Jeff Bezos? Wolfgang R. Schmitt? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Business leaders in technology-based companies are often asked for ten year predictions of change. Apparently, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, once responded by spinning the inquiry. He said there was a more important question:
What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?
He argued that the answer was crucial because a company foundation must be built upon things that do not change. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: In October 2007 “Harvard Business Review” published an interview with Jeff Bezos. He stated that expanding into new areas was vital, but a nascent enterprise required five to seven years of nurturing before it could make a meaningful contribution to company economics. He was asked how he maintained confidence that such an investment would pay off: 1
It helps to base your strategy on things that won’t change. When I’m talking with people outside the company, there’s a question that comes up very commonly: “What’s going to change in the next five to ten years?” But I very rarely get asked “What’s not going to change in the next five to ten years?”
At Amazon we’re always trying to figure that out, because you can really spin up flywheels around those things. All the energy you invest in them today will still be paying you dividends ten years from now. Whereas if you base your strategy first and foremost on more transitory things—who your competitors are, what kind of technologies are available, and so on—those things are going to change so rapidly that you’re going to have to change your strategy very rapidly, too.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1998 Wolfgang R. Schmitt, chairman and CEO of Rubbermaid, deflected a question about the future by highlighting constancy: 2
Q: Can you give us your general views on new products and innovation?
Schmitt: Everybody’s looking forward, thinking about what’s going to change, and I thought I’d talk about what’s not going to change with regard to new product innovation.
The heart of new product innovation is creating exciting new value for the consumer. That’s not going to change. How we go about that, how we find it, how we implement it may change dramatically, but, at best, it’s a combination of attributes of innovation, quality, price, service, and backing the product up.
In October 2007 Bezos employed the quotation while being interviewed in the “Harvard Business Review” as mentioned previously.
In December 2007 “The Daily Telegraph” of London published an interview with Bezos. The journalist asked about the future of the web: 3
He says: “I often get the question ‘In the next 10 years, what is going to change?’ But I rarely get the question ‘What is not going to change?’
“Customers are still going to want low prices. They are still going to want fast delivery. And they are still going to want a big selection.
“So that’s why we are so focused on those three things: it’s just impossible to imagine a customer 10 years from now saying ‘Gosh I love Amazon… but I really wish they would deliver more slowly’.”
In 2010 “The Sunday Telegraph” of London referred to comments reported in the “Harvard Business Review”: 4
As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos told the Harvard Business Review, the question he’s often asked is: “What’s going to change in the next five to 10 years?” It’s the wrong question, he replies. The right one, as he put it, is: “What’s not going to change in the next five to 10 years?” And make sure you develop strategies flexible enough to respond.
In 2011 Bezos made germane comments while responding to questions at a shareholders meeting: 5
What’s not going to change in 10 years is probably the most important thing for us as a management team and as a Company to stay focused on because those are things we can build strategies around because we know they won’t shift from underneath us, and those things are selection. Customers are still going to want vast selection. Low prices, customers are still going to want low prices which means we have to continue to improve our variable costs, our fixed costs.
In 2012 Amazon CTO Werner Vogels spoke with Jeff Bezos during a learning conference called “AWS re:Invent”, and a video was uploaded to YouTube: 6
I very frequently get the question: “What’s gonna change in the next 10 years?” And that is an interesting question. It’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: “What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?” And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.
In conclusion, Jeff Bezos deserves credit for the quotation which appeared in the 2007 HBR interview. Bezos has revisited this theme several times over the years.
Image Notes: Public domain Picture of artificial illuminated trees from Free-Photos at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Noah Brier and Colin Nagy who send out a daily email called “Why is this interesting?”. Brier pointed to the instance of the Bezos quotation in the 2012 YouTube video.)
- 2007 October, Harvard Business Review (HBR), Article: The Institutional Yes, (Interview of Jeff Bezos conducted by HBR editors Julia Kirby and Thomas A. Stewart; interview was published in the magazine and on the website), Description: Magazine and website about management published by Harvard University of Massachusetts. (Accessed hbr.org March 3, 2021) link ↩
- 1998 Summer, Marketing Management, Volume 7, Issue 2, Grand masters of marketing (Roundtable discussion moderated by syndicated marketing columnist Bernice Kanner; quotation from Wolfgang R. Schmitt, chairman and CEO of Rubbermaid Inc. of Wooster, Ohio), Start Page 22, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 2007 December 24, The Daily Telegraph, Monday Interview: Man who pioneered the one-click Christmas After 10 years, Amazon’s founder shows no sign of wanting to log off by Dominic White, Quote Page 29, London, England. (ProQuest) ↩
- 2010 January 10, The Sunday Telegraph, Comment – Technology in 2010? It’s all about the smartphone by David Rowan (Editor of Wired Magazine), Quote Page 8, London, England. (ProQuest) ↩
- 2011 June 7, Wire Feed: Fair Disclosure Wire, Amazon.com, Inc. Shareholders Meeting – Final, Publisher CQ Roll Call, Linthicum, Maryland. (ProQuest) ↩
- YouTube video, Title: 2012 re: Invent Day 2: Fireside Chat with Jeff Bezos & Werner Vogels, Uploaded on: November 29, 2012, Uploaded by: Amazon Web Services (with verified check mark), (Quotation starts at 4 minute 29 seconds of 41 minutes 35 seconds), (This video excerpt shows a discussion between Amazon CTO Werner Vogels and Amazon Founder & CEO Jeff Bezos), (Accessed youtube.com on February 25, 2021) link ↩