'I Don't Think Anybody Could Have Imagined What Actually Happened.' Former Consumer CEO Jeff Wilke on Building the Amazon Empire
In March, Jeff Wilke quietly stepped away from Amazon, the company he was instrumental in building from an online book retailer to one of the most valuable and influential corporations in the world.
As CEO of Amazon Worldwide Consumer since 2016, he oversaw the company's vast retail business, Prime, the Amazon marketplace, Amazon stores, marketing and Whole Foods.
When Wilke joined Amazon in 1999 to oversee operations the company was doing about $2 billion of revenue a year. Now it brings in about $1 billion every day and last week announced its sales grew by an astonishing 44% year-over-year.
Wilke was long considered the second most important person in the company behind Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who shocked the world by announcing his own departure in February.
Bezos called Wilke his tutor and he was seen as a likely successor, but that job instead went to Andy Jassy, the chief executive of Amazon Web Services.
In a wide ranging conversation with dot.LA – among his first since leaving – Wilke says he has no regrets and felt it simply time to do something else.
Wilke also talked about what it was like to work for Bezos and his reaction to last month's failed unionization vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You left Amazon only a few weeks ago. What's it been like these past couple of weeks, not being at the helm of that giant operation?
Jeff Wilke: It's certainly been an adjustment and I'm still adjusting. I was there over 21 years and it's a part of me in so many different ways. I have so many connections there still and friends who are there. I spent the first two weeks learning to code in Python, which I thought would be a really good way to stay connected to the engineers that build Amazon every day and upgrade my skills since I hadn't written code in modern languages.
So you're not on the golf course. You're learning Python?
Yeah, it was super fun. It was very immersive. It was a reminder to me of how coding compounds creativity and invention.
Why did you want to depart Amazon?
I just said it was time. I didn't spend any time through the years carefully charting some course. We were building what we hoped would be a lasting, important company and worrying about the customer experience and I got to a point where I felt like it was time to do other things.
Did the job become not as fun with all of the scrutiny from Washington and organized labor and just the giant pressure you were under with all that?
The job was just as fun when I started to think about leaving, which was well before the pandemic. And it was really meaningful last year in terms of all that was accomplished. But it just felt time for me to move on.
Did you want to be the next CEO?
I never really thought about it because I always imagined Jeff doing it forever. When I was making my decision that wasn't what I was thinking about.
But when you heard he was stepping down, were you like, "I should have just stuck around a little longer?"
No. I was super excited and I am super excited for [new Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO] Dave Clark and for Andy Jassy.
Were you surprised when the other Jeff said he was leaving?
It's interesting that both of you who had been there over 20 years and in his case founded the company decided at this moment to leave. Do you think he took some inspiration from you?
(Laughs) That's hard to say but I think in many ways the last year or so has been quite a time of self-reflection for many people. It's not surprising to me that if people were maybe thinking in the back of their mind about making a change, the events of the last year would have caused them to think even harder about it. I don't know for sure why Jeff chose the particular time he chose, but he has so many things in his life that he wants to focus on, too. And I'm just really happy for him.
How do you think the company will be different under Andy Jassy?
Andy was a part of the S-team [Amazon's senior leadership group] for a long time and contributed materially to a bunch of the things that are part of the culture. He and I worked with a group of people on a couple of the revisions to the leadership principles that really have guided the company for nearly two decades. And of course the business and culture that he built with the team and AWS is a big part of Amazon and certainly a big part of the technical underpinnings of the way Amazon works. And that's not going to change at all. So I think it's a terrific team with a great mission and a lot of runway because of the businesses that they're in. I'm going to remain a fan.
What was Jeff Bezos like to work for?
You vote with your feet at work, and if I didn't think he was somebody that I enjoyed working for and that I could learn from, I wouldn't have had him as my boss for over 20 years. He and I have different strengths in different areas where we were able to help each other out by learning from each other and of course Amazon is more than just one or two or 10 people – it's thousands and now actually over a million people.
In those early days what did you see Amazon becoming? Did you just think it would be a big bookseller or could you have seen this global colossus?
I don't think anybody could have imagined what actually happened. Too many things had to fall into place. For instance, there was no iPhone or Android system in 1999 when I joined. People weren't carrying around what are basically supercomputers in their hands, which radically changed the way people interact with the World Wide Web. The delivery networks were not nearly as capable as they became over those 20 years. There's a ton of work to do to get costs to a point where you could afford to offer something like Prime. We didn't have a studio so the idea that we would be creating movies and TV shows as a complement to the delivery services as part of the subscription program called Prime – I think it would have been hard to envision all these things in detail.
What was your reaction to the union vote in Alabama failing by a pretty wide margin?
Jeff hit this well in the shareholder letter; the company can always be better at taking care of employees. If I were still there, I wouldn't have hung my hat on the outcome of that particular vote. I would have said there are some signals that we're receiving that say we have more work to do. We should be proud of what we've done – proud of our safety record and proud that we pay industry leading wages and proud that we have 20 weeks of family leave for people who started an unskilled hourly job on day one, which is really unheard of. So, we have all these things that we've done that are great and then there's a lot of things that we can do to get better.
