After over 25 years paddling then steering a vessel that started out as a wooden canoe and ended up a ULBC (Ultra Large Bulk Carrier) – it is just as fitting a description to say the trickle became the flood that is Amazon today – Jeff Bezos has relinquished the bridge. Whether his occupancy of the admiral’s quarters will allow the new captain to take charge, or whether the ghost of past command still haunt the place is unknown, but Bezos faces perhaps the most uncertain challenge of his career, Blue Origin.
You see, with Amazon it was just a question of time, not how big the enterprise would become. Back in 1994 everyone knew the internet was coming. It was never in doubt, like an extinction event unless you were a dinosaur. So, whether he became a success was just about staying the course, but with Blue Origin the game is different, very different.
For starter, Bezos got in at the right time, had the money and had the ambition. So did a lot of people, but Bezos was already secure, and the financial risks limited to theoretical design work and purchasing land. When Blue Origin finally broke cover the plan for New Shepard had been thought through and well advanced to the unskilled eye.
But from the moment the story began to be told the timing started to slip. Technical hurdles and scientific frontiers can account for some of the delay, but the reality was that while Blue Origin could only see a distant horizon, SpaceX with a 2-year deficit, reached orbit in 2008. Same hurdles, similar science but a hugely different management engine. While SpaceX had a CEO in Elon Musk who would drive the project forward and inspire a team with his own engineering vision, Blue Origin had a boss knee deep in growing the Earthbound online retailer into a giant and paid the price for the man who would be (retail) king. What competitive race might have resulted if Bezos, a highly skilled engineer himself, had been able to focus more time on Blue Origin?
In the years that have passed, bringing the slow iteration of Bezos’s dream the world has changed and the competitive landscape with it. Government contracts to private enterprises have increased in flow and magnitude, start-ups have arisen in many countries, delivery systems have become almost an emblem of national pride and nurtured entrepreneurism. In a nutshell, Blue Origin is neither early to the business nor successful enough in the business. Late, unloved and facing a lot of competition from all sides, Blue Origin will need a lot to shoulder its way through the crowd back into contention and relevance. Bezos will need deep pockets, and quick decisive decision making if he is to rescue Blue Origin from the obscurity of a pack of also-flew.
But if there was one person on the planet who could face such a challenge and win, not many would bet against a guy like Jeff Bezos.