sort of anti-smoking radio advertisements trying to convince people to stop smoking. And one of the advertisements had this figure in it that said something like, every puff of a cigarette takes so many minute off of your life, I think it was two minutes but I can't remember. So I sat there in the backseat on this long car ride and calculated how many years she had taken off of her life and in my 10 year old mind, I had been extremely clever to do this. And so when I was finished with my arithmetic, I proudly announced to her how many years she had taken off of her life and I got a reaction I did not expect with her bursting into tears. So my grandfather stopped the car and he took me out of the car and I had no idea what was about to happen because he had never said a cross word to me and I thought, he might actually be angry with me but he wasn't. He took me out so we had some privacy from her and he said these incredible words, he said, "You're gonna figure out one day "that it's harder to be kind than clever."

Döpfner: Wonderful. Actually, your brother also plays an important role, you have a very good relationship. Is it actually true that he's still a firefighter?

Bezos: He is, he's a volunteer firefighter in Scarsdale, New York. He's also the funniest person I know. When I'm with him, I'm just laughing continuously. First of all, I'm a good audience. I laugh easily but he is really very funny and my sister too, we're all very close and I have my mother to thank for that because she worked hard to make sure as we grew up that we stayed close together, and she takes all the grandkids for one week every summer so that me and my sister and our spouses can go on a trip together. So we end up spending a lot of time together.

jeff bezos mark bezos summit 2017


Mark (left) and Jeff Bezos (right)

Döpfner: For me the most moving image that we saw tonight is the one that John showed where you and Mackenzie are preparing the table, the famous table, which is very moving because it shows how you really started from the very scratch and also it illustrates symbolically that the launch of Amazon was really something that you did together. Could you describe a little bit what Mackenzie's role was?

Bezos: Well first of all, Mackenzie, she had married this stable guy working on Wall Street, and a year after we got married, I went to her and said, "I want to quit my job, move across the country, and start this internet bookstore." And Mackenzie of course, like everybody that I explained this to, her first question was, "What's the internet?" Because nobody knew, this is 1994. But even before she could say what's the internet she said, "Great, let's go." Because she wanted to support it and she knew that I had always had this passion for invention and starting a company. And so again, I think, Mackenzie is an example of this, but I was talking about with my mom and my dad, who's a Cuban immigrant, he came to the US when he was 16 [to] a refugee camp in the Everglades - they are so loving and supportive that when you have loving and supportive people in your life like Mackenzie, my parents, my grandfather, my grandmother, you end up being able to take risk because I think it's one of those things, it doesn't, you kind of know somebody's got your back and so it's just an, I don't even think you're thinking about it logically, it's an emotional thing.

Döpfner: That's really interesting, you think that unconditional love, if you feel and experience unconditional love, it helps you to take risk?

Bezos: And by the way, I think it's probably true of all kinds of risks in life, not just starting a business. Life is full of different risks. So I think that when you think about the things that you will regret when you're 80, they are almost always the things that you did not do, they are acts of omission. Very rarely are you gonna regret something that you did and it failed and didn't work or whatever, but the acts of omission, and again, I'm not just talking about business things, it's like, I loved that person and I never told them and 50 years later you're gonna be like, why didn't I tell her, why didn't I go after it? So that's the kind of life regret that is very hard to be happy about when you're telling yourself in a private moment that story of your life. So I think it's, anyway, I won that lottery, I won that lottery of having so many people in my life who have given me that unconditional love, and I do think Mackenzie's definitely one of those. And so we moved and then Mackenzie, who has basically no skill in this area at all, really, I mean you're the least-suited person for this, she did our accounting for like the first year - was it the first year? Something like that. And she did it well, that's what's amazing. My wife is a novelist, she's won the American Book Award. Toni Morrison, the Nobel prize-winning author who was Mackenzie's teacher at Princeton, said on The Charlie Rose Show that Mackenzie was her best student ever. Anyways, Mackenzie is a very talented novelist but she is not an accountant but she pulled it off. Again, we all get done what we need to get done.