What did you think of "Nomadland"?
The work camper thing was something that sort of naturally evolved. There were groups of people who had come to work only for the holiday at Amazon and they showed up in campers and they were making great money and then they left post-holiday. They started coming back every year. They really enjoyed it. They built email networks together and they coordinated their work. They asked Amazon to help with finding parking lots for the campers and we were happy to do that. But it was really an organic thing. It just sprouted up. I really enjoyed my trips to the fulfillment centers, hearing their stories and then seeing them come back year after year.
Is it hard when you order something now from Amazon and it doesn't arrive on time and you're like, "why did this happen?" Is it hard to get that out of your system after all these years?
Of course. I mean, the team knows any time there's a defect, I'm going to send an email and that's not going to change.
Part two: Jeff Wilke reveals his next chapter.
Lead illustration by Eduardo Ramón Trejo.
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Bird Rides, the Santa-Monica e-scooter company that was once a startup darling but saw ridership plunge during the pandemic, is planning to go public through a so-called blank-check company, dot.LA has learned.
Bird is preparing to merge with Switchback II Corporation, a Dallas-based blank check company focusing on companies reducing carbon emissions, according to documents reviewed by dot.LA. Switchback has been marketing a $200 million PIPE offering in recent weeks that allows investors to buy shares of Bird at the IPO price.
Bird will receive hundreds of million in cash through the deal, which it can use to fund its operations as it struggles to achieve profitability and to expand to more markets. Last month, the company announced plans to double the size of its European operation, spending $150 million to enter 50 new cities.
The transaction values Bird at $2.3 billion, below the $2.85 billion valuation it reached in the beginning of 2020. But that was before the pandemic, which drove 2020 revenue down to $95 million, a 37% decline from 2019, according to a deck pitching the deal seen by dot.LA.
Bird's media relations team did not respond to a request for comment.
The financials included in the slides reveal a company quickly burning through the $1.1 billion of cash it has raised since 2017, with a $226 million adjusted EBITA loss in 2019 and a $183 million loss last year.
However, Bird expects to trim this year's losses to $96 million and to $28 million in 2022 before reaching profitability in 2023. But that is predicated upon bringing in $815 million in 2023 revenue. In pre-pandemic 2019, the company generated $151 in revenue. It expects to bring in $188 million this year.
Bird, desperate to preserve cash soon after the seriousness of COVID became clear, laid off 406 employees via a Zoom call that former employees described as dystopian. The move reduced the company's Santa Monica staff by half. In another cost cutting move, Bird put its recently remodeled offices up for sublease last Fall.
In its pitch deck, the company says ridership has rebounded as much of the world emerges from strict lockdowns. Topline revenue increased 81% over the past month, though part of that reflects the seasonality of the e-scooter business with increased demand during warmer months of the year.
Bird touts an $800 market opportunity in micromobility in its pitch to potential investors, a more favorable regulatory environment post-COVID, more durable scooters, as well as consolidation in the industry. It also says it is valued relatively cheaply at 2.8 times 2023 projected revenue.
Formed in 2019, Switchback is led by co-CEOs Scott McNeill and Jim Mutrie, both former executives at RSP Permian, an oil and gas driller that was acquired by Concho Resources in 2018, which this year was acquired by ConocoPhillips.
Switchback merged with the electric vehicle charging company ChargePoint last year.
The Information reported in January that Bird was raising $100 million in convertible debt and has held discussions over the past few months with at least three special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), including former Uber executive Emil Michael's DPCM Capital. Bloomberg first reported in November Bird was exploring the possibility of going public via a SPAC.
Founded by the brash former Uber executive Travis VanderZanden in 2017, Bird became the fastest company in history to reach unicorn status in 2018, a milestone that has become less rarified of late as startup valuations have soared ever higher.
Offering startups a quicker and less scrutinized route than traditional IPOs, SPACs became all the rage last year, with 248 companies going public through that route compared to 59 the year before, according to SPAC Analytics. There have already been 315 this year though recently the market appears to be cooling.
In the fall of 2017, Lou Cooperhouse took the stage at the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation conference to talk about what he saw as the trend that would lead to the total transformation of our food supply: alternative proteins.
At the time, Cooperhouse — whose long career in food innovation includes founding and running Rutgers Food Innovation Center, an incubator for startups — was working with multiple companies making plant-based products. (Impossible Foods Inc., of Impossible Burger fame, was a client.) But the real transformative technology, in his view, was the use of cell culturing to make meat from animal cells — products that would have the look, feel, taste and nutritional content of real meat, because that's exactly what they are.
The first cell-cultured hamburger — a five-ounce patty that cost more than $300,000 to produce — was made in 2013, and a slew of beef and poultry-based products were under development. "I said to myself, that's amazing technology," Cooperhouse said, "but the real home run, the holy grail, would be seafood."
