The news this week that Jeff Bezos wants more time to dabble in space exploration and tackle climate change may seemed to have come out of the blue, but it hardly took close watchers of the Amazon chief executive by surprise.
Tech’s biggest personal fortunes are being ploughed back into expansive projects with some of the most successful and richest founders of the era itching to break away from their normal corporate constraints.
For investors with an eye on the more immediate, this raises obvious worries. Big Tech is facing a serious public reckoning: it hardly seems to help if industry leaders such as Mr Bezos are shifting their attention elsewhere. Just months after facing his first grilling from a congressional committee in Washington — and after a year in which he was forced to take a much closer involvement in day-to-day management to deal with the Covid-19 crisis — the Amazon founder has yielded to an urge to break free.
Wall Street, however, barely blinked at the news that he is giving up the chief executive officer title to become executive chairman. The lack of concern is a testament to what the Amazon founder leaves behind, as well as to leadership transitions at other big tech companies that might once have seemed unthinkable.
Mr Bezos’s partial retreat from management comes a little more than a year after Google’s founders gave up their day-to-day roles in tech holding company Alphabet. Larry Page and Sergey Brin once hoped to use Alphabet as the vehicle for “moonshot” projects that would change the world, but are now pursuing those away from public view.
It was Bill Gates who paved the way, leaving Microsoft to spend his fortune in ways that he hoped would have as much impact on the world as the software company he co-founded.
One reason for Wall Street’s equanimity is that departures such as these often take place in slow motion, leaving plenty of time for new management to prove itself. After stepping down as chief executive, Mr Gates continued for eight years in other roles at Microsoft, and then six more years as chairman, before leaving for good after the appointment of current chief Satya Nadella.
Mr Bezos will still keep firm control on the things that really matter. He will have a say in what the company refers to as its “one-way door” decisions — the big calls that will shape its future. If that means his successor will be left with the two-way door decisions, it might not matter too much if he messes any of them up.
Mr Bezos has also created a way of doing business that should outlast him. The most successful tech companies are defined by their cultures and processes, as much as by their entrenched market positions (though these are often formidable). No company embodies this more than Amazon, where Mr Bezos has built a culture of constant trial and error and the relentless execution of strategy. Andy Jassy, his successor, has already used the Amazon way of doing business to make it the clear leader in cloud computing.
Amazon’s investors can also comfort themselves with the thought that the biggest tech companies no longer rely on the inspiration of their founders and will not live or die on the strength of their next great idea.
Nearly a decade ago, Steve Jobs’s death left Apple-watchers anxious about where the company’s “next big thing” would come from. So far, it has not needed one: the iPhone has been the hub for a spreading universe of gadgets and services, putting it at the centre of the digital lives of about 1bn people.
Amazon, with its interests across retail, logistics and cloud computing, has carved out an equally massive territory from the digital landscape. For Mr Jassy, it will be a case of keeping the flywheel of new ideas turning and the machine humming — and hoping Mr Bezos gets the one-way door decisions right.
A founder’s departure may also provide a chance for companies that have been through rapid expansion to re-evaluate their place in the world. Since Tim Cook took over at Apple, the company has gone from scrappy underdog to responsible industry leader: cleaning up its supply chain, burnishing its environmental credentials and presenting itself as the “responsible” face of consumer tech (most recently that has involved stoking a public fight over data privacy with Facebook, everybody’s favourite tech punching bag).
It is impossible to tell yet what an Amazon run by Mr Jassy will look like. But after 27 years that shaped internet business history, the beginning of the end of the Bezos era is finally at hand.