Jeff Bezos wife Mackenzie

Evan Agostini/AP Images

Döpfner: Did she then suggest that you focus on the book business at the beginning, being an author?

Bezos: No, I picked books, it is true, she's a big reader, I'm a big reader, but that's not why I picked books. I picked books because there were more items in the book category than any other category, and so you could build universal selection. There were three million in 1994 when I was pulling this idea together, three million different books active in print at any given time, and the largest physical bookstores only had about 150,000 different titles. And so I could see how you could make a bookstore online with universal selection - every book ever printed, even the out-of-print ones - that was the original vision for the company, and so that's why books.

Döpfner: And when did you know that Amazon is going to be something way bigger than just a bookstore?

Bezos: Well, I knew that the books, strangely, 'cause I was very prepared for this to take a really long time, I knew that the books business was gonna be successful in the first 30 days. I was shocked at how many books we sold. We were ill prepared. We had only 10 people in the company at that time and most of them were software engineers. So everybody including me and the softwares were all packing boxes - we didn't even have packing tables - and we were on our hands and knees on a concrete floor packing the boxes, and at about one or two in the morning, I said to one of my software engineering colleagues "Paul, this is killing my knees, we need to get knee pads." And Paul looked at me and he's like, "Jeff, we need to get packing tables." And I was like, "Oh my God, that is such a good idea." The next day I bought packing tables and it doubled our productivity and probably saved our backs and our knees too.

Döpfner: But nevertheless, Amazon had serious crises. In 2002, you went almost bankrupt. So what went wrong and what did you learn from that?

Bezos: We had so many, there've been so many, I haven't had any existential crises, knock on wood, I don't want to jinx anything, but we've had a lot of kind of dramatic events. I remember early on, we only had 125 employees when Barnes and Noble, the big United States bookseller opened their online website to compete against us, We'd had about a two-year window. We opened in '95, they opened in '97, and at that time, all of the headlines and the funniest were about how we were about to be destroyed by this much larger company, we had 125 employees and $60 million a year in annual sales, $60 million with an "m" and Barnes and Noble at the time had 30,000 employees and about three billion dollars in sales. So they were giant, we were tiny and we had limited resources and the headlines were very negative about Amazon and the one that's most memorable was just "amazon.toast." And so I called an all-hands meeting, which was not hard to do with just 125 people, and we got in a room 'cause it was so scary for all of us, this idea that now we finally had a big competitor that literally everybody's parents were calling and saying, "Are you okay?" It was usually the moms calling and asking their children, are you gonna be okay? And I said, "Look, it's okay to be afraid but don't be afraid of our competitors because they're never gonna send us any money - be afraid of our customers." And if we just stay focused on them instead of obsessing over this big competitor that we just got, we'll be fine. And I really do believe that. I think that if you stay focused and the more drama there is and everything else, no matter what the drama is, whatever the external distraction is, your response to it should be to double down on the customer, satisfying them, not just satisfying them, delighting them.

Jeff Bezos Amazon

Ted S. Warren/AP Images

Döpfner: Today Amazon is employing 566,000 people. You're probably the biggest job creator of recent times. At the same time, you're aggressively criticized by unions and by media for paying low wages, for inappropriate working conditions. How do you deal with these accusations?

Bezos: Well, first of all, with any criticism, my approach to criticism and what I teach and preach inside Amazon is when you're criticized, first look in a mirror and decide are your critics right? If they're right, change, don't resist.

Döpfner: Are they right?