Chris Somogyi, an entrepreneur in the audience that day, agreed. Before the year was out, Somogyi and Cooperhouse had teamed up with Chris Dammann to launch BlueNalu, a seafood-focused cell culture company. Since its founding in 2017, the San Diego-based company has become the first to create stable cell lines from a variety of fin fish. (Both Somogyi and Dammann have since left the company.)
The cell-based protein industry is booming. Dozens of startups trying to grow food in labs have formed in the United States in recent years, and they raised more money in the first quarter of 2020 — some $189 million — than in all previous years combined, according to the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for alternative meats.
BlueNalu President + CEO Lou Cooperhouse
So far, only one company has made it to market: the U.S.-based start-up Eat Just received regulatory approval to sell it's cell-cultured chicken at a restaurant in Singapore in late 2020. One of the major obstacles for many companies has been cost, and most are still working to bring down the price of the raw materials, scale-up production and gain regulatory approval. A few more are expected to hit the market this year. By one estimate, as much as 35% of meat will be cultured by 2040, buoyed by efforts to reduce carbon emissions, antibiotic use and the risk of disease.
But to Cooperhouse, seafood, more than any other industry, is in need of a transformation: Overfishing has pushed fisheries around the globe to the brink of collapse. Ocean acidification, heat waves, plastic pollution, and more threaten the stocks that are left. Research suggests that as many as 60% of the marine species humans fish are at a high risk for extinction in the coming years. Yet demand continues to rise since at least the mid-20th century. According to the United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organization, the rise in global fish consumption since 1961 has outpaced both population growth and increases in production of other meat products.
"Our global supply gap is only getting worse, our supply is increasingly compromised with mercury and environmental pollutants and plastics, and we just can't feed the world," Cooperhouse said. But in cell culture technology, he saw an opportunity to create a stable supply of one of the world's most sought-after protein sources, easing pressure on our oceans and feeding the world at the same time.
In January, the 40-person company announced it had raised $60 million in debt financing led by Rage Capital, bringing its total fundraising up to more than $84 million. BlueNalu's other significant investors include New Crop Capital, Lewis & Clark Agrifood, Siddhi Capital, and Rich Products Corp. The latest round of funding is expected to see the company through the next two phases of its development, according to Cooperhouse: FDA approval, and the initial launch of its products in select restaurants in San Diego.
It's too soon to say which restaurants those will be.
After market testing in restaurants, BlueNalu plans to scale up production with the construction of more factories, creating jobs and providing consumers with a third option to farmed or wild caught fish.
Already, the company is building out its facility in San Diego. By the end of the year, it will be capable of producing several hundred pounds of cell-cultured fish per week.
The Good Food Institute, which has called on the Biden administration to allocate some $2 billion toward research and research facilities for alternative proteins, believes that the production of plant-based and cell-cultured meats "will spark a renaissance in American manufacturing."
Critics of cell-cultured meat worry that the product could put farmers and fishermen out of work, but BlueNalu claims that it is carefully choosing its products with these issues in mind. Its first product to market will be mahi-mahi, a nod to the company's Hawaiian roots, and the most practical choice for a company that's trying not to compete with U.S. fisheries.
"We're specifically targeting seafood that are typically imported, that are high in mercury or other contaminants, or they can't be farm-raised at all," Cooperhouse said. A cell-cultured Bluefin tuna, a species that is both overfished and high in mercury, will follow. "The bottom line is there's a fundamental global supply chain gap. If we don't find another solution, we will be out of fish or it will be so high priced it will be unattainable."
The National Fisheries Institute, a nonprofit focused on seafood sustainability, is supportive of cell-cultured seafood as part of the solution. "As the global demand for seafood increases, so will the need for innovative solutions like cell-cultured products," an NFI spokesperson said by email.
The final challenge for the first cell-based fish company is marketing. To prepare for direct-to-consumer sales, BlueNalu worked with the Alliance for Meat, Poultry and Seafood and the NFI to agree on a term that would allow the public to distinguish between wild-caught, farmed and fish grown from fish cells: cell-cultured. The term can be used more broadly to distinguish proteins from animals, and those made from animal cells.
As CEO, Cooperhouse has worked to distance BlueNalu from earlier cell-cultured products presented to the public as meat grown in petri dishes. BlueNalu's facility is a food factory, he says, not a lab.
"We are first and foremost a food company," he said. "BlueNalu is a culinary driven company. We are making great-tasting seafood products with all the sensory benefits, all that you love about seafood, but without the mercury, microplastics or pollutants."
Lead Image by Ian Hurley.
Former CEO of Amazon Consumer Worldwide Jeff Wilke has moved to Los Angeles part-time, where he is focused on investing in underrepresented founders and restoring American manufacturing prowess. We talked to him about what he learned about his time at Amazon and what's coming next.
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