I wrote a post on the book “Working Backwards” and the principles behind the success of Amazon, but here I’m going to tell you why and which some of those principles are not for you.

Before we start, we have to understand where the authors are coming from. The author, Colin Bryar and Bill Car are Amazon veterans, which means that their experience are mostly confined to companies of the size of Amazon– international companies with hundreds of thousands of employees. Will those lessons also work on smaller company, say in the range of tens or hundreds or thousands of employees? Well, maybe, after all, human nature doesn’t change. But critical judgement needs to be applied.

Let’s talk about the lesson 1: Raising the hiring bar so that your company can attract progressively better candidates. This is an excellent advice, but also quite a useless one– who doesn’t already know that? The issue is, why would they want to work for you, a boss who is not as smart? After all, we all know that people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad boss. A boss is often the ceiling of the employee, and due to Dunning-kruger effect, a talented employee is all the more easily frustrated by the boss “stupidity”. The smarter the employee is relative to the boss, the easier it is for him to feel the frustration, and the easier for him to leave.

Being able to progressively attract better and better candidate is a luxury that can only be afforded by companies that can sell dreams ( like how Silicon Valley companies sell dream via equity), or by companies that are in the business of selling dreams ( like insurance and MLM), or by companies that have a HUGE open market in front of them, a market so big that your talented employees can hope one day to become his own boss ( and indirectly compete with you, like how new aspiring accountants setup their own firms to compete against yours). For the rest of us who don’t have this luxury, it’s much more realistic to just make do with what we have.

Having said that, raising the hiring bar is still a noble goal, but it won’t be realistic to hope for it all the time.

What about mission statement and company culture? People are not doing the job for the sake of money– they are also doing it because they resonate with the company’s mission, right? I have the catchiest, grandest company mission, engraved in a golden tablet and hang at the entrance of the office, I make sure that my employees memorize it so that they can serve our customers with zeal and be in tune with our One True Mission on earth. So I have the best company culture and it’s our secret weapon! Go now and conquer the world!

While it is good to have a mission statement and a good good company culture, but it is by no means the silver bullet that guarantees your success. In fact, a lot of companies become successful before they hone out their company culture. Google’s initial motto “don’t be evil” was suggested sometime in the early 2000, when they already had more than 100 employees, and their search was already dominating the world. In a sense, Google was already on the path to success.

For most employees– including the very talented ones, the No. 1 important thing they look for is not how well they resonate with the company mission, but rather his or her personal career growth, and secondly, his remuneration. This is why a lot of talented people prefer to go to big Multinational companies if they want a stable and high paying job, or promising startups ( with explosive opportunities in front of them) to try their luck. If you aim to attract big talents, you better position your company to be in a field with explosive growth and to beef up your remuneration package. Words count very little. Humans are all selfish.

What about Amazon? Surely Amazon owed its success from the company culture? Well, not entirely. I think Amazon benefited more from its historical position than anything else. It was born in the early stage of Internet revolution, and the wild growth of Amazon was in tandem with the wild growth of Internet, which makes the recruiting and everything very, very easy by comparison.

So don’t believe everything you read, especially the business books. Business books are mostly written by consultants or ex-big company staffers, who often don’t have the experience in SME. Trying to apply the experience in big companies on SME settings is akin to using your pilot skills on scuba diving lesson. Can it help? Sure. But will it always work? Don’t think so.

Having said that, the book does contain things that you can apply, regardless of your company size. I’ll name just a few:

  1. 6 pagers and working backwards from Press Release. Ban PowerPoint. Instead focus on writing concise, rigorous memos. It helps your thinking.
  2. Small is good. Break the teams into autonomous unit. Don’t inflate the headcount just because of your ego.
  3. Focus long term and focus on customers. Don’t hurt your long term just because of your short term needs.
  4. Focus on process instead of outputs, like quarterly numbers.

So, what is the magic bullet to success, if Amazon’s rules are not a guarantee? My reply to this is: pick a field with explosive growth and be lucky. That’s the only way.

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