Bezos: No, not in this case, but we've had critics be right before and we've changed. We have made mistakes and I can go through a long list of, probably one of the early most painful ones is - it's so stupid it's hard to believe how we ever did it - but in the early on with the Kindle, maybe the first year of the Kindle or the second year of the Kindle, we had accidentally illegally sold, or given away I guess, copies of the famous novel 1984 because it had a complicated copyright history - it was in copyright in the US and not in the UK or something strange like this so it was in the public domain, but only in certain geographies, and we had screwed that up. And somehow, and this is the kind of mistake that only a corporation can make, an individual can't make this mistake because somehow it happens at the intersections of the different teams. So you've got the legal department saying, "Oh crap, we've made this mistake" and you've got the books team. Anyway, the answer that the company came up with was to, without any notice or warning, just electronically go into everybody's Kindle who had downloaded that book and just disappear it. So it would be as if we walked into your bedroom in the middle of the night, found your bookshelf, and just took that book away. And so we were rightly criticized for that and we responded to that. On the issue of working conditions, I'm very proud of our working conditions and I'm very proud of the wages that we pay. In Germany, we employ 16,000 people, we pay at the high end of the range for any comparable work.

Döpfner: Will the union fight because the union want to make sure that you are unionized or what is the real substance of the conflict?

Bezos: Well, it's a good question and this is in my longer version of how to deal with critics, there are two kinds of critics: There are well meaning critics who, they're worried it's not gonna work, but they do want it to work, so I could give you an example of customer reviews would be one of those. When we first did customer reviews 20 years ago, some book publishers were not happy about it because some of them were negative and so it was a very controversial practice at that time. But we thought it was right and so we stuck to our guns and had a deep keel on that and didn't change. But there's a second kind of critic which is the self-interested critic and they come in all shapes and sizes. So they can be any kind of institution, competitors, of course, and so when you are doing something in a new way and if customers embrace the new way, what's gonna happen is incumbents who are practicing the older way are not gonna like you and they're gonna be self-interested critics. And so you do need, as you're looking yourself in the mirror, to try and tease those two things apart. In our view, we have workers counsels of course and we have very good communications with our employees. So we don't believe that we need a union to be an intermediary between us and our employees, but of course at the end of the day, it's always the employees' choice and that's how it should be. But for sure, we would be very naive to believe that we're not gonna be criticized. That's just part of the terrain, you have to accept that. One other thing I tell people is if you're gonna do anything new or innovative, you have to be willing to be misunderstood. If you can't afford to be misunderstood, then for goodness sake, don't do anything new or innovative.

Döpfner: Maggie Thatcher said, "Leadership is not to be pleased by the moment." But your most prominent critic at the moment is the president of the United States. People are even saying that he may be willing to prepare initiatives to break up Amazon because it's too big, it's too successful, it's too dominant in too many sectors or for other reasons. First of all, is this scenario of a break of something that you take seriously or you think it's just a fantasy?

Bezos: For me, again, this is one of those things where I focus on and ask our teams to focus on what we can control, and I expect, whether it's the current US administration or any other government agency anywhere in the world, Amazon is now a large corporation and I expect us to be scrutinized, we should be scrutinized, I think all large institutions should be scrutinized and examined, it's reasonable. One thing to note about us is that we have gotten big in absolute terms only very recently. So we've always been growing fast in percentage terms, but in 2010, just eight years ago, we had 30,000 employees. So in the last eight years we've gone from 30,000 employees to 560,000 employees. So for us, it's kind of, in my mind, I'm still delivering the packages to the post office myself, you see what I'm saying? I still have all the memories of hoping that one day we could afford a forklift. And so obviously my intellectual brain knows that's just not the case anymore, we have 560,000 employees all over the world and I know we should be scrutinized and I think it's true big government institutions should be scrutinized, big non-profit institutions should be scrutinized, big universities should be scrutinized, it just makes sense. And that's, by the way, why the work that The Washington Post and the other great newspapers around the world do is so important, because they're often the ones doing that initial scrutiny even before the government agencies do.

jeff bezos

Evan Vucci/AP

Jeff Bezos attends a meeting with prominent tech leaders and President Donald Trump, shortly after the 2016 Presidential election.

Döpfner: But in a way, the general sentiment towards the big innovative tech companies has changed. Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, they used to be seen as the nice guys in tee shirts that are saving the world and now they are sometimes portrayed as the kind of evil of the world. And the debate about the big four or the big five, The Economist is suggesting a split up, other powerful people like Josh Soros are giving speeches in Davos, the EU Commission is taking pretty a tough positions here. Do you think that there is a change in mindset in the society? And what should the big tech companies, what should Amazon learn from that or do with that?

Bezos: I do sense, I think again, I think it's a natural instinct. I think we humans, especially in the Western world and especially inside democracies, are wired to be skeptical and mindful of large institutions of any kind. We're skeptical of our government always in the United States - state governments, local governments - I assume it's similar in Germany, it's healthy because they're big powerful institutions, the police, the military, whatever it is, it doesn't mean that you don't trust them or that they're bad or evil or anything like that, they're just, they have a lot of power and control and so you want to inspect them, maybe that's a better word, you kind of always want to be inspecting them. And I think if you look at the big tech companies, they have gotten large enough that they're going to be inspected. And by the way, it's not personal. I think where some of the, you can go astray on this if you're the founder of a company, one of these big tech companies or any other big institution, if you go astray on this you might start to take it personally, like why are you inspecting me? And I think that, I wish that people would just say, "Yes, it's fine."

Döpfner: The whole attitude towards data protection and privacy has always been different between Europe and the United States, but is also at the moment in the context of Cambridge Analytica changing in the United States. What are the consequences for a company like Amazon?

Bezos: My view on this for Amazon-

Döpfner: -Is it hysterical or is it inappropriate?

Bezos: Honestly, I think this is one of the great questions of our age. I think of the internet, so the internet is this big new powerful technology, it's horizontal, it affects every industry. And then if you think of even more broadly tech and machine learning and big data and all these kinds of things, these are big horizontal powerful technologies, and in my view, we've been at scale. The internet is quite old at this point, it's been around a long time, but at scale, it's really only been around 10 or 15 years, 'cause go back in time 20 years, it was tiny. And so at scale, the internet's been around only 10 or 15 years and we haven't learned as a civilization, as a human species, we haven't learned how to operate it yet. So we're still, we as a civilization are still figuring that out. And so it has fantastic, gives us fantastic capabilities. The fact that I can look up almost anything on Wikipedia in five seconds is an unbelievable capability that just simply didn't exist 20 years ago and so on and so on and so on, there's so many good things but we're also finding out that these powerful tools enable some very bad things too, like letting authoritarian governments interfere in free democratic elections around the world. It's an incredibly scary thing.

Döpfner: So you're advocating a balance of let's say entrepreneurs who are really moving their businesses forward, politicians and regulators who are finding a certain framework, a society, journalists who are asking unpleasant questions?

Bezos: So my view on Amazon's role in this, which is what you asked me, is I think first of all, we have a duty on behalf of society to try and help educate any regulators, give them our point of view on this sincerely without any cynicism or skepticism, this is what we believe, but it's not ultimately our decision. So we will work with any set of regulations that we're given. Ultimately society decides that, we will follow those rules regardless of the impact they have on our business and we will find a new way if need be to delight customers. So we will always be, again, some of these things, what you have to worry about is the problem, what I would not want to see happen is that you don't want to block invention and innovation. So that's always one of the things, one of the unintended consequences often of regulation is that it really favors the incumbents. Now Amazon at this point is an incumbent, so maybe I should be happy about that, but I wouldn't be because I think for society you really want to see continued progress. So to the degree that we have regulation, you want to be sure that it is incenting innovation and not blocking it, while at the same time protecting. But data security, privacy, encryption, how do you safeguard people's physical safety against terrorists and bad actors all over the world and how do you balance that against privacy? These are very challenging questions.

Döpfner: We are running out of time but I have a couple of-

Bezos: We're not gonna answer them in even a few years. I think it's gonna be an ongoing thing.

Döpfner: But data security and privacy is going to be a competitive advantage for companies or disadvantage if their not respectful with that?

Bezos: I 100% agree with this and I think with customers, one of the reasons we have been able to extend into new business areas and new product categories, going way back, we just sold books and then we started selling music and DVDs and electronics and toys and so on and then we've extended into electronic reading with Kindle. The reason customers have been receptive in large part to our new initiatives is because we have worked hard to earn trust with them. Earning trust with customers is a valuable business asset and if you mistreat their data, they will know, they will figure it out. Customers are very smart, you should never underestimate customers.

Döpfner: People are getting hungry but I have some brief questions left. You are preparing a second headquarters, it's going to be in the US. Why didn't you consider to do it in Europe?

Bezos: I wanted it in a time zone either in, we looked at Canada, US and Mexico-

Döpfner: So it's not an anti-Europe decision, it's for practical reasons.

Bezos: It's not an anti-Europe decision.

Döpfner: I'm glad to hear that. When you bought the Post, there were people saying well that's just a personal toy, he wants to have some political influence. Other people thought that is a new strategic element of Jeff's strategy. So what was it?

Bezos: Yeah, of course, you can explain things to people but you can't understand things to people. And so all I can do is say what really my thought process was. And I was not looking to buy a newspaper. It had never even crossed my mind, and so when the opportunity came up, it had only came up because I had known Don Graham at that point for more than 15 years. Any of you who are lucky enough to know Don, knows that he is the most honorable gentleman that you'll ever meet - you know Don very well - he's a remarkable guy and he so loved The Post that he believed, even though this was a huge personal sacrifice for him because it had been in his family for so long, that he needed to find a new home for it. I think he was, there were certain purchasers he was hoping would not end up buying The Post because he wanted it to remain independent. So when he approached me with this I said, "I'm the wrong guy because I don't know anything about the newspaper business." And he said, "That's okay, 'cause we have a lot of people at The Post who know a lot about the newspaper business and what we really need is somebody who knows something more about the internet." And The Post was in a very difficult financial position at that time and so for me, I had to decide was it hopeless? And I didn't believe it was hopeless, I was optimistic that The Post could be turned around. And then second, I had to decide did I want to put my own time and energy into this? And that for me I just had to ask the simple question, is it an important institution? And the answer to that question is yes, it was very obvious to me, as soon as I thought that way. I was like, okay, I think I actually can help, I can help in two ways. I can provide financial resources while this turnaround occurs and I can also help with my internet knowledge. And then is it an institution worth saving? You bet. It's the most important newspaper in the most important capital city in the Western world. Crazy not to save that newspaper. I'm gonna be very happy when I'm 80 that I made that decision.

Döpfner: I assume that you have seen Steven Spielberg's film The Post?

Bezos: I have, yeah, I've seen it a couple of times.

Döpfner: So what is the lesson that you learned from that and could you imagine also to buy and save other newspapers?

Bezos: No, I get that request monthly, I really do and I tell them, no, The Post is it for me, I'm not interested in buying other newspapers. But I watched that movie and it's helpful, I love that movie and also reading Katherine Graham's memoir which won a Pulitzer Prize and is an amazing book because it gets me ready. As the owner of The Post, I know that at times The Post is gonna write stories, they're gonna make very powerful people very unhappy.

Döpfner: Are you upset if they are writing critical stories about Amazon, which they do?

Bezos: No, I'm not upset at all.

Döpfner: Did you call and interfere?

Bezos: Never, I would be humiliated to interfere. I would be so embarrassed. I would turn bright red and it's nothing to do with, I don't even get so far, I just don't want to. For me, it would feel icky, it would feel gross. It would be one of those things when I'm 80 years old I would be so unhappy with myself if I interfered. Why would I? I want that paper to be independent. So we have a fantastic editor in Marty Baron, we have a fantastic publisher in Fred Ryan, the head of our technology team, a guy named Shilesh, is fantastic. They don't need my help in the newsroom for sure. First of all, that's also an expert's job. It would be like me getting on the airplane and going up to the front of the plane and saying the pilots should move aside, let me do this.

Döpfner: You are not getting on the airplane but you are sending workers to the space.

Bezos: That's the best segway ever by the way.

Döpfner: Could you share with us briefly the vision of Blue Origin and the idea of kind of space tourism with renewable rockets?

Jeff Bezos Amazon Blue Origin

HO/Mike Brown/Space Florida

Amazon founder and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos (L) announces plans to build a rocket manufacturing plant and launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida September 15, 2015.

Bezos: This is super important to me. I believe on the longest time frame - and really here I'm thinking of a time frame of a couple hundred years, so over many decades - I believe, and I get increasing conviction with this with every passing year, that Blue Origin, the space company, is the most important work I'm doing. And so there is a whole plan for Blue Origin.

Döpfner: Really? So you'd say retail, online ecommerce, publishing, that's all less relevant than the space project?

Bezos: Yes and I'll tell you why. First of all, of course, I'm interested in space because I'm passionate about it and I've been studying it and thinking about it since I was a five-year-old boy, but that is not why I'm pursuing this work. I'm pursuing this work because I believe if we don't, we will eventually end up with a civilization of stasis, which I find very demoralizing. I don't want my great grandchilren's great grandchildren to lie in a civilization of stasis. We all enjoy a dynamic civilization of growth and change and let's think about what powers that. We are not really energy constrained. And so let me give you just a couple of numbers. If you take your body, your metabolic rate as a human as just an animal, you eat food, that's your metabolism, you burn about 100 watts, your power, your body is about 100, it's the same as the 100 watt light bulb, we're incredibly efficient. Your brain is about 60 watts of that, amazing. But if you extrapolate in developed countries where we use a lot of energy, on average in developed countries, our civilizational metabolic rate is 11,000 watts. So in a natural state where we're animals we're only using 100 watts. In our actual developed world state, we're using 11,000 watts and it's growing. For a century or more, it's been compounding at a few percent a year, our energy usage as a civilization. Now if you take baseline energy usage, globally across the whole world, and compound it at just a few percent a year for just a few hundred years, you have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells. So that's the real energy crisis and it's happening soon, and by soon, I mean within just a few hundred years. And so we don't actually have that much time. So what can you do? Well, you can have a life of stasis where you cap how much energy we get to use, you have to work only on efficiency, by the way, we've always been working on energy efficiency and still we grow our energy usage. It's not like we have been squandering energy, we have been getting better at using it with every passing decade and still we grow it. So stasis would be very bad I think. Now take the alternative scenario where you move out into the solar system. The solar system can easily support a trillion humans, and if we had a trillion humans, we would have 1,000 Einsteins and 1,000 Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources from solar power and so on. Why not, that's the world that I want my great grandchildren's great grandchildren to live in. And by the way, I believe that we'll move all heavy, in that time frame, we will move all heavy industry off of Earth and Earth will be zoned residential and light industry and it will basically be a very beautiful planet. We have sent robotic probes to every planet in this solar system now and believe me, this is the best one. It is not even close.

Döpfner: But Jeff, when can I buy the first ticket to do a little space tour?

Bezos: So the first tourism vehicle, we won't be selling tickets yet but we may put humans in it at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year. We're getting very close. We've been working on it for more than 10 years and we're building a very large orbital vehicle, we've been working on that for more than five years. It'll fly for the first time in 2020 and the key is reusability. So you mentioned it. We cannot, this civilization I'm talking about of getting comfortable living and working in space and having millions of people and then billions of people and then finally a trillion people in space you can't do that with space vehicles that you use once and then throw away. It's a ridiculous costly way to get into space.

Döpfner: The most recent thing that Amazon is planning is home robots. So I assume it's more than Alexa walking. So what's the vision behind it?

Bezos: I saw that rumor in the press and I can't comment on that.

Döpfner: I see, so it seems to be very serious. Jeff, you are one of the most longterm-thinking entrepreneurs. If it is about companies and products and services, if it is about philanthropy, you recently said that you are a very short-term thinker, you really want to deal with the now and here. Can you explain that approach? I think that's also very innovative.

Bezos: And I'm gonna end up doing a mixture of things. We started doing in Seattle, there's a homeless shelter called Mary's Place run by a woman named Marty and that has really impacted my thinking on this issue, because what I'm seeing is that when you, of course I'm in favor of all the, longterm-oriented philanthropy also is a good idea. So I'm not against that. It's just I'm finding I'm very motivated by the here and now there. A lot of the homelessness at Mary's Place works on is transient homelessness. So when you go study homelessness, there are a bunch of causes of homelessness. Mental incapacity issues are a very hard-to-cure problem, serious drug addiction, a very hard-to-cure problem, but there's another bucket of homelessness which is transient homelessness, which is a woman with kids, the father runs away, and he was the only person providing any income and they have no support system, they have no family. That's transient homelessness. You can really help that person. And you by the way, only need to help them for like six to nine months, you get them trained, you get them a job, they're perfectly productive members of society.

Döpfner: Last week we had Bill Gates for dinner here and he said that he has a ridiculous amount of money and it's so hard to find appropriate ways to do good with the money. So what does money mean for you being the first person in history that has a net worth of three digit amount of billion?

Bezos: The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. So that's basically, Blue Origin is expensive enough to be able to use that fortune, and I'm currently liquidating about a billion dollars a year of Amazon's stock to fund Blue Origin - and I plan to continue to do that for a long time. 'Cause you're right, you're not gonna spend it on a second dinner out. That's not what we're talking about. So for me, I'm very lucky because I feel like I have a mission-driven purpose with Blue Origin that is I think incredibly important for civilization longterm, and I am gonna use my financial lottery winnings from Amazon to fund that.

Döpfner: With regard to your personal lifestyle, there are no guilty pleasures that you are doing, unreasonable things?

Bezos: Well, I don't think they're that guilty. I have lots of pleasures and we just came back from an amazing trip with the kids, Mackenzie and I did, she planned the whole thing, it was her birthday trip but she planned it all. We went to Norway for three days and we stayed in an ice hotel, we went dog sledding, we went to a wolf preserve and actually got to interact with these timber wolves. It was really an incredible vacation, an incredible holiday, and we got it all done in three and a half days. So it was amazing.

Döpfner: Wonderful. Jeff, John mentioned, it's the last question, John mentioned that you are an ideal family man, your kids are extremely important, you just mentioned that when we spoke earlier. If we would talk to your kids, where would they criticize their dad?

Bezos: They would make fun of my singing.

Döpfner: Okay, can we get a- ?

Bezos: No, God no. They would make fun of my inability to remember exact words. I'm always quoting Churchill or something and getting it wrong and they're like, "That's not even close to what Churchill said." They would probably, depending on the moment, they might criticize my laugh. They're kids. I'm lucky, I have a very good relationship with them, this work-life harmony thing is what I try to teach young employees, actually, and senior executive at Amazon too, but especially the people coming in. We're asked about work-life balance all the time and my view is that's a debilitating phrase because it implies there's a strict trade off and the reality is if I'm happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy, and if I'm happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. And so it actually is a circle, it's not a balance. And I think that that is worth everybody paying attention to. You never want to be that guy, and we all know, we all have a coworker, who is that person who as soon as they come into the meeting they drain all of the energy out of the room. You can just feel the energy level go whoof - you don't want to be that guy. So you want to come into the office and give everybody a kick in their step.

Döpfner: Jeff, thank you very much. We congratulate you for all you have achieved, and congratulations.

Bezos: Very nice, thank you.

Disclosure: Business Insider is owned by Axel Springer.


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